The Theological Calling: Academic Freedom or License

In February 1989, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a “Profession of Faith” and an “Oath of Fidelity,” to be taken by, among others, persons newly appointed as seminary professors of theology and philosophy and university teachers of disciplines dealing with faith or morals. The faculty of the Franciscan University of Steubenville gladly made this profession of faith and oath of fidelity at the beginning of this academic year, although technically they were not required to do so. But the response by many Catholic academics to this profession of faith and oath of fidelity was, to put it mildly, negative. The claim was made that requiring this profession of faith and oath of fidelity violated the right of Catholic scholars to academic freedom. I grant that it does so if one accepts the understanding of academic freedom championed by modern secularism, but I hold that it in no way infringes on academic freedom properly understood.

What is the meaning of academic freedom proposed by modern secularism? This understanding was clearly articulated in the first report (1915) of the Committee on Academic Freedom of the American Association of University Professors. This report conceded that in the United States bodies such as the Catholic Church have a constitutional right to establish institutions of higher learning. But it held that such institutions

do not, at least as regards one particular subject, accept the principles of freedom of inquiry, of opinion, and of teaching; and their purpose is not to advance knowledge by the unrestricted research and unfettered discussion of impartial investigators, but rather to subsidize the promotion of the opinions held by the persons, usually not of the scholar’s calling, who provide the funds for their maintenance. Concerning the desirability of the existence of such institutions the committee does not desire to express any opinion. But it is manifestly important that they should not be permitted to sail under false colors. Genuine boldness and thoroughness of inquiry, and freedom of speech, are scarcely reconcilable with the prescribed inculcation of a particular opinion upon a controverted question.

According to this understanding of academic freedom anyone who accepts an obligation to teach the Catholic faith as true cannot enjoy academic freedom or engage wholeheartedly in the scholarly pursuit of truth because he is committing himself to inculcate what is, from the perspective of its critics, nothing better than a “particular opinion upon a controverted question.”

It is precisely this understanding of academic freedom that has been, in essence, recently accepted by large numbers of Catholic academics. In 1967, the Land O’Lakes statement adopted by 26 educators, among them 16 representatives of six American Catholic colleges and universities led by Theodore M. Hesburgh, CSC, then president of Notre Dame University, made a striking declaration of independence from magisterial authority. They asserted that a Catholic university, in order to carry out properly its mission to teach and engage in research, “must have true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of any authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical [including the authority of the pope and bishops in union with him}, external to the academic community itself.”

Similarly, for over 20 years now, theologians such as Charles Curran have essentially endorsed this understanding of academic freedom. While granting that Catholics, whether theologians or not, are bound to accept as true “core teachings” of the Church, Curran and others maintain that Catholics, including theologians, are at liberty to set aside “noninfallible” teachings of the Church and put in their place other views that seem to them to be well founded. Moreover, they claim, the determination of which teachings are “core teachings” is the prerogative of the theologian/scholar. In addition, they claim that the “hierarchical magisterium,” i.e., the pope and the bishops in union with him, have no right to judge the competence of a Catholic scholar, including a theologian, for the pope and bishops are authorities “external to the academic community.” Only peers within the academy may make decisions concerning the hiring, promotion, tenure, or dismissal of faculty.

Even more recently, responding to the issuance of the new profession of faith and oath of fidelity, Catholic University’s noted canon lawyer Msgr. Frederick R. McManus reaffirmed this understanding of academic freedom and insisted that once a scholar has been accepted by an institution of higher learning as duly credited in any area, he must be allowed to pursue truth without any external constraint and, should any questions arise about his teaching, the only body competent to judge such questions is a committee of academic peers—pope and bishops have no legitimate competence.

Such is the understanding of academic freedom regnant in the secular world and now, apparently, regnant in many Catholic groves of academe. I submit that this understanding of academic freedom rests on some unexamined and false assumptions.

These assumptions, usually unacknowledged or concealed, amount to a worldview drawn largely from the philosophy of the Enlightenment. According to this worldview, religion, if any is to be legitimate, is reducible to reason alone. There is no room for faith. Further, even through reason and experience, no truth can be known with certitude—all “truths” are inescapably affected by human historicity and are contingent on culture-bound perspectives that are in constant evolution. The search for truth is thus always a continuing and evolving process, and nothing can be definitively and unconditionally affirmed.

These and other “articles of belief,” I submit, form the orthodoxy of those who sound the clarion call to advance knowledge “by the unrestricted research and unfettered discussion of impartial investigators” free from any constraints “external” to the academy. It is obvious, I believe, that such “articles of belief” are irreconcilable with Catholic faith. If the scholarly life can be pursued only by accepting them, then it follows that a faithful Catholic cannot be a scholar.

