Academic Freedom and the Vatican: Will Catholic Universities Capitulate?

The new Code of Canon Law, promulgated in 1983, prescribes (canons 807-814) that no university or institute of higher studies may call itself Catholic without the consent of the competent ecclesiastical authority; that the teachers appointed excel in integrity of doctrine and uprightness of life; that teachers be dismissed if they lack these requirements; and that those who teach theology must have a mandate from the competent ecclesiastical authority. After twenty years of discussion the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education last year distributed a proposed schema for a pontifical document on Catholic universities. The Congregation distributed that draft for comments by the universities and bishops of the world, and recently the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities of the United States published its response. (The Schema and the response may be found in Origins, April 10, 1986.)

To put the matter mildly, the Association is not pleased with the Proposed Schema. To put it more strongly (but not unfairly), its response is a clear “I will not serve.” The Association wants no episcopal authority over its institutions.

To understand the significance of the “I will not serve,” one must first understand the present state of Catholic institutions of higher learning. Many writers tell us (see my own account in Fidelity, June 1986) that all is not well. Theology departments are filled with dissent and worse. In large sections of many institutions, instruction is indistinguishable from that of the secular university in the same city. The Association makes no mention of these problems. It is concerned with purely juridical matters; it evidences no pastoral concern. And, since it is unwilling to face the problem, it has no solution.

The Proposed Schema points out (Article 9.1) that bishops “have the duty and right of seeing that … the principles of Catholic doctrine are faithfully observed.” The response of the Association is: “Everything in the Norms that creates this kind of impossible responsibility on the part of the bishop only tends to weaken his real moral authority because the norm is known to be unenforceable.” Note that the Association does not even grudgingly admit the bishops’ pastoral duty or right. It merely states that the norm is unenforceable. Now, many duties and rights are unenforceable, but they do not thereby cease to exist. Besides, this unenforceability is not evident, or provable, or even probable, as we shall see.

The Association’s central mistake is to consider a Catholic university too much on the model of a secular one. The difference, of course, is — or should be — that a Catholic university is committed to the truth of the Catholic faith. And, if it is, academic freedom cannot have the same meaning that it carries in a secular university. This is the central point of dispute, as all interested parties will admit. A university’s notion of academic freedom defines the character of that university; only if the conception of academic freedom is different in a Catholic university can the university remain Catholic. If, on the other hand, the university must pay professors who attack its Catholic foundations — and this as a matter of principle — the university will self-destruct, And as a matter of fact, many American Catholic universities are doing just that.

For centuries, Western society has acknowledged the need to give scholars an unusual degree of freedom — academic freedom — so that they may pursue the truth without interference. The notion of academic freedom, then, draws its strength from the belief that the pursuit of truth is a vital undertaking, an undertaking that enriches the whole of society. So a university’s approach to academic freedom must begin with a commitment to pursue the truth. Or perhaps, in this era of skepticism, we should say that the approach begins with a recognition that there is such a thing as truth.

In the Catholic university, the pursuit of truth is guided and sanctified by an underlying faith in the ultimate Truth. To be sure, not all learning is explicitly religious. But all true wisdom is, at base, aligned with the final truth of the Catholic faith. Thus for the Catholic university, the pursuit of truth and the promulgation of the Catholic faith are fundamentally inseparable.

If a Catholic university, of its very nature, is publicly committed to the transmission of the Catholic heritage, it must be free to transmit that heritage. When a professor contracts to teach in such an institution he agrees, at least implicitly, to work within its purpose. Otherwise the institution is not free to attain it. Of course, it is better if this is explicitly stated in the faculty handbook or faculty contracts (as it is in some universities and colleges). The criteria of orthodoxy, and procedures for dealing with departures from it, should be stated also. There are problems with these matters, to be sure, but the Association will not even agree with the principle involved.

One can easily receive the impression that the Association is soft on academic freedom because it is not committed to the truth of the Catholic faith — that it fears commitment to the Faith is a hindrance to finding truth. Its report says, for example, that a Catholic university is not to be a comfortable home where “the truth” already exists. (Do these universities have chapels on campus? Does “the Way, and the Truth, and the Life” rest in their tabernacles?)

The Association realizes that the Proposed Schema is very concerned about the teaching of theology: The real crux of the document is perceived by many to be the assertion of a power on the part of the bishop to control theologians (Norms, chapter IV, Article 31) and to assure “orthodoxy” in their teaching. Again, the Association does not recognize the duty of the bishop to assure that the faithful will receive orthodox teaching; it simply claims that it is impossible for him to do so.

