End Notes: A Plea for Coherence

On the eve of the papal visit to St. Louis, the president of Notre Dame and the chancellor of Boston College published a challenge to John Paul II’s Apostolic constitution on the nature of the Catholic university, Ex Corde Ecclesiae. Since its appearance in 1990, there has been a ritual dance going on between Catholic universities and the American bishops who have tried, with flagging zeal and fitful manliness, to implement this document. Rome rejected their toothless episcopal compromise, and it is increasingly clear that the institutions will not yield and the bishops will not command. Frs. Malloy and Monan circled their subject for some paragraphs before finally arriving at the heart of the matter, #812 of the Code of Canon Law.

This canon fills them with alarm, especially its requirement that teachers of theology receive a mandate from competent ecclesiastical authority. In order to receive such a mandate, the theologian must make a profession of faith and state his loyalty to Catholic teaching. The mandate seeks to ensure that teachers of Catholic theology can be expected to teach in accordance with the Catholic faith. Why does this reasonable, almost tautological, demand arouse such fear in the breasts of Frs. Malloy and Monan?

With an air of revealing a secret, they note that the mandate is an

instrument, however ineffective, to control what is taught and written. The authority competent to give, deny or remove the mandate is legally and organizationally external to the university and its governance.

That the Catholic Church should take steps to ensure that those who teach in her name do indeed teach in her name is surely reasonable. To reject this principle is to suggest that there is something reasonable about having someone teach as Catholic doctrine the antithesis of Catholic doctrine. This is precisely what Fathers Malloy and Monan take to be the consequence of academic freedom, and their non serviam is unequivocal. “Most Catholic professors simply will not request such a mandate, and Catholic universities will take no steps to implement it because of its obvious threat to academic freedom.” There could be no more succinct statement of what has gone wrong with Catholic universities.

The concept of academic freedom that our authors invoke is at best mythical. The shock expressed at the idea that universities should be subject to an authority external to them is forced. Accrediting associations, federal bureaucracies, professional societies, state examining boards, etc., etc., are taken to be compatible with academic freedom at both secular and Catholic institutions. Of course an institution need not seek accreditation, or funding, or choose to prepare its graduates to meet the requirements of state examiners in engineering and the like. But neither Notre Dame nor Boston College has chosen this austere consequence of its stated conception of academic freedom. It is not external authority that bothers them, of course; it is the authority of the Magisterium.

Needless to say, only a free choice can bring one under that authority; the believing Catholic freely accepts what Christ has revealed and that the Catholic Church has the divine mission of safeguarding, interpreting, and passing on the deposit of faith. One need not be a Catholic, just as one need not seek membership in a profession with standards, but one can no more be a Catholic and deny the teaching authority of the Church than he can remain a doctor while rejecting the standards of the medical profession. Catholic universities embody the collective act of faith of their founders and members. To wish to retain the label “Catholic” while rejecting minimal acknowledgment of acceptance of the Catholic faith is absurd. But this is the absurdity Frs. Malloy and Monan, in the name of their universities, have adopted.

This sad article is only the latest event in a drama that has been unfolding in the Church since 1968. What is at issue is not the research and teaching of the majority of the faculty, but the dissenting stance of theologians. Economists do not chafe under the yoke of faith; political scientists do not bemoan the impending threat of the Inquisition. It is the theologians who have led Catholic universities down the path to effective apostasy.

Reverend fathers, please stop embarrassing yourselves and your institutions. Drop the incoherent arguments. Spare us these pious invocations of academic freedom. It is impossible to be Catholic and not Catholic at the same time. That fundamental logical principle used to be understood in Catholic institutions.

  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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