Catholic Theologians Reject the Mandatum

They’re at it again. On September 15, the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA) issued a lengthy paper entitled “Theologians, Catholic Higher Education and the Mandatum,” designed to tear out the heart of Ex Corde Ecclesiae. The CTSA paper argues against the principle of the bishop’s mandatum. While the bishops appear to be moving ahead with the implementation of Ex Corde, including the controversial mandatum, the CTSA is determined to continue its fundamental opposition to ecclesial oversight.

The paper was submitted to the bishops’ committee, headed by Cincinnati’s Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk, responsible for developing the procedures for granting, denying, or revoking the mandatum henceforth required to teach theology in Catholic colleges and universities. Ex Corde essentially requires the implementation of eight canons from the Church’s new Code of Canon Law (promulgated in 1983), but it is Canon 812 that has been the main bone of contention. It states, “Those who teach theological disciplines in any institute of higher studies [must] have a mandate from the competent ecclesiastical authority.” However, most administrators and faculty of Catholic colleges have steadily claimed that no church can exercise authority over a university or professor under the American system of higher education.

Since theologians make up most of the CTSA’s membership, it is normal to expect North America’s “official” Catholic theological society to want to have input in the bishops’ decisions about Catholic higher education. But the times are not normal, and what today’s CTSA has to say about the mandatum turns out to be most unhelpful if the bishops really intend to apply Ex Corde in this country.

A History of Error

For some time, the CTSA has been critical, and even subversive, of many authentically Catholic norms and standards. One of its more recent papers, issued in June 1997, called into question Pope John Paul II’s teaching on the Church’s inability to ordain women. In his 1994 apostolic letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (On Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone), the pontiff declared this teaching was to be “definitively held by all the faithful.” In November 1995, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith followed this papal declaration with Response to a Doubt, holding that this teaching on female nonordination belonged “to the deposit of faith” and therefore was irreformable.

The 1997 CTSA paper, however, expressed “serious doubts regarding the nature of the authority of this teaching and its grounds in tradition.” A large majority of the CTSA members voted to adopt the paper as a CTSA document; it was then promptly sent to the heads of the U.S. and Canadian bishops’ conferences.

In a world where anybody was paying attention, this would amount to nothing less than effectively throwing down a gauntlet before the North American bishops. Does the Church, or a group of her own theologians, have the right to controvert publicly what the supreme teaching authority of the Church declares? However that may be, the bishops did not pick up the gauntlet at that time.

A similar CTSA document, Do Not Extinguish the Spirit, was issued in December 1990 and seems to have at least been a partial effort to enlist the sympathies of the bishops for the perceived grievances of North American theologians against the pope and the Roman curia. It, too, was approved by a lopsided majority of the CTSA membership in a mail ballot and severely criticized the Holy See. According to the CTSA, the pontificate of John Paul II could not seem to get it right, especially in the face of contemporary pressures for democratization in the Church, tolerance for dissent, today’s typical feminist demands, and accepting the lowest common denominator of faith and practice in ecumenical relationships.

The tone of this document, by the way, is moderate, and its language polite. This is generally the case with all of these CTSA offerings: The organization is apparently not about to alienate the bishops by the way it presents its very questionable views, as if it were some kind of Wanderer on the left; instead, it has learned to couch what are often the most extraordinary statements (from the standpoint of authentic Catholic faith) in mild, even dull, language. But we shouldn’t allow this low-key style to distract us from realizing how extraordinary some of the statements and positions of the CTSA really are.

Abiding Fears

The marked anti-Roman attitude of the CTSA a decade ago seems to be little changed today. Its new document on the mandatum reflects some of the same themes found in earlier papers. And since this new paper deals with theologians within the Catholic university, it is probably no surprise that this paper repeats some of the same arguments used for years to oppose the implementation of Ex Corde in this country by organizations such as the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU) and the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU).

Virtually all of the arguments against Ex Corde, however, have long been thoroughly discussed and answered—as the bishops surely realized when they proceeded to vote the approval of their Ex Corde application document. However, this fact does not in any way seem to have deterred the CTSA. The often-quoted 1967 Land O’Lakes Statement of a group of liberal Catholic college presidents that “the Catholic university must have a true autonomy in the face of authority of whatever kind” external to the university itself, is actually brought forward once again.

In a brilliant summary, which surely constituted the reductio ad absurdum of the Land O’Lakes claim, Fr. James T. Burtchaell, C.S.C., himself a former Catholic university administrator, identified and listed more than 50 “external” entities to which all American higher-education institutions obligatorily answer, from Washington, which forbids a college from asking about the race of its applicants but requires them to report a detailed racial breakdown of its personnel and students, down to the local fire inspector, who roams the college’s dorms.

