Catholic Colleges Insist Conflict with Rome Exaggerated

Article excerpt

Presidents of Catholic colleges and universities yesterday resolved to answer Vatican demands for clearer rules to preserve their schools' religious identity, but they said media portrayals of a Rome-U.S. conflict are overblown.

In their first meeting since the American church hierarchy proposed norms to meet Vatican concerns, the presidents decided to clarify their collective views on school autonomy, academic freedom and relationships to the local bishop.

"We will be working on some statements for the wider membership" of Catholic higher education, said the Rev. James L. Heft, chancellor of the University of Dayton and chairman of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.

The initiative was approved in a closed session here of the presidents, who will "try to have a more unified response" to Vatican concerns stated in 1997, he said.

The step is only the latest in a long process of U.S. Catholic institutions conforming to Pope John Paul II's 1990 apostolic constitution on Catholic higher education, Ex Corde Ecclesiae.

Among the issues are that every teacher of Catholic theology receive a "mandate" from the local bishop, as required in Statute 812 of church canon law since 1983, and that Catholic schools seek to have Catholic majorities on their faculty and boards of trustees.

The school presidents have preferred that the Vatican trust their ability to keep Catholic identity on church-affiliated campuses without rules and penalties. And they agreed with the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1996 when it approved school standards that lacked legalistic mechanisms.

But the Vatican returned that document asking for what it called "juridical instruments," or ways to enforce canon law. Now the bishops are assuring the presidents that this legalistic-sounding approach is not a threat to schools' academic and legal autonomy. …