In 1990, Pope John Paul II promulgated an apostolic constitution called Ex Corde Ecclesiae (from the Heart of the Church), whose purpose was to clarify the identity, mission, and normative procedures of Catholic universities. By their nature, apostolic constitutions are considered instruments of Church law, and it was expected that the various guidelines and mandates of Ex Corde would be readily implemented by and enforced by bishops throughout the world. In the United States, Ex Corde inspired angry responses from Catholic theologians who argued that the document, in establishing top-down requirements for universities threatened their academic freedom. The bishops, for a variety of reasons, privately sidestepped their obligation to enforce Ex Corde, while publicly celebrating the “constructive dialogue” with the universities that the decree occasioned. In 1996 they drafted an “application” document that echoed the theoretical provisions by Ex Corde, omitting clauses that would enforce any of its specific requirements. The Holy See was not convinced that the Bishops’ document went far enough to ensure compliance with Ex Corde, particularly in the matter of theology instruction, so Vatican officials placed the theology departments under the “juridical” control of the bishops. What this meant was that Catholic university theology instructors had to receive a mandatum, or “mandate” from local bishops in order to teach in the universities in their dioceses. Of course this only added to the indignation of the Catholic theologians, and the controversy continued. In some cases, the bishops simply granted the mandatum, in many other cases, the bishops granted the mandatum in exchange for assurance from the university that it was in compliance—without really verifying the authenticity of the assurance. In almost every case the very specter of an oppressive Church that sought to police the goings-on in college classrooms resulted in divisive and acrimonious debates on Catholic campuses.
The core of the controversy was an argument over the manner in which theology should be taught. What the Church wanted was to ensure the orthodoxy of theology instruction by insisting that Catholic doctrine be represented accurately—i.e., in accordance with the interpretation of the Magisterium. The subjective interpretation of individual theologians was not to replace the official objective teaching of the Church on critical matters of doctrine. It was never proposed that theologians would be restricted from giving their opinions or interpretations—but these could not serve as substitutes for doctrine, which had to be taught in authentic, catechetical form. On some levels it is difficult to fathom why a mandate that seems no more oppressive than asking a mathematician not to teach that “two-plus-two equals five,” or asking a historian not to teach that Abraham Lincoln was the first president of the United States, should be met with such anger. There was obviously more at stake over the issue of the mandatum than the requirement to represent Catholic doctrine accurately. In order to get to the root of the matter, we need to go back several decades to a gathering of Catholic university administrators, who published what amounted to a declaration of independence from Rome. This document is generally known as the “Land O’Lakes Statement.”
Dr. Eric Cunningham is an Associate Professor of History at Gonzaga University