Msgr. George A. Kelly
John Paul II vs. The American Catholic College System

The bishops of the United States will face one of their most critical decisions this year, when they must determine what kind of ordinances—enforceable by them alone—will bind any college or university which claims to aspire to maintain a Catholic identity.

Why does this question represent a crisis? Because for the better part of 30 years, the Catholic campus has been the meeting ground of intellectual forces engaged in redefining the nature of the Catholic Church, and her way of life, in a manner at variance with the teachings of that Church—including the teaching contained in the documents of the Second Vatican Council. By virtue of their autonomy from ecclesiastical supervision—a privilege claimed by the presidents of America's leading Catholic colleges in 1967, and subsequently recognized in practice by the nation's hierarchy—they have largely succeeded in creating a two-headed church.

Failing to stem these developments in Catholic academe during the period 1970-1990, the Holy See has recently attempted to pressure the American hierarchy, by issuing the Apostolic Exhortation <Ex Corde Ecclesiae> in 1990, to reinsert Catholic higher education into the body of the Church—making the schools subject to the general laws of the Church, just as ordinary believing Catholics must be.

In the bishops' court

No other hierarchy in the world faces the potential Armageddon that could arise in this conflict between bishops and educators, because no other hierarchy faces a collection of more than 230 colleges and universities, the great majority of which claim the name Catholic but refuse to commit themselves institutionally to the faith of the Church.

Furthermore, no other hierarchy faces an organized opposition which resists functioning under Catholic law. The Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU), while wedded to the Catholic name, is committed to "freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself." In practice, ACCU demands freedom for its constituents to have Catholic truth rejected in their classrooms, and to have the Catholic way of life presented as merely an optional desideratum rather than one that is binding either the institution or its Catholic membership.

However, if no Catholic truth binds the minds, consciences, or lives of allegedly believing Catholic members, then no reason exists to justify the existence of a Catholic school of any kind, save as a propaganda mechanism for a Church whose raison d'etre is not God's revealed Word, but whatever hypotheses about Christianity her elites or members choose to claim as their own. If the leaders of the Catholic Church continue to acquiesce in allowing schools to function on this basis, they have ipso facto denied their own special credentials and in effect agreed to continue supporting something which the Church once rejected at great cost: the Protestant principle of private interpretation of the person and mission of Jesus Christ.

On the other hand, if the bishops still uphold the belief that this is the one true Church of Christ, and the special guardian of God's Word, then any school which insists on calling itself Catholic, even at the highest level of education, must reflect the Church's view and oversight, as readily as it submits to whatever truth(s) the guardians of the secular academic world consider fitting and/or politically correct for its recognition and accreditation.

Contemporary problems

In their dealings with Catholic educational institutions, the American bishops face two major problems. First is the practice, widespread among Catholic colleges today, of treating academic freedom as an absolute. In that practice, these schools conform to secular definitions of academic freedom, and in effect declare their independence of Church authority to guarantee that the Catholic faith and its normative way of life are transmitted authentically. Second is the legacy of strategic blunders made after 1967 by the leadership of the newly formed National Conference of Catholic Bishops—first in accepting the "Land o' Lakes" statement of 1967, in which the American college leaders claimed the autonomy of the university as the sole governing norm for professedly Catholic higher education, and then in defending that freedom against the Vatican's efforts to make the colleges responsible to legitimate Church requirements.

The first problem, for ordinary Catholics in the pews, appears at base as a matter of doctrine, no matter how philosophical or political the argument might become. The second problem raises questions about the credibility of the Catholic mission in general, and about the competence of Church authority to conduct her mission effectively at any level of education.

The doctrinal difficulty flows directly from the ideas that academic freedom is an absolute. William Shea, currently head of the theology department at the University of Saint Louis, a Jesuit institution, laid out the scenario rather bluntly years ago in the <Anglican Theological Review>:

The fact that something is believed is no evidence of its truth. Nor can any authority be allowed to vouch for the truth of beliefs, whether the authority of the Bible, credal expressions, or an office of the Church.

The depth of the problem has been revealed by observers such as Father Andrew Greeley, who in a 1980 syndicated column proclaimed, "The authority structure of the Church is in a state of collapse." And Father Richard McBrien, writing in the <National Catholic Reporter> in 1991, affirmed that his "party of change seems to embrace just about every active minister in the Church, with the exception of a large number of bishops and some conservative younger clergy." Taking a more subtle approach (in London's <Tablet>) was Boston College's Father Francis Sullivan, SJ, who insinuates that John Paul II may be pushing his teaching authority beyond its limits in closing out the possibility of ordaining women as priests. If these views can be treated as plausible—let alone legitimate—the government of the Catholic Church has lost its persuasive power.

