2016-06-30
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.

    More On the Academic Mandatum

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    Professors have a year to seek certification
  • Facing the Mandatum Alone
    Academics are on the front lines of scrutiny
  • It is ironically true that if Catholic universities had remained true to their religious ideals during the last 30 years, they would now be able to provide a corrective to the moral, and often academic, confusion that now reigns in secular American higher education. But Catholic scholars and administrators have, like their Protestant counterparts, hankered after the fleshpots of secularity, and there are few chuckleheaded liberal causes without their avid advocates in Catholic institutions. The addressees of "Ex Corde Ecclesiae" have grown older but not wiser. So now we have Father Collins' cunning proposal.

    It should be noted that picking and choosing among church teachings, as Father Collins advises, has a name, derived from the Greek verb haireomai, meaning "to choose." The name is heresy. Furthermore, it could be said that in advising "selective dissent," Father Collins is giving us a description rather than a prescription. What he recommends looks much like what is already going on among his confreres, like Father McBrien--and this explains the negative response to "Ex Corde Ecclesiae" on American Catholic campuses.

    The theologians seem to have forgotten the nature of faith. Christian faith is the acceptance of whatever God has revealed because He has revealed it. For a Catholic, the authoritative interpreter of that revelation is the church, preeminently the pope. One cannot pick and choose among the things revealed and sanctioned by church authority, assenting to those one finds palatable and dismissing those one cannot swallow. As Sarah says to her former lover Bendrix in Graham Greene's novel "The End of the Affair," to believe is to accept "the whole bag of tricks." Not an elegant way of speaking of the deposit of Christian faith, perhaps, but it does the job.


    St. Thomas Aquinas observed that someone who accepted all but one of the truths God has revealed nonetheless has lost his faith. For that person would be accepting the rest simply because they appealed to him, or for some other human reason, and no longer out of the obedience of faith. There is simply no way in which a Catholic, theologian or otherwise, can follow Father Collins' advice and go on being a Catholic.

    Of course theologians nowadays defend themselves by appealing to the "spirit of Vatican II," and by trying to calibrate the amount of assent they deem due to various teachings of the church. They are wrong about Vatican II, as a reading of its original documents makes clear. And whatever warrant there may sometimes be for distinguishing degrees of infallible teaching, and for locating particular points of doctrine near or far from the "essence" of Christianity, this does not affect the requirement that believers assent to everything faith requires. What theologians have created over the past few decades is a climate that fosters the opposite: picking and choosing among doctrines, and then complaining vociferously when church authorities decide that what they are promulgating is not Catholic teaching. "Selective dissent" now seems to be the sad norm--and it is not surprising that the Vatican, in "Ex Corde Ecclesiae," is finally enforcing some truth-in-labeling standards to the theology departments of Catholic universities.

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