The Journal of College and University Law, in its spring 1999 issue, featured a “Symposium on Ex Corde Ecclesiae” written by eight academic and legal experts (including Fr. Burtchaell) that impartially and exhaustively answered virtually all of the objections to implementing Ex Corde—namely, that any Church oversight concerning theology taught would violate academic freedom and that Catholic colleges would lose accreditation and/or their government funding, be reduced to mere seminaries, or be subjected to discrimination suits if they ever adopted the papal model of the Catholic university as described in Ex Corde.

However, the very existence in American academia of a fully accredited and flourishing institution such as Brigham Young University, which is eligible for virtually all government funding available to other American universities but also subject to strict Mormon church oversight and control, should have long since proven false the contention that it is the American higher education system itself that somehow forbids minimal Church oversight. It’s time for the claim that Ex Corde is somehow “un-American” to be laid to rest. The latest CTSA paper adds nothing new to what has already been thoroughly vetted and answered on this topic.

Rejecting a Reasonable Request

Of course, the CTSA is more concerned about the academic freedom of the theologian than it is with the institutional autonomy of the university, so it argues that the mandatum is incompatible with academic freedom as understood and practiced in the United States. The classic 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) is cited in this regard but without any mention that this statement has always included a specific recognition and exception that oversight exercised by a sponsoring church over a church-affiliated university is generally a recognized practice within the American higher education system—provided that the institution announce its intentions in this regard in advance.

Nevertheless, in holding that the academic freedom of the theologian would be violated if his work were subject to Church oversight, the CTSA paper actually quotes Vatican Council II’s Gravissimum Educationis (Declaration of Christian Education) to the effect that, in her institutions, “the Church endeavors systematically to ensure that the treatment of the individual disciplines is consonant with their own principles, their own methods, and with the liberty of scientific inquiry.” The implication here seems to be that any kind of Church oversight over a theologian’s work would necessarily violate the principles and methods of Catholic theology as well as the theologian’s freedom of inquiry. But this would only be the case if we assume that Catholic theology is simply another academic discipline, independent of the faith of the Church.

Of course, it is not the case: the subject matter of Catholic theology is the faith of the Church; and ultimately the faith is subject to the judgment of the bishops in union with the bishop of Rome. In a strict sense, therefore, the work of a Catholic theologian is necessarily subject to the judgment of the Church’s magisterium.

The CTSA paper rejects the idea that the theologian’s mandatum is actually another form of professional certification, similar to that required in law, medicine, accounting, and other professional fields. “There is a critical difference?’ it is argued in the paper. “These other certifications judge academic competence…. Loyalty to Church teaching is quite different in character. Professional theologians expect professional and ecclesial accountability, but they question the juridical and unilateral form of the mandatum.”

No. A Catholic theologian who refuses to accept the ultimate judgment of the Church with regard to his theological subject matter may well not be exhibiting much loyalty towards the Church. But he is also “academically incompetent” since he evidently fails to recognize that the Church’s proclamation of the faith is an integral part of his subject matter, just as the nature and composition of the physical world are constituent parts of the subject matter of physics and chemistry. Failure to be loyal to the Church while claiming to do “Catholic theology” is really to deny the very basis of Catholic theology, much as if a physicist claimed to advance the science of physics by denying the nature of the physical world—the very basis of his discipline.

The mandatum from “competent ecclesiastical authority?’ then, is a reasonable and proper type of certification of the true competence and suitability of a Catholic theologian, namely, that he teaches theology that is Catholic. Nor does the fact that the mandatum is a juridical act invalidate it; as the CTSA paper itself implies, attorneys, physicians, and such are all normally licensed by law—which is all that the word “juridical” means or implies. There is no reason why theologians cannot or should not also be licensed by law.

The CTSA paper, instead, claims that peer review can provide a sufficient corrective for any errors theologians might possibly make. But is there a single case in the United States over the last 30 years where a theologian in any establishment, theological journal, or anywhere else has challenged, or even criticized, any other theologian on account of dissent? What we have been witnessing over the past generation in Catholic theology is not peer review but peer indulgence. The authors of the CTSA paper need to provide some actual examples of how their vaunted peer review would work. Would it be effective, or even relevant? We need to be honest about this in an era characterized by open dissent from what are known to be the Church’s official teachings but which are widely disregarded anyway.

