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For the past 10 years, there has been an elaborate ritual dance engaged in by presidents and faculty of Catholic universities and the American Catholic hierarchy over the implementation of "Ex Corde Ecclesiae," the Vatican document that requires theology professors at Catholic institutions of higher learning to obtain a "mandate" signifying the approval of their local bishop.

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  • The 1990 document (its Latin name means "from the heart of the church") has become a rallying point for theological liberals whose teaching on some points clashes with the church's, and for those who claim that the European-bred Pope John Paul II does not understand American-style academic freedom.

    One American academician to lay down the gauntlet to Rome is my theologian colleague the Rev. Richard McBrien of the University of Notre Dame, who in February 2000 announced he had no intention of seeking the required mandate. Earlier, another priest, the Rev. Raymond Collins of the Catholic University of America, was asked to resign from the deanship of the religious studies department amid rumors that he was, as he himself put it, "too liberal on 'Ex Corde,'" among other things. (The university said that Father Collins, who remains on the religious studies faculty, had lost his colleagues' confidence as a manager.) Father Collins, like Father McBrien, is a theological liberal who has publicly disagreed with church teachings on such issues as artificial birth control.

    In December 1999 Father Collins wrote a letter to the National Catholic Reporter expressing the hope that Catholic University would become a model of "selective dissent," as he called it, in implementing--or rather, refusing to implement--"Ex Corde." The idea was that outright confrontation with church authorities on matters of doctrine only gets a theologian in trouble. Under Father Collins' model, theologians would presumably set aside church teachings they found wanting, but without fuss, thus implementing the "Ex Corde" guidelines selectively--being faithful in their fashion.

    Father Collins' position (along with that of Father McBrien) is representative of the way in which "Ex Corde Ecclesiae" has been dismissed since the beginning by those to whom it was addressed, theologians, university administrators, and bishops alike. The complaints have always been to the effect that the pope does not understand the nature of a university and the demands of academic freedom--even though he discussed both issues at some length in the document.

    In 1993, the bishops drew up guidelines for implementing "Ex Corde." The presidents of America's Catholic colleges in turn summarily dismissed them. The faculty senate at Notre Dame voted unanimously for the guidelines to be ignored. So back to the table the bishops went, hoping to placate the presidents. It is a long, sad story, but finally, in 1999, the bishops voted all but unanimously in favor of a new set of guidelines that included firm episcopal oversight of theologians' teaching licenses. It is to these that Father Collins referred when he issued his rallying call for "selective dissent."

    Time did not, of course, stand still during this decade of academic and hierarchical vacillation. The mentality that reacts with knee-jerk negativity to the mind of the church is perhaps more entrenched than ever in our Catholic universities. The story of the slow secularization of American universities founded under religious auspices--starting with the staunchly Protestant Ivy League--has become almost a subgenre of institutional history. And many have seen Catholic universities since the Second Vatican Council describing the same sad trajectory from firm commitment to faith into a fatuous conformism to the prevailing secular zeitgeist.

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