John J. Piderit



Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 94 (June/July 1999): 22-25.


The apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae (ECE), “From the Heart of the Church,” which Pope John Paul II issued in 1990, was meant to articulate the relationship between higher education, faith, Christian culture, and the Roman Catholic Church. ECE provided a universal and comprehensive vision of Catholic higher education worldwide, leaving it to the conference of bishops in each nation to design appropriate structures to implement ECE in that country. After years of discussion, in 1996 the U.S. National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) forwarded an implementation plan (henceforth “the Application”) to Rome for final approval.


The Holy See returned the bishops’ proposal in the summer of 1998, indicating that a second draft of the Application was needed because the first draft did not satisfactorily implement the Pope’s vision for Catholic higher education. This saddened the presidents of most Catholic colleges and universities and surprised many bishops, though other bishops had seen that they had left out at least one essential ingredient from the 1996 draft: a requirement of canon 812 of canon law mentioned in ECE. Canon 812 states that anyone teaching Catholic theology in a Catholic institution needs some form of ecclesiastical approval, a “mandate” to teach that comes from the “competent ecclesiastical authority.” In the 1996 Application the mandate was referred to in a footnote, but the bishops made no attempt to apply it to Catholic theologians in the United States.


The mandate bears witness to the fact that those teaching Catholic theology do so in communion with the Church. In other words, they will not teach as Catholic theology what is contrary to the Church’s teaching. The authorization comes from “the competent ecclesiastical authority,” which usually means the local bishop (in canon law often called “the ordinary”), although the wording of the law does allow the bishops’ conference to suggest another competent authority. For most of this essay, however, I will assume that the local bishop is indeed the competent ecclesiastical authority.


In their 1996 Application the U.S. bishops had agreed to avoid introducing the mandate, primarily because the presidents of Catholic universities reacted very negatively to it. The presidents considered the mandate to be part of a juridical approach, which they eschewed, preferring the language of “communio,” i.e., being in communion with the Church, locally, nationally, and internationally, rather than being subject to the Church. Catholic universities are committed to maintaining good communications and strong relationships with the bishops; the presidents felt that communion and communication with the bishop would obviate a need for a formal submission to him. The presidents were suspicious of a juridical approach, both because they saw the mandate as jeopardizing the academic autonomy of Catholic universities and because they feared the mandate could entangle universities in unnecessary lawsuits with significant financial consequences.


Some time after the Holy See returned the bishops’ first draft, the NCCB formed a task force under the leadership of Anthony Cardinal Bevilacqua, Archbishop of Philadelphia, to draw up a proposal that would explicitly include the mandate, and to do so in a way that explicitly accents communio. This proposal adds discussion of the mandate, communio, and Catholic identity to the first draft, and has now been circulated to the bishops and the presidents of the Catholic universities for their comment.


To date, the presidents have responded negatively to the Bevilacqua proposal. Since the most controverted part of the proposal is the mandate and the bishops have indicated flexibility concerning the other issues in it, I will restrict my comments in this essay to the mandate.


The presidents want to avoid the mandate because they believe that applying it will undermine the essential autonomy necessary for Catholic universities to prosper in the United States. Many presidents would prefer to seek an indult, or exemption, from Rome that would not require the U.S. bishops to apply canon 812 to Catholic universities. An exemption from Rome, however, is very unrealistic. Not only is it rarely given, but the Holy See is looking to the United States, with its large array of Catholic institutions of higher education, to take the lead in implementing ECE. If the Holy See were to grant an indult in this instance, it is likely that many other countries would request similar exemptions.


My view on the mandate differs significantly from the expressed views of many of my brother and sister presidents. By articulating an alternate view, I hope to clarify some issues and indicate areas where fruitful dialogue between the bishops and presidents can take place. First, while I do not think that a juridical approach”requiring Catholic theologians to secure the mandate”guarantees the Catholicity of a Catholic university, I also think that the proposed approach does not undermine the autonomy of a Catholic university. Second, I think it is very important that Catholic universities in the United States not distance themselves from the Holy See, the center of the Catholic faith. Third, I think the Bevilacqua proposal can be improved and refined. And fourth, I believe good results could emerge from incorporating the mandate into Catholic higher education in the United States.


I write as the president of a Catholic university, not as a theologian at a Catholic university. Of course, bishops and presidents should hear the points advanced by theologians, since theologians have a vital stake in the question of the mandate. And in a vibrant Church, the work of theologians serves as a gift and service to both the hierarchy and the faithful. Yet we must acknowledge that there are inevitable tensions between theologians and bishops. Theologians often develop their ideas in directions that, even when not clearly contrary to the faith, make bishops uncomfortable. Bishops want to grant a significant role to theologians, but a role clearly within the Church. Within this dialectic between bishop and theologian, the Church has been and continues to be enriched. Outside the dialectic, there is unfruitful tension.