There seems to be nothing in the CTSA paper showing that departures from the faith, or perhaps just plain errors, must be rejected. The integrity of the Catholic faith would not have lasted beyond the first century under such a peer-review corrective system as the CTSA proposes.

One, Big, Happy Family

In several places, the authors describe contemporary Catholic theologians as “faithful,” “fully faithful,” or as “grounded in the commitment of their ecclesial faith.” They even assert that “the fact that a theologian decides not to seek a mandatum ought not to be interpreted as a sign of infidelity,” though it is hard to understand how any theologian with a real commitment to the Church could defy the Church’s reasonable requirements.

Nevertheless, the CTSA paper assures us that contemporary Catholic theologians “endorse the right and authority of the bishops ultimately to reject theological positions contrary to the Catholic faith.” On the evidence, how true is this? Are today’s theologians notably “faithful” to the Church? Do they “ultimately” accept the authority and decisions of the pope and bishops?

Are they “faithful,” for example, to the Church’s view of the nature of the Catholic university, as Pope John Paul II has laid out in Ex Corde? It would seem not: The model of the university taken for granted throughout this CTSA paper is rather that of the modern American secular university.

The CTSA theologians responsible for this paper do not seem to be very responsive to the careful effort of the bishops to craft an acceptable and workable Ex Corde application. This is a measure, after all, “ultimately” decided on by the supreme authority of the Church. But there is scarcely a hint anywhere in this paper that this is something the Church has very seriously considered and consulted widely about. Instead, the paper appears to be just one more episode in the decades-long guerilla warfare of the Church’s “cognitive elites” waged against the Church’s equally long efforts to maintain and restore the Catholicity of her higher-education institutions.

It will no doubt be replied that today’s opposition to Ex Corde is hardly the same thing as “taking theological positions contrary to the Catholic faith.” For the nature of the Catholic university is surely not a matter of faith, so it must be all right to reject the pope’s official view of it.

An Errant Magisterium?

But what about the earlier CTSA paper calling into question the pope’s solemn judgment that the teaching on the inability of the Church to ordain women is “to be definitively held by all the faithful”? That is surely a doctrinal question. Does the belittling, or indeed rejection, of this papal teaching reflect the kind of “fidelity” the CTSA endorses? It would be hard to find a more “ultimate” judgment than this one, after all. What “ultimately” does the CTSA accept in the way of papal judgments?

Evidently, the CTSA paper does not accept the pope’s judgment concerning the Church’s inability to ordain women; it certainly does not accept it as a doctrine to be definitively held, as the pope has indicated it must be. Rather, it quibbles about the pope’s language and the manner in which he made and promulgated the decision. It asserts that “what is not clear at this moment in church history is the process for discerning and declaring a doctrine ‘to be definitively held'”(emphasis added). The paper then goes on to call into question the pope’s 1998 apostolic letter motu proprio entitled Ad Tuendam Fidem (Inserting Certain Norms into the Code of Canon Law), which precisely does explain how doctrines to be definitively held are to be “discerned” and “declared.” It’s not that the pope hasn’t explained this; it’s just that the theologians do not accept the explanation.

The CTSA response to the pope’s explanation, in fact, is simply to assert that “there is an important literature on Ad Tuendam Fidem, and at least one international conference has been held on the difficulties it raises.” Once again, then, we see theologians congregating publicly to pass judgment on the judgments of a magisterium perceived to be “erring.”

The same thing is true of the CTSA treatment of the ever-pertinent question of theological dissent generally. The CTSA paper’s appendix actually contains a section with the heading, “Legitimate Dissent.” In this section the claim is made that “reasoned and respectful disagreement with teachings that have not been taught infallibly is a practice of long standing and legitimacy in the Church?’ Is this true? Does the Church consider dissent against non-infallible judgments to have “legitimacy”? Where have we heard this kind of language before?

Readers with long memories will hearken back to July 30, 1968, when 87 Catholic theologians from 24 different Catholic higher-education institutions issued their ringing dissent—“the shot heard ’round the world!”—against Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae (a dissent later to be subscribed to by more than 600 theological dissenters in the very disciplines for which the mandatum is now to be required). Inter alia, these original Humanae Vitae dissenters included, in their famous statement, language very similar to the above from the CTSA paper: “It is common teaching in the Church that Catholics may dissent from authoritative, non-infallible teachings of the Magisterium when sufficient reasons for doing so exist.”