But what is the proper understanding of academic freedom, and how is it compatible with Catholic faith, which requires one to assent to the truths proclaimed in Christ’s name by the magisterium? Being a scholar requires that one be ready to question everything and to go where the evidence and arguments lead one—this is precisely the commitment that any true scholar makes. Some (the secularists) think that this commitment and a Catholic’s commitment to the faith are incompatible and contradictory. I hold that they are not, and I shall try, briefly, to show why.

An advantage of Catholic faith is that it is self-conscious. The Catholic scholar knows—and others know he knows—what fundamental beliefs are operative (or ought to be operative) in his personal and scholarly life. The Catholic comes to his work as a scholar intellectually certain, by reason of his faith commitment, that specific propositions about human existence are true. He holds that some of these propositions can be shown to be true by the exercise of human intelligence—e.g., that human persons are endowed with freedom of choice, that there is an objective moral order that can be known and whose principles and norms are truths meant to guide choices, that there is a transcendent source for these truths, namely God. He holds that other propositions cannot be shown to be true on the basis of direct evidence and demonstrative argument, but that God has graciously made them known to us—e.g., that God is a Trinity of Persons, that one of these Persons has become and is man precisely so that we can share in his divinity, etc.

The certitude about these truths that the Catholic scholar brings with him to his life of scholarship does not, however, foreclose honest inquiry. For the motto of the Catholic scholar is not faith at rest, but faith in search of understanding. The Catholic scholar, in his quest for understanding more fully the truths of his faith, is ready to entertain hypothetical questions and propositions. And were he to be shown by evidence and argument that the Catholic faith is false, he would no longer wish to abide by it and in it, for his faith is reasonable and not irrational. Still, the Catholic scholar is certain that his faith cannot be overcome, for he knows that his Catholic faith and the certitude of truth acquired in any other way can never come into conflict. The source of all truth is the true and holy God, Who does not ask men to deny their humanity and intelligence but, on the contrary, to accept their humanity and exercise their intelligence.

The Catholic scholar’s certitude is rooted ultimately in his absolute trust in the word of a beloved friend. The friend in this case is Jesus Christ, whom he comes to know and love in and through the Word proclaimed to him by the Church. Moreover, the Catholic scholar does not regard the authoritative teaching of pope and bishops as the imposition of some alien power extrinsic to his own scholarly life. It is, rather, the voice of Christ, his beloved friend, to whom he is united spiritually, bodily, dynamically. To regard it as a voice of an alien power is thus unthinkable. This does not mean that the Catholic scholar may not, at times, have questions to ask about the teachings proposed by pope and bishops or difficulties in accepting them. But he will be connaturally eager to accept them and discover the reasons to support them.

In conclusion, I simply wish to note what the profession of faith and oath of fidelity, to which many Catholic scholars object, asks the Catholic scholar to do. The profession of faith first asks the scholar to assent to the truths set forth in the Nicene-Constantinople Creed, the one the people of God recite at Sunday liturgy. It adds to this creed the following:

With firm faith I believe as well everything contained in God’s word, written or handed down in tradition and proposed by the Church—whether in solemn judgment or in the ordinary and universal magisterium—as divinely revealed and calling for faith. I also firmly accept and hold each and every thing that is proposed by that same Church definitively with regard to teaching concerning faith and morals.

What is more, I adhere with religious submission of will and intellect to the teachings which either the Roman Pontiff or the college of bishops enunciate when they exercise the authentic magisterium even if they proclaim these teachings in an act that is not definitive.

Such is the profession of faith. One would assume that all Catholics, including theologians, would have no difficulty in subscribing to it. After all, the first part of this profession is simply the affirmation of the truths set forth in the Creed the whole people of God professes on Sunday’s liturgical celebration. The second part summarizes key teachings found in the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church promulgated by Vatican Council II. The “Oath of Fidelity” that Catholic scholars in disciplines dealing with faith and morals are asked to take is of similar nature. It entails, among other things, the promise to “preserve the deposit of faith in its entirety, hand it on faithfully, and make it shine forth” and to shun “whatsoever teachings are contrary” to it. This hardly seems unreasonable. No committed Catholic should have problems in making a promise of this kind. Adherence to the Catholic faith is by no means inimical to true academic freedom. It is, however, irreconcilable with a notion of academic freedom rooted in the false and secularist ideology that rejects a priori the possibility of affirming transcultural and transcendent truths about human existence.


  • William E. May

    William E. May is the Emeritus Michael J. McGivney Professor of Moral Theology, Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America and Senior Fellow at The Culture of Life Foundation, Washington, D.C.

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