The Bevilacqua proposal concerning the mandate is deftly structured, avoiding entanglement of the bishops in the internal affairs of Catholic universities while still implementing the mandate. It does this by defining the mandate as a relationship between the local bishop and the individual Catholic theologian; it addresses the Catholic theology at the heart of the Catholic university without setting up a formal relationship with the university itself. Although it avoids direct dealings with the university, its indirect impact on the Catholic university may be substantial. For example, it may prompt doctoral candidates in theology to prepare more carefully to teach Catholic theology from the perspective of the Church. Such a development would be beneficial to universities and the life of the Church without jeopardizing the autonomy of the university.


As Francis Cardinal George, Archbishop of Chicago, pointed out in his firm but nuanced presentation to the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities in early February ( Origins , February 18, 1999), merely having a relationship with someone does not imply control. Any relationship”personal or institutional”that includes respect and common goals means that each partner will influence the other, but influence does not necessarily entail control. To be sure, any relationship can deteriorate, and friendly mutual influence can degenerate into coercion. It is important, therefore, that what could be a nurturing, productive, and salubrious relationship be protected from abuse.


Since it sees the mandate as a relationship between the bishop and the theologian rather than the university, the Bevilacqua proposal also places the responsibility for securing the mandate on the Catholic theologian, not on the university. If the Catholic theologian does not secure the mandate, no penalty is mentioned or threatened in the Bevilacqua proposal. The Catholic university retains the option to hire a Catholic or non“Catholic theologian, one with or without the mandate, one who promises to request or refuses to request the mandate. The Bevilacqua proposal shows great restraint in this regard. Contrary to many reports in the media, the bishops are not attempting to control the university via the mandate. They are merely trying to fulfill their responsibility as pastors to make sure that Catholic truths are faithfully presented within the framework of Catholic higher education.


As a president, I am used to compromises. As long as the essential autonomy of Catholic universities will not be undermined, I am confident that the presidents and bishops can find a number of different ways to implement the mandate. Also, since the application of the mandate does not directly involve the Catholic university as an institution, its application, I believe, will not directly affect the nature of the institution. Nonetheless, it may, as already noted, have powerful indirect effects.


The bishops esteem Catholic universities and want them to flourish as universities, with freedom to advance our knowledge. But they also want them to flourish as centers of Catholic thought and belief. The universities’ unwillingness to cooperate with the bishops and the Holy See over the mandate”a requirement of the universal canon law of the Church”sends the wrong message to Catholics in the United States. Even worse, a refusal to cooperate suggests that the Catholic colleges and universities are not responsive to priorities established by the Holy See.


Yes, some presidents are reluctant to implement the mandate because, they say, it signals to other universities that Catholic institutions of higher education are beholden to Rome. But this clearly overstates the situation. Catholic universities adopt many of their practices from the general context of higher education in the United States and around the world; since they emerge from the Church and draw from the heritage and teaching of the Church, it should not be surprising to non“Catholics that the Catholic universities also relate features of Catholic heritage to the university. At the end of the twentieth century, diversity is especially revered at most universities, whether secular or religious. Having universities that are sensitive to such non“burdensome religious requirements as this mandate adds to the wealth and diversity of American higher education. Universities that take religious faith seriously and that value their international relationship with the center of their faith contribute to diversity in a fruitful way.


The Bevilacqua proposal is just that, a proposal, and it is open to other expressions of “communion with the Church” that provide protection to institutions and individuals. Ultimately, the document should be one that truly conforms to canon law, but in a way that makes sense for Catholic colleges and universities in the United States. Father James Conn, S.J., has already raised ( America , January 30, 1999) a number of issues related to the mandate that need clarification, and he has made helpful suggestions about ways to address them.


Fr. Conn notes that the mandate might be granted by the local ordinary at the recommendation of a committee composed of Catholic theologians, lay people, and ecclesiastics. This suggestion has great merit. Once established, such a committee might be designated as the group responsible for recommendations to several ordinaries in a given region. Alternatively, such a committee might be a resource for the entire United States. Any bishop might request a recommendation from this committee for a theologian seeking the mandate. Alternatively, if bishops were included on the committee, this might be the “competent ecclesiastical authority.” In addition to establishing the usual procedure for securing the mandate, some appeal process should be established to provide sufficient review of content and process for someone denied the mandate.


Another possible improvement on the Bevilacqua proposal relates to the person designated as the competent ecclesiastical authority. Until now, I have assumed that this is the local ordinary. An alternative approach would be to allow a Catholic theologian seeking the mandate to apply to any bishop in the United States. Such an arrangement would make it even less likely that the local ordinary would have influence over a particular university, since the ordinary granting the mandate might be thousands of miles away from the Catholic institution involved. This model would be similar to the practice that used to prevail concerning the imprimatur , the permission granted from a bishop to print a book on Catholic matters. The author had discretion in choosing the ordinary who would grant the imprimatur . Similar discretion could be granted to the person seeking the mandate.


