Fr. Leahy Discusses Ex Corde and Boston College

(1-20-99) -- On Jan. 4, the Boston Globe published a front-page story under the headline "Catholic colleges see peril in Vatican push for control." The article contained statements about recent proposals from a subcommittee of Catholic bishops concerning norms to implement Ex Corde Ecclesiae, a 1990 Vatican document discussing the relationship between Catholic colleges and universities in the United States and the Catholic Church [click here for entire text of the draft implementation document]. The piece also included various comments from individuals about the draft norms and their possible effects on American Catholic higher education.

The Globe article generated both interest and concern on campus and among Boston College alumni. Recently, the editors of the Boston College Chronicle met with University President William P. Leahy, SJ, to discuss the Globe story and efforts to implement Ex Corde Ecclesiae in the United States.

CHRONICLE: Let's start with the recent Globe article. What was your reaction to it?

FR. LEAHY: As you might expect, I read the article with great interest because of its material on Boston College and statements about the latest draft of norms to implement the Ex Corde Ecclesiae document of 1990. I thought the story spotlighted a very important issue: the relationship between the Catholic Church and American Catholic colleges and universities, and it presented various interpretations and opinions. More people are aware since the story about the proposed norms and the larger questions concerning the identity of Catholic institutions of higher education, and that is good.

But, I also thought there were errors of fact and interpretation in the piece, not surprisingly given the complexity of the norms and the issues. First, the headline overstated the situation and was misleading. I don't think we are in peril, nor is there some Vatican or bishops' campaign to take over control of American Catholic colleges and universities.

The story reflected a misunderstanding of certain sections of the norms and their intent, which I think have caused some people to become unnecessarily concerned. For instance, nowhere in the text of draft norms is there a proposal to transfer control of Catholic colleges and universities from their current boards of trustees to local bishops. Also, the mandate provision pertains only to Catholics who are teaching theology, not all theologians, nor do the norms propose that non-Catholic faculty would be urged to attend frequent lectures on Church teachings.

CHRONICLE: Before we talk about the latest draft of the norms, can you provide some historical background on Ex Corde Ecclesiae and its implementation?

FR. LEAHY: Discussions have been going on for decades between the Vatican and Catholic bishops and educational leaders in the United States about how the Church and Catholic colleges and universities should relate to one another. Some of the key issues revolve around autonomy, control and identity, about how to be quality institutions of higher education in the very competitive American environment and also make sure that Catholic traditions and teachings are vibrant in the schools. Drafts of documents attempting to describe the nature of Catholic universities and the place of the Church in these institutions were written in the 1970s and 1980s. The revision of the Catholic Church's Code of Canon Law, published in 1983, included specific canons dealing with higher education. For example, Canon 812 required mandates for those teaching theological disciplines. In 1990, Pope John Paul II issued Ex Corde Ecclesiae, which was the result of extensive discussions and comment. It left the implementation of its statements and ideas to the Catholic hierarchy in individual countries. Work on such norms has been going for much of the 1990s. In 1996, the American bishops approved a set of draft norms, but the Vatican returned them, asking for more juridical statements. In October 1998, the latest draft was circulated, and the bishops have asked for comments by May 1.

CHRONICLE: What is your opinion of the draft norms we have now?

FR. LEAHY: First, let me say that this is a work in progress and this version is just the latest draft, and I expect further changes, especially concerning some of the problematic areas in the document. The comment period on this draft runs until May 1 and then those statements will be reviewed by the subcommittee of bishops. The American bishops are to consider the draft norms at their November 1999 meeting. Whenever the norms are finally approved, they are to be implemented in a five-year period. So, a great deal of time will elapse before anything takes effect.

Clearly, there are strengths in the draft norms under review now. One section explicitly affirms that a Catholic university enjoys institutional autonomy and that that must be respected so that it can carry out its mission of seeking the truth. Academic freedom is described as an essential component of a Catholic university. The norms declare that the religious liberty of every individual must be respected and that it is important that Catholic universities and the hierarchy have collaborative relationships.

But it is also true that parts of the document pose serious problems. Some of these are legal in nature, which if implemented, could leave schools vulnerable to charges that they are "pervasively sectarian" and, therefore, possibly ineligible for state and federal funding. Others concern financial matters. I think requiring Catholics teaching theology to obtain a mandate from the local bishop is a major issue. Furthermore, I think the draft norms lack adequate appreciation of the present reality that Catholic higher education in America operates according to strong lay-religious partnerships, including lay Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and many individuals of other faiths.

Another deficiency in the current norms is they do not adequately recognize that Catholic colleges and universities are quite serious about maintaining their religious mission and ties to the Church. They are not quietly seeking to become secularized.

CHRONICLE: We have heard concerns expressed since the press coverage that candidates for faculty and administrative positions at BC and other Catholic schools may not apply because of Ex Corde and the latest draft of the norms. Any comments?

FR.LEAHY: I have heard such comments, but I have no evidence that that has happened, and I am not worried that that will be a problem. Certainly, our searches for faculty and deans will proceed as usual, and I expect them to be successful.

CHRONICLE: Have you talked with Cardinal Law about the draft norms?

FR. LEAHY: Yes, on several occasions. He has a positive relationship with the presidents of Catholic institutions of higher education in the archdiocese and he is aware of our concerns about the draft norms. I know that he has no interest in getting involved in internal governance at BC. I have found him supportive of what we are about, and he wants to work with us to make sure that our institutions are as strong academically as possible and also remain faithful to our Catholic mission and heritage. So do we. I believe very much that the Church needs vibrant, intellectually alive Catholic universities and that Catholic universities benefit immensely from the perspectives, challenges and traditions of the Church.

CHRONICLE: Any last thoughts?

FR. LEAHY: Yes, I encourage people to read the draft norms on the Web, and then to send their opinions to me. Between now and May, I and the presidents of other Catholic colleges and universities will be sending responses to the subcommittee working on the implementation norms, and I would like to include letters from faculty, administrators, staff, students, alumni and friends of BC with my comments.

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