Pope John Paul II issued worldwide guidelines for Roman Catholic universities yesterday that generally allayed the concerns of U.S. educators that the long-awaited document would muffle inquiry and jeopardize academic freedom at Catholic schools.
But the pontiff, in issuing the 49-page statement, also told Catholic universities that a majority of their teachers should be Catholic, a goal that church officials acknowledge will be difficult to achieve in some countries.
The papal document, drawn up over the last 10 years, asks for Catholic universities to be more accountable to church authorities and more Catholic in their outlook. Described by the pope as "a sort of Magna Carta," the document was issued partly in response to what church leaders fear is a growing trend toward secularization in Catholic higher education.
The document says responsibility for maintaining and strengthening the Catholic character of a university "rests primarily with the university itself," but that each bishop with a university in his diocese also has a "right and a duty to watch over" the university's efforts to build Catholic identity.
The statement makes allowances for varying applications of the norms in countries such as the United States, where many Catholic universities are formally secular in structure.
In upholding the right to academic freedom and independence, the document pleased many U.S. theologians and educators. A delegation of U.S. educators, who were part of a worldwide consultation process, met with Vatican officials in 1989 to urge changes in a draft statement that proposed tighter church control over Catholic colleges and universities.
In 1986, the Vatican removed the Rev. Charles E. Curran from his post as a theologian on the faculty of Catholic University of America because he had dissented over church teachings on sexuality. Earlier draft proposals of the document included a provision giving local bishops the power to hire and fire university theologians and a number of U.S. Catholic educators had feared that the final version would threaten their schools' academic freedom.
"The tone, the shortness and the precision of the document have all been improved," said the Rev. Edward Malloy, president of the University of Notre Dame and a member of the U.S. contingent that urged changes in the draft.
"It's much more by way of inspiration and exhortation than law," Malloy said. "It's much more appreciative of the role of lay people in the administration, the teaching and staffing of an institution."
There are 235 Catholic colleges and universities in the United States, and most are governed by independent boards of trustees rather than the Catholic hierarchy.
At Catholic University, where the fulltime faculty is 58.5 percent Catholic, the president, the Rev. William J. Byron, described the papal document as "a welcome call to renewal."
"The pope at one point calls it a Magna Carta and I think it may well function that way because it's going to call for renewed commitment to the things that Catholic universities are committed to, such as theological reflection on contemporary problems and bringing an ethical dimension to an examination of very complicated scientific issues."
Even if the document had been more hard-line, it would not have been enforceable in the majority of Catholic institutions in the United States because they are beyond the legal reach of the church, according to the Rev. Richard P. McBrien, chairman of the theology department at Notre Dame.
"The worst it could have done is to poison the atmosphere, and it hasn't done that," McBrien said. "It's a more positive document than people feared it would be."
However, the theologian said potential "time bombs" in the document include a "fuzzy" statement about the role of the Catholic theologian and whether theologians will be allowed to disagree with the official teachings of the church.