The drama being played out within the Church in the United States features a number of intriguing themes. 1) It contains repeated scenes in which academic leaders show serious disrespect for Church authority, even when that authority makes definitive decisions. 2) It displays a mind-set characteristic of disobedient Catholics of the early 19th century. 3) It intensifies practical doubts that any magisterial affirmation on matters of faith or morals is necessarily true, or must necessarily be accepted by all of the faithful in all circumstances.

When the human weakness of members of the Church is customarily offered as justification for relativism on matters of doctrine, the humanity of Jesus Christ—and certainly the words he reportedly spoke—are not exempt from similar skepticism. The secularized, nominally Catholic theologian or campus minister, like his Protestant forerunner, no longer believes in "truth" that is binding on the human mind and authority of the Church, or even of Christ.

The People of God

Such skepticism was commonplace among Christ's disciples. In their uncertainty they questioned God's very word on divorce (Mt 19:8), the power to forgive sins (Lk 5:23), and the necessity that Jesus must die (Mk 8:33). Christ always set the truth of his witness against their cultural preference, and against their reasoned arguments. God decreed some things to be true, Jesus told his disciples, regarding the indissolubility of marriage, "from the beginning," no matter what Moses had said. Toward the end of his public ministry, Christ's rebuke of Peter is particularly instructive: "Get behind me, Satan. You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men."

In a healthy environment, therefore, "thinking with the Church" exemplifying "the obedience of faith," (Rom 1:5), or having "the mind of Jesus Christ" (Phil 2:5), should be the normal attribute of the believing Catholic, even if he holds an advanced academic degree. Within the parameters of the faith, debate can be—and often has been—as wild as an athletic contest, as fiery as a war. Good Catholic debate, however, always respects the magisterium and the primary teachers of the Church. It never causes public scandal, even if a debater is injudiciously or incorrectly restrained by Church authorities. In these cases, the procedures allowing redress are far easier to find than the remedies for harm done to souls by irresponsible or anti-Catholic behavior by people who profess fidelity to the Church. These are the conditions that allow a civilized—to say nothing of religious—society.

When the Church was strongest in the United States, skepticism about fundamental matters of faith was relatively unknown. But the "demythologizers" of the Church's confessional statements have done their work well. Today many Catholics, not excluding many clergy, think their religious life might be healthier without these "fairy tales" about virgin birth, miracles, and supernatural demands from on high—all unproven and unprovable by modern studies. These "fables" from the pre-scientific period of religious history, they insist, no longer uphold popular belief and piety.

Thus far, however, the "demythologizing" has cut only one way: against Judeo-Christianity. Critical scholars do not manifest the same cynicism about the "confessional" statements of the secularist creed, which has now become dominant in college classrooms: that God is dead, dying, or undemonstrable; that only empirical evidence acquired by research determines truth; that the scientific method determines the quality of teaching and learning; that nature evolves according to its own sequences, and so does truth; that freedom is virtue; that academic authority is a more reliable guide to the salvation of the world than the authority of the Church. Tragically, the secularist ideology has become gospel among Catholic academicians, even against the faith proclaimed in the Catholic creeds.

In our day, then, the Church faces a serious problem with those who take upon themselves their responsibility to correct, amend, or repeal God's Word. Unbelievers are certainly free to do so. But can believing Catholics doubt or deny proclaimed truths of faith or morals? Can such freedom be the ecclesiastical right of a privileged professional class at Catholic universities? A long time ago St. Paul forced his new Roman audience to confront the truth entailed in their profession of faith:

Do you not know that if you yield yourself to anyone as obedient slaves, you are the slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves to sin, have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed... (Rom 6:16-17)

Freedom, in the Christian dispensation, is directed toward God, not away from him. Can Christ be divided against himself? Can the Catholic Church be a "mystical body" with contradictory acts of worship, creeds, and ways of life?

The bishops'—not Hobson's—choice

The Catholic Church is one of the few institutions in the modern world which speaks of certain truth and absolute right. All kinds of disbelief and wrongdoing can be found among her members, but the Church can never appear to give legitimacy to heresy or quasi-heresy, or to sin. Pope John XXIII wanted a positive and optimistic Council in 1962, but he never intended to wipe out the difference between good and bad Catholics. He prayed for mercy for unbelievers and sinners, but did not eschew judgment about sin or sinners, either by God or by confessors.