Of course, it is not common teaching in the Church that Catholics may dissent from teachings that are not infallibly proposed, and it never was. On May 4, 1990, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) issued an instruction that carefully and precisely excluded any legitimacy for dissent from authentic Catholic teachings, regardless of the degree of authority by which they are proposed by the Church, whether infallibly, definitively, or with a lesser degree of authority. This Roman document, entitled Donum Veritatis (Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian), was no doubt intended by the CDF to settle once and for all the question of the “legitimacy” of theological dissent, which many theologians in the postconciliar era were continuing to claim. Then along comes the new CTSA paper, which blandly continues to make the same claim more than a decade after Rome definitively decided the question to the contrary.

On the subject of “non-infallible” Church acts, for example, Donum Veritatis makes the point that “all acts of the Magisterium derive from the same source, that is, from Christ, who desires that his people walk in the entire truth. For this same reason, magisterial decisions in matters of discipline, even if they are not guaranteed by the charism of infallibility, are not without divine assistance and call for the adherence of the faithful.” The instruction further specifically states that the theologian’s “willingness to submit loyally to the teaching of the Magisterium [even] on matters per se not irreformable must be the rule.”  It specifically denies the proposition that “doctrines proposed without exercise of the charism of infallibility…have no obligatory character about them.”

Donum Veritatis further insists that the authentic judgments of the Magisterium have “a validity beyond [their] argumentation,” and hence “the freedom of the act of faith cannot justify a right to dissent.” More could be cited to the same effect, and the whole instruction should be read to understand why theological dissent does not and cannot have “legitimacy” in a Church commissioned to speak for Christ.

A Tradition of Dissent

So how does the CTSA paper deal with all this? How does it arrive at a conclusion so much at variance with the Church’s real position? Surprisingly, it actually quotes Donum Veritatis itself in support of its contention that “reasonable” dissent is legitimate. More than a decade after Rome moved to exclude theological dissent, the theologian-authors of this paper cite Rome’s own document excluding it in support of the opposite conclusion! They quote, and even at some length, the Roman document’s very measured, and even sympathetic, recognition that many theologians today have unfortunately found themselves in disagreement with the Church; then, they instance this sad fact as somehow constituting permission to dissent from Catholic doctrine.

To the contrary, even though the instruction does obviously recognize the fact of dissent, and cites some of the reasons for it, it nevertheless does end up plainly excluding dissent as legitimate. The CTSA paper’s extensive quotations from the Instruction’s #24 through #32, then, read in context, do not establish any legitimacy for dissent. To cite this Roman document excluding dissent as somehow supportive of it only calls into question the theological competence of the paper’s authors but verges on intellectual dishonesty. Nothing, apparently, has changed in the mindset of these people since the time of Humanae Vitae. Like the French aristocrats who returned after the French Revolution was over, they have “learned nothing and forgotten nothing.”

To add insult to injury, the paper on the mandatum was actually drafted by a CTSA committee headed by Dr. Daniel Finn, a theology professor at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. He happens to be one of four consultants officially named by Archbishop Pilarczyk to the previously mentioned bishops’ committee responsible for developing the procedures for granting or withholding the mandatum.

Worse, this same Dr. Finn was actually allowed to address the bishops at their national meeting in November; and to tell Their Excellencies that what they had apparently firmly decided about Ex Corde Ecclesiae was wrongly decided. So opined this “consultant” of theirs who remains unalterably opposed to their own declared plan for Ex Corde as approved by Rome. The bishops do not plan to vote on the mandatum until later this year; but giving the floor at this stage to such a strongly dissenting point of view can scarcely enhance the confidence of the faithful in the seriousness of the bishops’ announced policy for Catholic colleges and universities in this country. In view of its established pattern of dissent against Church teaching and decisions, why does the CTSA even have to continue to be considered a partner in dialogue with the bishops at all?

In the end, the CTSA’s paper is a scarcely concealed apology for the persistence of theological dissent in the life of the Church in America. The vaunted “freedom” for Catholic theologians advocated in the paper turns out to be fundamentally the freedom to dissent from Catholic teachings whenever it suits them, without having to look over their shoulders to see if a mandatum-granting bishop is watching. This is hardly a stance that can contribute to the positive implementation of Ex Corde in the United States.


Kenneth D. Whitehead is a former career diplomat who served in Rome and the Middle East and as the chief of the Arabic Service of the Voice of America. For eight years he served as executive vice president of Catholics United for the Faith. He also served as a United States Assistant Secretary of Education during the Reagan Administration. He is the author of The Renewed Church: The Second Vatican Council’s Enduring Teaching about the Church (Sapientia Press, 2009) and, most recently, Affirming Religious Freedom: How Vatican Council II Developed the Church’s Teaching to Meet Today’s Needs (St. Paul’s, 2010).

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