For years, the nation’s 235 Catholic colleges and universities, including institutions such as Notre Dame, Georgetown, Fordham and Holy Cross, have been striving for academic distinction while resisting the forces that led universities like Harvard, Yale and Princeton from their denominational roots to total secularization.
Now, after six years of study and struggle, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops on Wednesday approved broad norms aimed at ensuring that Catholic institutions of higher learning retain their religious identity.
But the conference left the implementation of the norms in the hands of Catholic educators. The bishops thus set aside conservative demands that the church hierarchy closely oversee Catholic campuses and faculties, a development that many educators feared would violate principles of academic freedom.
The norms approved Wednesday call on Catholic colleges and universities to acknowledge publicly their Catholic identity and to make “a serious effort” to appoint faculty members and administrators “who are committed to the Catholic tradition or, if not Catholic, who are aware and respectful of that tradition.”
But an institution can do this “following its own procedures” for hiring, the bishops said, steering clear of any hint that they would intervene directly in the process of recruiting or of awarding tenure.
The norms also state the bishops’ expectation that Catholic institutions “offer courses in Catholic theology taught in accord with the best scholarship and the authentic teaching authority of the church.” But by not including enforcement mechanisms in their document, the bishops were trusting university officials to enact the norms on their own.
The norms approved Wednesday apply to the United States a 1990 papal document, “Ex Corde Ecclesiae” (“From the Heart of the Church”) on Catholic higher education.
The bishops’ action constituted a vote of confidence in Catholic institutions of higher learning. It is a striking reversal from the situation three years ago when the bishops and the presidents of many major Catholic colleges and universities nearly deadlocked over an earlier draft of the norms. At issue was the application of Canon 812, a provision in the code of church law that says Catholic theologians must obtain official authorization from the local bishop before they can teach in a Catholic theology department. For administrators at many Catholic institutions, this was an unacceptable intrusion of an outside authority in an academic process.
The new norms circumvent that issue by assuming that any Catholic theologian hired by a church-affiliated college or university has such a mandate unless the local bishop has a serious problem with that person’s teaching.