It is my view that any proposed manner of implementing the mandate should be thoroughly reviewed by lawyers to determine the liabilities to which universities or bishops might be exposed. A preliminary review undertaken by the bishops concluded that no new constitutional issues are created through the mandate. But in addition to passing constitutional muster, the mandate should be reviewed to determine what new types of lawsuits may arise.


In addition to clarifying connections with the Holy See, the mandate has other potential benefits. Since the mandate relates directly to Catholic theologians and only indirectly to the universities themselves, the benefits will arise because of the new ways Catholic theologians will contribute to their universities. Many aspiring theology professors will, I suspect, wish to secure the mandate as a certification that they are competent to teach Catholic theology and related disciplines to undergraduates, and will choose a course of studies that prepares them for that certification. If this happens, it will benefit both universities and the Church.


A number of presidents have suggested that young theologians will not seek the mandate. Perhaps, but I suspect the opposite. Catholic courses are becoming more popular even at secular universities, and theologians are being hired at secular universities because they are trained in Catholic theology. Given this “market pressure,” I anticipate that many theologians will apply for the mandate, and will accept it with pride. Some young (or older) theologians teaching at secular universities will also apply, I suspect, even though, since they do not teach at a Catholic institution of higher education, it will not be required of them. Catholic theologians at non“Catholic universities might even set the trend with respect to the mandate, precisely because they are less concerned with a bishop “interfering” in their universities. If the process works in a sound and non“intrusive way with them, then colleagues at Catholic universities might well feel comfortable following their lead. In this way, the community of Catholic theologians could demonstrate their desire to teach Catholic theology with the approval of the Church. I also suspect that students at Catholic universities will want to seek out faculty with the mandate, because they want to be sure that they are learning what Roman Catholicism teaches. Both of these developments would be of great benefit to the Church.


Along with many university presidents, I enthusiastically endorsed the first Application to the Holy See in 1996. I have since modified my position because I now see, as I did not before, how much importance the Holy See places on implementing canon 812.


A great attraction of the Catholic Church over the past two millennia, in the eyes of many non“Catholics as well as most Catholics, is her universal character. The Church, like any large organization, must have rules and procedures that apply to all, even while making room for local adaptation and flexibility. It is right, too, that the Church should require that certain formulas of faith be the same urbi et orbi , while permitting variations in shape and tone to fit a particular culture. Finally, it is fitting that the code of canon law, which guides the Church in her vast activities and operations, should be the same throughout the world.


By rejecting the 1996 Application and asking for revisions, the Holy See has made it clear that it is in earnest in wanting canon 812 to be applied to the United States. The mandate itself is appropriate, and in places such as Germany where it has been used for many years, the experience has been positive. Rome is giving the Church in the U.S. considerable latitude in determining how the canon will be applied. This formal expression of a priority by the highest governing level of the Church, coupled with the Holy See’s willingness to be flexible in how the priority is met, is sufficient for me.


I also see more clearly than I did before the reasons why Rome is insisting on this priority. It is best to see this conflict over the mandate in the larger historical context of Catholic higher education, both here and abroad. Ex Corde Ecclesiae , after all, did not come out of nowhere. It was designed to a meet a situation that, in virtually everybody’s opinion, needed remedying: the rapid and distressing decline of a strong religious presence at Catholic universities, and the simultaneous desire to foster a renewal of the Catholic intellectual presence in secular culture. Ex Corde Ecclesiae ’s first sentence points out that universities as institutions grew out of a relationship with the Church: “Born from the heart of the Church, the Catholic university is located in that course of tradition which may be traced back to the very origin of the university as an institution.” As its conclusion makes clear, ECE wants Catholic universities to change so that their students and faculty make the Christian message more compelling: “The renewal requested of Catholic universities will make them better able to respond to the task of bringing the message of Christ to man, to society, to the various cultures.”


Nearly all who are involved, or even just interested, in Catholic higher education find this language to be heartening and mobilizing”a clarion call as well as a “magna carta.” But if we also agree with ECE that “every Catholic University, without ceasing to be a University, has a relationship to the Church that is essential to its institutional identity” and that “[each has] a special bond with the Holy See,” then it stands to reason that those of us in the trenches of Catholic education should bend a little to realize this goal.


As Cardinal George noted, “the gift of apostolic governance” is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. In view of the cogency and desirability of the goals expressed in ECE, and as a demonstration of our belief that all Catholics, in Cardinal George’s words, are “both invisibly (spiritually) and visibly (socially and juridically) related to our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world,” it is appropriate to rely on bishops for apostolic governance.


I think Catholic university presidents have a splendid opportunity to demonstrate the high priority we place on being in communion with the larger Church. This palpable “communio” is the basis for the kinds of collaborative relationships between the hierarchy and Catholic universities that Ex Corde Ecclesiae called for. A carefully crafted and articulated implementation of the mandate will be the beginning of one such beautiful relationship.



John J. Piderit, S.J., is President of Loyola University in Chicago.