The Association says: What is proposed here is contrary to the American values of both academic freedom and due process, both of which are written into most university statutes and protected by civil and constitutional law. This statement calls for several comments: (1) it fails to mention a very important preliminary precaution; (2) it is false; (3) it makes clear the Association’s basic position: if one must choose between divine revelation and alleged American values, the latter are to be preferred.

(1) Catholic universities are incredibly lax today concerning the religious character of the professors they hire. (See my “Keeping the ‘Catholic’ in Catholic Universities,” Crisis, January 1986.) It is no wonder they have so many problems about being really Catholic. And here is the Association blaming bishops for being concerned about the orthodoxy of theologians!

(2) It is false to claim that control of orthodoxy in a publicly proclaimed religious institution is contrary to academic freedom, due process, or civil and constitutional law. If the institution states its objectives clearly, and sets up procedures for safeguarding them, these are protected by law. It is hard to see how the Association could, in good faith, state otherwise. It is true that some institutions have given up their autonomy for the sake of government aid, but it would be more accurate to say they are no longer Catholic, rather than to say that Catholic institutions are not allowed by law to safeguard orthodoxy.

An interesting historical note can be found in the statements on academic freedom issued by the American Association of University Professors. A 1940 statement says that limitations of academic freedom because of religious or other aims of the institution should be clearly stated in writing at the time of the appointment. A 1970 interpretative comment on this passage is amazing: “Most church-related institutions no longer need or desire the departure from the principle of academic freedom implied in the 1940 Statement, and we do not now endorse such a departure.” Of course, these statements have no legal force. But if the 1970 statement is true, most Catholic universities gave no evidence of a desire to have any special understanding of academic freedom.

(3) This response by the Association of Catholic Universities and Colleges) is a capitulation in the face of difficulties. It says, in effect, that even if orthodoxy were important, the difficulties involved in preserving it are so formidable that it is preferable to lay down one’s arms even before the trumpet sounds for battle. What has happened to the courageous faith which founded our universities?

Only a few generations ago, thousands of hard-working Catholics scrimped and saved and sacrificed to establish our network of Catholic universities. Catholic parents in those days could have sent their children to public universities, or to many fine private schools. But they were seeking a different sort of college, one which would provide a distinctively Catholic education. Today, the people who preside over those Catholic schools seem uncomfortable about that distinctiveness.

Ironically, in arguing that ecclesiastical control would threaten government funding for Catholic universities, the Association does acknowledge the universities’ debt to bygone generations. If public funding were cut off, the Association worries, “then decades of sacrifice by generations of faculty, students, and benefactors of Catholic universities in North America would have been squandered.” But did our immigrant grandfathers make their sacrifices for the sake of ensuring government funding? No; their efforts will have been squandered only if our universities abandon their close identity with the Catholic faith.

Imagine how the pro-life movement would be viewed if its leaders said that the Roe v. Wade decision had settled the abortion issue once and for all. The Association is afraid that our universities may not be accredited, and our students will not receive federal or state assistance if bishops have any control. This concern is a red herring. But, even if this were the price that had to be paid for preserving the Catholicity of our institutions, so be it. The alternative is institutions not worthy of their name, cadavers devoid of the Faith that once vivified them.

The Tablet, an English publication, has recently published a report on Anglican higher education in England. These colleges provide an interesting case-study for us. Of the younger faculty, almost half have no religious commitment; of the incoming students, little more than one-fifth have a strong commitment to Christianity, and only one in twenty gives a religious reason for attending. Moreover, their references are to religion and Christianity, not Anglicanism. Anglicans or Episcopalians alarmed at these statistics can take small comfort from a further statistic: over half of the twenty-seven Anglican colleges have closed in the last fifteen years.


Rev. Leonard A. Kennedy, C.S.B., was born in England in 1922, but moved to Canada when he was four. He grew up in Hamilton. In 1940 he attended St. Michael’s College, Toronto and entered the Basilian Novitiate a year later. He was ordained in 1947. He spent most of his life in academia and became an expert on Thomas Aquinas. Fr. Kennedy taught psychology and philosophy at St. Michael’s College Toronto, was president of Assumption University in Windsor, Ont., and president of St. Thomas More College in Saskatoon. In 1982, he became the Dean of Philosophy at the Centre for Thomistic Studies in Houston, Texas. He passed away in 2010.

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