The Church cannot permit vast social distances to open between what she says and how she lives. The Church cannot afford to identify the notion of Original Sin as a fundamental Christian doctrine, yet leave important teachers to suggest that this is little more than a primitive religious myth. The Church cannot afford to speak of Christ as man's redeemer, who saved the human race from sin, even as contemporary humanists in Catholic schools describe him simply as a social reformer. The Church cannot believe that Christ was born of Mary, ever a virgin, while biblical scholars in episcopal centers suggest otherwise.

The Church cannot proclaim itself as the Body of Christ, yet coexist peacefully with scholars who teach seminarians and college students that Christ very likely did not have a distinct church in mind. The Church cannot describe her worship as a re-presentation of Christ's sacrifice on Calvary if, at the parish level, the stress is laid not on its importance to the redemption of the world, but on the community's sense of "belonging." The Church cannot speak of the Eucharist as Christ's real presence if adoration is neglected, and irreverence or unworthy reception of the Eucharist is condoned. The Church cannot insist on the reality of heaven, hell, and purgatory as essential elements in the formation of the Christian conscience, if priests never preach of mortal sin nor of its death-dealing effects.

The Church cannot define the sacrament of penance as the ordinary means for the remission of sin, if bishops do not insist on the preaching of this truth. And priests cannot preach penance, if they are not available for sacramental confession. The Church cannot claim that the truth of her mission is guaranteed by bishops in union with the pope, if in practice they do nothing to uphold those truths of the <Catechism> which are regularly denied within their own institutions.

The Church cannot invoke the authority of divine revelation to support moral absolutes to govern Catholic behavior, if influential theological consultants for the bishops' many institutions go on public record as rejecting the absolute authority of these postulates. The Church cannot speak with integrity about religious life, if in practice clear violations of the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience go uncorrected over the long haul.

The Church cannot speak about sexual morality—at all!—if her approach to the use of contraceptives is timid or evasive. The Church cannot speak of the sanctity of marriage if she does not lay stress on the importance of accepting children as a blessing of that sacred union. The Church will never convince a skeptical age of the indissoluble nature of consummated Christian marriage, if she appears to provide unconscionable divorces under the guise of annulment.

The sensus fidei of the Church calls for Catholics to be trained to "think with the Church," regardless of how they may live out that formation in practice. Such indoctrination, unfortunately, is not possible within a house that is divided against itself. The Catholic faith is a unity, a "wholeness," which precludes stripping away any of its essential doctrines.

Obviously, refusing to accept the divinity of Jesus Christ is a form of heresy different from the refusal to accept Mary as the Mother of God. Nevertheless, "pick and choose" Catholicism, which John Paul II criticized so severely during his 1987 visit to the United States, is still a form of heresy. Believing Catholics grasp the distinction; they see—as their pain forces them to see—the radical effect which the selective approach to faith plays in the lives of their children or grandchildren.

A generation ago, Notre Dame's historian Jay P. Dolan opined that, by the 21st century, the Catholic Church in America would follow the religious patterns that developed earlier in Judaism and the Protestant sects, characterized by high, middle, and low (orthodox) Catholics. In practice the distinction between practicing, tepid, cultural but non-believing Catholics has always existed; but these categories have never been legitimized by the Church. The day that any such distinction is embraced, the Catholic community will lose its soul—and most of its people.

The moment of truth

From 1968 onward, the Vatican has recognized the danger of a "church within the Church,'—a threat embodied in the ideal of higher education which Catholic leaders had propounded in the "Land o' Lakes" statement of 1967. The Holy See, after all, had lived through the break-up of the Lutheran Church in Germany during the 19th century, when professors began to reinterpret Christianity in a way that was at variance with the Lutheran pastors. The empty churches of "main-line" Protestant denominations in the United States today bear witness to the same danger. But however endemic the pluralism of religious faith may be to Protestantism, Rome understands that diversity of this kind can never be accepted by a truly <catholic> Church.

The Holy See has also rejected, as spurious, an argument for autonomy proffered chiefly by Jesuit provincials on behalf of their faculties: the argument that somehow these scholars required protection from overzealous ecclesiastical authorities—especially from those who "precipitously and arbitrarily block the diffusion of scholarly research," as one 1970 complaint alleged.

