How To Make Sure “Catholic” Colleges Really Are

Deal W. Hudson

As you may know, I have a daughter who’ll be heading off to college in a few years. Like any faithful parent, if she goes to a Catholic school, I want to make sure she’s being taught authentic Catholicism. None of that watered-down nonsense, thank you very much.

In fact, you yourself may have a child or grandchild in a Catholic college. If so, you need to know this: His or her theology professors should have received a “mandatum” from their bishop by June 1st of this year. While most people have no idea what a “mandatum” is, it’s actually a very important thing (I’ll explain why in a minute).

But first, a little background…

You might be familiar with the document “Ex Corde Ecclesiae” that the pope issued in 1990, calling for the return of a Catholic identity to Catholic universities and colleges and, in the spirit of their Catholic tradition, the certification of those professors. In their 1999 response to the pope’s statement, the American bishops declared (grudgingly, in some cases) that a mandatum would be required of all Catholic professors at Catholic colleges who taught in the theological disciplines.

So what exactly is a mandatum? Basically, it’s “an acknowledgment by Church authority that a Catholic professor of a theological discipline is a teacher within the full communion of the Catholic Church…[and] recognizes the professor’s commitment and responsibility to teach authentic Catholic doctrine and to refrain from putting forth as Catholic teaching anything contrary to the Church’s magisterium” (Guidelines Concerning the Academic Mandatum, Article 1, a-b).

In other words, a mandatum is a guarantee that a Catholic professor is teaching real Catholicism.

Sounds like a good idea, right?

Well, if you’re like most American Catholics, the only reason you know about the mandatum at all is that certain theologians raised such a stink about having to get one. In fact, many of them flat out refused to do so, claiming it restricted their academic freedom. Some even suspect that the bishops themselves might be lax in enforcing the mandatum, issuing them without regard to the professor’s real intentions.

Now I’m no Latin scholar, but it seems to me that the word mandatum is linked to the word “mandatory.” In fact, it actually means “command.” So if this is a command for Catholic theologians, why aren’t they rushing out to get them?

One reason is probably that they can get away with it. As it stands, the bishops’ guidelines have no provisions for punishing those professors who don’t seek a mandatum. As such, the professors are free to think what any rebellious child would: If no one’s watching, you can do what you like. (As the father of a five-year-old boy, I know this behavior first-hand.)

Others might try to find legalistic loopholes in the wording of the document. For instance, the term “professor of theological disciplines” might be interpreted to mean only those with the proper title “professor of theology,” instead of someone teaching, say, “religious studies.” And perhaps the fact that this document applies to “Catholic colleges and universities” means that it wouldn’t have to apply to schools that aren’t referred to as “Catholic” in their mission statement, but rather referred to by their specific order (like a “Jesuit college,” for example).

Of course, this kind of thinking is flat-out wrong. In the bishops’ guidelines, “theological disciplines” means any professor of “Sacred Scripture, dogmatic theology, moral theology, pastoral theology, canon law, liturgy, and Church history” (Article 2, c). That pretty well covers the bases. And schools that refer to themselves by their specific religious orders are out of luck, too-the document holds for ALL Catholic institutions, “particular laws, customs or privileges notwithstanding” (Ex Corde Ecclesiae: The Application to the United States, Part II, Article 1.1).

It’s a shame that all this legalistic wrangling is necessary. After all, the Church isn’t trying to cramp anyone’s style as a teacher, but only ensure that Catholic professors are teaching Catholic beliefs, or at the very least, not teaching other beliefs in the name of Catholicism.

It really makes you wonder why any Catholic professor worth his salt would have a problem proclaiming his Catholicism.

Unfortunately, this accountability debate is all too familiar to American Catholics. We’ve seen plenty of this escapist attitude among people in positions of authority in the Church. After all, it’s this searching for loopholes and bending of rules that helped cause the current scandals in the priesthood.

Perhaps the bishops can’t effectively police theologians who refuse to request a mandatum. But at the very least, they can tell us which theologians are refusing. Making public the names of these professors gives our children a choice as to whether or not they want to study under someone who has already declared himself unwilling to comply with Church teaching.

I think the pope said it best: “The term ‘Catholic’ will never be a mere label either added or dropped according to the pressures of varying factors.” It’s time to take pride in the heritage of our Catholic universities and start expecting them to live up to their name.

Make sense?

Well, if you agree, there are ways you can make a difference. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Write to the president of a Catholic college and demand accountability.
  • Get involved with alumni associations or national groups like the Cardinal Newman Society to help advocate real renewal.
  • If you have academic credentials, there are several groups like the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars that are growing in influence.

This is a fight we all need to be a part of. Today’s Catholic college students are tomorrow’s Catholic Church. Let’s make sure Catholics of the future are more faithful than Catholics of the present.

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