The Mandatum Debuts


What will the new mandatum mean for America's Catholic universities?

When Julie Frank decided to attend Alverno College in Milwaukee five years ago, she had no doubt the school was for her. Alverno had a good nursing program and Frank wanted to be a nurse. It was located in Milwaukee and Frank lived nearby. It was Catholic and so was Frank. The school, she thought, was a perfect fit.

It wasn't.

One year after graduating from Alverno, Frank said she wishes she had known how little emphasis the school put on its Catholic identity. The school did not require Frank, a nursing major, to take courses in theology or Church doctrine; Mass was available on campus only once every two weeks; and guest lecturers — Hillary Clinton was one — were often hostile to central teachings of the Church. To prospective Alverno students who want to be supported in their Catholic faith, Frank has some advice: "I would not recommend it."

For parents and students who want to avoid an experience like Frank's, the guidelines adopted by the U.S. bishops in June for issuing and withholding a mandatum to teach Catholic theology will be of little help in determining a school's orthodoxy, bishops and theologians now say.

"That's not the purpose of the mandatum," said Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk, who chaired the committee that drafted the guidelines. "It is not per se a good housekeeping seal of approval."

The mandatum, as defined by the guildelines, is as "an acknowledgment by Church authority that a Catholic professor of a theological discipline is teaching within the full communion of the Catholic Church."

A draft of the form that theologians will now be required to sign in order to obtain the mandatum was made available at the bishops' June meeting. It said that the theologian who signed it was a "teacher of Catholic theology within the full communion of the Catholic Church," and that as a teacher of Catholic theology the signer was "to refrain from putting forth as Catholic teaching anything contrary to the Church's magisterium."

There will be two methods of conferring the mandatum — local bishops will either offer it to the theologians in their diocese or theologians will request it from their local bishop. In both scenarios, the bishops said, theologians are presumed to be in full communion with the Church unless proven otherwise.

Professors have one year from the effective date of May 3 to obtain a mandatum, which is permanent. Bishops who are considering denying or revoking it are expected to discuss the matter informally with the theologian in question. In such a case, theologians are free to offer "all appropriate responses," to the bishops' concern, the guidelines said.

No immediate effect

Theologians are generally agreed that the mandatum will not eliminate dissent from the classrooms of America's Catholic colleges and universities unless bishops enforce its terms. And given the fact that the bishops' original plan for implementing canon law was rejected by Rome for being too soft, most believe strict enforcement unlikely.

"I don't think the mandatum is entirely helpful," said Monika Hellwig, who taught theology for three decades at Georgetown University and currently serves as the executive director of the Society of Catholic Colleges and Universities in Washington, D.C. "The bishops have declared very clearly that it doesn't mean they will supervise what is being taught. It only means that the people concerned have said they will teach in communion with the Church."

Hellwig noted that the guidelines indicate that a professor who does not have a mandatum should not be considered hostile to Church teaching.

"This is why I say it's difficult to say what it does mean," Hellwig said. "I think most will accept it and sign the paper. Some won't, but I don't think the bishops will make a big issue of it."

Theologian's fears

Still, many theologians don't take a light view of the mandatum. Just days before the bishops approved the guidelines for issuing the mandatum, several theologians urged defiance at a meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America in Milwaukee.

Sacred Heart Sister Theresa Moser, a professor at the University of San Francisco, said that if theologians did not accept the mandatum, the canon that established it as law would be considered null in 30 years. And to those at the meeting who were prepared to accept the mandatum, James Corridin, a professor of canon law at Washington Theological Union in Washington, D.C., said, "We urge you not to do so."

Such comments have not been reserved for private gatherings. In a May article in America magazine entitled "The Impending Death of Catholic Higher Education," Jon Nilson, a theology professor at Loyola University Chicago, compared the mandatum to the Doomsday Clock, which was used by scientists during the Cold War to show how near the world was "to the midnight of mass nuclear annihilation."

And Father Richard McBrien, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame whose reputation has been built on vocal opposition to Church teaching, indicated in a February 2000 article in America that he will not accept a mandatum even if is offered to him. In a message he left with the Register after the bishops' June meeting, Father McBrien reaffirmed this position.

According to Hellwig, such open opposition to the mandatum is "silly." She said that if theologians "had issues of their own [with the mandatum] they should have handled them quietly with their bishop."

Father Edward Baer, a former professor of theology at the Josephinum Seminary in Columbus, Ohio, attended the Milwaukee meeting. He said those who spoke out against the mandatum were making a "last-ditch effort to stop the mandatum from working."

Father Baer said he's not sure whether the effort will be successful. "It's going to be up to the gumption and the insight of the local bishops to implement this," he said.

The mandatum was introduced into universal Church law by the 1983 Code of Canon Law, but was largely ignored by bishops and theologians in this country. In his 1990 apostolic letter on Catholic higher education, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Pope John Paul II reminded bishops of their duty to enforce the mandatum. For the past several years, the U.S. bishops have tried to come up with a plan to implement this and other instructions contained in the document in a way that satisfied U.S. theologians and the Vatican.

Father Baer said he was hopeful that even if the mandatum does not have an immediate effect, it will lead to a greater commitment on the part of future theologians to teach in communion with the Church.

"At least this will establish something that practically has not existed, namely dialogue between the theologians and the bishops," he said. "This will force them to get into a dialogue and that's good."

Archbishop Pilarczyk agreed. As a result of the mandatum, he said, "theology professors will be reminded that they are supposed to be in relationship with the Church, that Catholic theology is not just one more academic subject."

As for parents who looking for a way to identify good Catholic colleges, Archbishop Pilarczyk had this advice: "I think you talk to people."


Brian McGuire. "The Mandatum Debuts." National Catholic Register. (July 22, 2001).

This article is reprinted with permission from National Catholic Register. To subscribe to the National Catholic Register call 1-800-421-3230.


Brian McGuire is a Register Correspondent.

Copyright © 2001 National Catholic Register

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