During the most aggressive stage of anti-Romanism following Vatican II, critics of Church authority lamented aloud that even St. Thomas Aquinas was harassed by an undistinguished medieval bishop. Few of the people who heard such complaints could have known that this intellectual giant, upon receiving the viaticum on his death bed, said to his abbot, "I have taught and written much on the most holy body and on the other sacraments, according to my faith in Christ and the Roman Church, to whose judgment I submit all my teaching."

Apart from the long-standing principle that the abuse of authority never invalidates the right of that authority when properly used, it is precisely this obeisance of faith, incarnated by the greatest of the Church's saints and scholars, which is now expected to give way—and in many cases already has given way—to the modern autonomy of secularizing Catholic faculties. The publication of the new <Catechism of the Catholic Church> clearly demonstrated how much contemporary ideology is unacceptable to the Pope and the bishops in union with him.

So, in 1972, Rome began to make demands upon both educators and bishops. The essential elements of those demands are:

1) No institution can claim the name "Catholic" without ecclesiastical approval.

2) The Catholic college must specify, in statutes and in contracts with personnel, its Catholicism and its adherence to norms of the faith as determined by the magisterium.

3) The school must establish in its statutes a specific machinery for protecting the truths of the faith and the faith of the college community.

4) The teachers of ecclesiastical subjects must receive a "mandate" from a competent ecclesiastical authority.

5) The institution's autonomy must be "interior" rather than "exterior"—that is, the presiding officer(s) may manage the college, but the bishop (or bishops) may make observations (or remonstrations, if necessary) to an individual professor, to the school's president, or if need be to the Catholic public, as the situation requires.

Most of these requirements came in the form of requests, seeking voluntary adoption of these norms at local levels. But the presidents of Catholic schools, now heady in their autonomy, ignored Rome year after year.

In one way or another, all of the Vatican proposals have now found their way into the <Code of Canon Law> (especially in Canons 607-814), and Pope John Paul's Apostolic Constitution on Catholic Universities, <Ex Corde Ecclesiae>—documents which have the force of law for the universal Church. Between these two documents, a rescript signed by Cardinal Ratzinger in 1987 required the fulfillment of a demand made by Canon 833: a specific profession of faith and an oath of fidelity, made by all who teach matters of faith and morals. These general laws—which have now been part of statutory law for ten years, after discussion for twenty years—remain unenforced.

Church and anti-church

The National Conference of Catholic Bishops is now pondering ordinances for the interpretation of these statutes in the United States, as required by <Ex Corde Ecclesiae>. But at this date, the American hierarchy still allows itself to be "stonewalled" by leading members of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. The latter have made it quite clear that they will not accept any effective episcopal oversight.

Here we are dealing with no small matter. The freedom of the Church to be true to her own nature, and to govern her flock capably through properly administered structures, is in jeopardy. Today an anti-church exists within the Church, in which definitive teaching of the magisterium can be, and often is, contradicted, doubted, or explained away—sometimes directly, sometimes subtly—by leading members and officers of Catholic institutions. And this happens without any correction, remonstration, or penalty imposed by the custodians of our faith.

This "second magisterium," as it has sometimes been called, has its base in the Church's college system. While the doubts expressed in these quarters about the Church's moral teaching receive a large amount of media attention, the doctrinal truths of the Church are even more readily undermined. The most serious and fundamental teachings about the divinity of Christ, the virginity of Mary, the nature of the Church, the priesthood, and the Eucharist—all are reduced to the status of optional theological opinion, which teachers feel free to dispute.

Apart from the lack of virtue implicit in disobedience to the Church and/or the Ten Commandments (which bind even academics), the question of Church governance is equally important. Under normal circumstances, Catholics should manifest respect for the policies and laws of the Church, which are intended to protect the faith, morals, and welfare of the faithful. That respect involves esteem for the pope and bishops in union with him, a healthy awe for the episcopal office, and a decent fear of offending, scandalizing, or leading astray the "little ones" of Christ.

Today, however, our Church is rife with disrespect, like the unbelieving world around her. And that disrespect is directed not only toward ordinary people of no substantial learning, but also toward traditions which reflect the wisdom of the ages. When the president of a Catholic university announces that he will not sanction a profession of faith for his faculty; when the Catholic Theological Society boldly proclaims how its membership resents any intrusion into its affairs "exacted on the basis of fear, a sheer sense of duty, enforced obedience;" when an entire theological faculty is reported as mostly (if not entirely) in favor of the practice of contraception and the ordination of women; when members of a major religious order lead public charges against the content of the <Catechism>—when all this happens without any notable reaction, then an anti-church is clearly present within Catholicism.

