The Vatican, the Bishops, the Academy

If Push Comes to Shove, Nobody Will Budge

In April, the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education unexpectedly returned to the American bishops, for a "second draft," the regulations that will govern the relationship between the hierarchy and U.S. Catholic colleges and universities (see Commonweal, June 20, 1997). Why were they returned? Not because the bishops and the congregation disagree on the nature of Catholic universities as a theoretical matter, but because they disagree about who is in charge. Who should decide whether the theology that is being taught is sufficiently orthodox? Who should discipline theologians who stray from what the hierarchy considers acceptable teaching? Should the local bishop or a lay board of trustees decide who may or may not receive an honorary degree? At present, the universities themselves make those decisions. The Vatican would like to change this.

It may be that some American bishops would like to control their local Catholic colleges and universities, but most probably realize that in the United States that kind of ecclesiastical supervision over, say, Georgetown or Notre Dame, is beyond their competence. Many understand as well the consequences for Catholic academia, in terms of accreditation and prestige, of "outside" control. Further negotiations looking to a solution that will satisfy the Vatican, the U.S. bishops, and the schools (the presidents and their boards) are under way, but since both principles...

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About the Author

Paul C. Saunders is Of Counsel in the Litigation Department of Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP, and a Distinguished Visitor from Practice at Georgetown Law School.