Are the leaders of the Church prepared to admit that the present policy, an effort to contain the abuses on the Catholic campus through quiet dialogue, has failed? Are they ready to proceed forthwith to restore Church unity through the proper use of their responsibility?

Time for action

The battle for control of the illicit re-direction of the American Church has been going on for too long. Its ill effects on the religious life of the faithful—especially the young—and on the unity of the Church are deadly, no matter how intently the entrenched power structures pretend otherwise.

The Holy See, for the past quarter-century, has tried valiantly to persuade Catholic college presidents to adopt norms for self-definition and self-regulation voluntarily. Such norms would guarantee the integrity of the faith and the Catholic life of those who work or study in these institutions.

More than ten years ago the Holy See began to establish policies—culminating in 1990 with <Ex Corde Ecclesiae>—calling for ecclesiastical recognition of colleges which call themselves Catholic, licensing (mandates) for professors in ecclesiastical studies, and hierarchical oversight of performance which might adversely affect the welfare of the faithful.

<Ex Corde Ecclesiae> (in article 4, no. 1 of the General Norms) places the decision to choose a Catholic identity squarely upon the institution itself. No college is required to be Catholic. But once it makes the decision to be called Catholic, the school must act appropriately. And if the institution makes that choice honestly, the necessary oversight by Church leaders becomes no more onerous than any other oversight which is accepted naturally (if not always gladly) from secular agencies. Once college administrators are once again comfortable with their own commitment to the faith, they will be able to deal comfortably with the bishops' supervision on matters of faith and morals, as they do with secular officials who review their educational standards and facilities.

By the end of 1993, leading members of the ACCU made it clear that the weak ordinances proposed to them earlier that year by a committee of the NCCB were unacceptable, and they so informed their faculties. As a result, the chairman of the bishops' committee, Bishop Leibrecht, took the issue back to the drawing board, deciding that the ordinances required by <Ex Corde Ecclesiae> were perhaps inopportune, inappropriate, and altogether unlikely to gain compliance within the American system of Catholic higher education.

So on July 8, 1994, the chairman called for a new round of dialogue between bishops and academics, to discuss the nature and function of Catholic identity, the Catholic university, and the episcopacy—all questions which have been studied here and in Rome interminably. <Ex Corde Ecclesiae>, now four years old, had been aimed to resolve those questions.

(Imagine that, after a quarter-century of studying crime with a view toward appropriate legislation, a federal government commission recommended that more time be devoted to the definition of crime, or to discussions of the role of government. It would be clear, in that case, that the government was no longer really governing. At this date, asking what Catholic identity is, or what a bishop's role should be, is an exercise in magisterial futility.)

The American bishops, meeting in executive session, should take counsel from a committee of bishops experienced in Catholic higher education, and—with the concurrence of Roman congregations such as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—should establish ordinances to be promulgated and implemented judiciously, beginning at the Catholic University of America. College and university presidents should be given a period of time in which to indicate their acceptance of these norms, and adjust their catalogues and operating procedures appropriately. Institutions which do not choose to accept these ordinances should be denied the use of the name Catholic. In the process, the Church may lose a goodly number of colleges. Let them go.

In some cases, the truly Catholic colleges must forswear compromising entanglements with government. And if secular accrediting agencies step beyond proper bounds, then Church officials must set up their own accreditation system. But in fact American accrediting agencies continue to accredit fully, and without difficulty, those institutions which affirm their integral Catholic character and their adherence to the Church magisterium. These agencies also recognize the Church's responsibility for the schools which bear the Catholic name—provided only that these responsibilities are spelled out clearly in the school's statutes, bylaws, mission statements, faculty handbooks, and employment contracts.

The laissez-faire ideology ill befits Church authority. Yet for more than a generation, that is precisely the ideology which has governed the American bishops' treatment of Catholic colleges and universities. If the Catholic colleges are "from the heart of the Church," why are they not also subject to the head? Msgr. George Kelly is president emeritus of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. This essay is a synopsis of material contained in his book The Battle for the American Church Revisited, soon to be published by Ignatius Press.

This article appeared in the January, 1995 issue of "The Catholic World Report," P.O. Box 6718, Syracuse, NY 13217-7912, 800-825-0061.

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