The Roar of the Canons

TTHE UPCOMING REVISION of canon law includes a number of controversial canons on education. American Catholic educators have been especially critical of Canon 767: “In every kind of institution in higher studies those who teach theological disciplines should have a mandate from the competent theological authority.” Exactly what the canon does is a matter of some dispute, but it is clear that local bishops will have the power to say whether or not a given person is teaching Catholic theology and to require a Catholic university to make it clear that such a person is or is not teaching Catholic theology.

On the whole, such a power should be a welcome development in the Church, expecially in America. For any institution to survive and prosper, it must be able to maintain its own identity. If its self-definition can be altered from without, it is open to manipulation by persons who would change its nature — in effect, substituting a new institution for the old one.

One of the most important distinguishing features of Catholicism is its principle of hierarchical authority. The faithfulness of the Church to the original deposit of revelation is a particular responsibility of the Pope and the bishops, the successors of Peter and the apostles. Their teaching powers exist to make clear to the faithful (indeed, to everyone) what are the indisputable truths of the faith. In addition, their governing powers include the right to set prudent limits on writing or teaching which may, in certain circumstances, confuse or give scandal to the ordinary faithful.

The authority of the hierarchy to so define Catholic belief and to govern Catholics has, of course, come under sharp attack in recent years. A large number of Catholic theologians has rejected this authority, arguing, in effect, that the hierarchy is little more than a set of private theologians whose views may be erroneous and therefore ignored by sincere and upright Catholics.

Whether this rejection of authority is done in the name of “the word of God” or in the name of a kind of democratic ecclesial public opinion, it is a profound challenge to the constant teaching of the Church over the centuries, and in particular to the strong defense of hierarchical authority at the Second Vatican Council (especially in the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” Lumen Gentium).

One factor which makes this challenge particularly effective and disturbing is the role of the media. The average “informed” Catholic in America gets his information on religious matters not only from the pulpit (where there is often enough contusion) but also from Time, Newsweek, CBS, The New York Times, and perhaps the National Catholic Reporter, America, and Commonweal. What is constantly set before him is a vision of the Church distorted by the internal needs of the media (to emphasize the sensational, the new, the exciting) and by the American elite cultural biases which suffuse it (suspiciousness of authority, relativistic tolerance, secular liberal attitudes toward issues such as divorce, abortion, homosexuality, sexual egalitarianism, contraception, etc.)

The Church is portrayed as a battleground of various factions, in which those who insist on the teaching of the Church are simply one more faction — except that they are a particularly unattractive faction: narrow-minded, old-fashioned, authoritarian. “Contemporary theologians” can thus be invested with more authority than the hierarchy. American Catholics who look for “Catholic teaching” on many subjects can be convinced that “the prevailing view” among Catholic theologians is the legitimacy of “pluralism,” and the non-authoritative character of less than ironclad infallible statements by the Pope and bishops. In this process, “contemporary theologians” can pass their views off as tailing within the range of legitimate Catholic freedom of inquiry. Dissident theologians vouch for each other’s Catholicity, and the media then invoke this mutual authority to define legitimate Catholic opinions.

The canons pose a real threat to this new state of affairs. They explicitly provide for the bishop to make public decisions as to whether individuals are teaching Catholic theology. This endangers the ability of those who cannot secure the bishop’s mandate to maintain their positions as Catholic theologians in the university. Such determinations by the bishop, enforced in some way by the university, would cut the ground from under those who portray themselves as teaching Catholic theology while frequently attacking the teaching of the Church. The common sense of most people – even in the face of a biased media — takes such actions seriously. The support of many theologians for Hans Kung and sympathetic media portrayals of him as a “victim” have not been able to undo the destruction of his credibility by the declaration of the Church that he is not a Catholic theologian.

Thus, the Church insists on its own right to define Catholicism. It refuses to concede either to self-styled Catholic theologians or to the media an equal right to do so. Again, the bishops have a most serious obligation to protect the ordinary faithful, including multitudes of Catholic students at Catholic universities — who have a right to learn authentic Catholic doctrine and to know when they are being taught by someone who does not teach Catholic doctrine. The analogy of “fair labeling” has often been used. How can the Church permit theologians at Catholic universities to teach as Catholic opinions which are contrary to her teaching? The very minimum obligation of the Church (an obligation as well for the universities) would be to clearly label non-Catholic or anti-Catholic positions as such. Since the bishops (with the Pope) have the special  responsibility to teach Catholic doctrine and protect Catholics from error, they must have the authority to prevent in their dioceses the presentation of non-Catholic teaching as Catholic. This is a power that would have to be exercised only rarely if Catholic universities act on their own duty to maintain “fair labeling.” In fact, the need for such a power is manifest from the widespread failure of American Catholic universities to do so in the past, and in their vigorous efforts to protect their own autonomy from any “interference” by the Church.

In effect the Church is saying that accreditation as a Catholic university depends on more than a declaration of secular accrediting associations. The “Catholicity” of its theologians requires accrediting by those who have the authority to say what is, or is not. Catholic: the Pope and the bishops.

Opponents argue that the canons improperly restrict the “autonomy” of Catholic universities, that it reveals a  paternalistic distrust of Catholic educators and discredits Catholic universities in the eyes of mainstream academics, and that it is subject to intolerable abuses.

A Catholic university can never ben fully autonomous. It is not in all matters a law unto itself. The governing power in the Church cannot he made to slop at the  boundaries to the university. While the bishops cannot tell universities who can teach biology, mathematics, or anything else, they can and must teach Catholic theology. Bishops should not intervene in the vast multitude of educational policy decisions, but they should intervene in the single arena of their own authority. As long as Catholicism has a principle of a living teaching authority (and without it, it would cease to be “Catholicism” in any meaningful sense), that living teaching authority must rule even the most brilliant Catholic educator or theologian.

The canons do not imply a “paternalistic” distrust of Catholic educators, however irresponsible American Catholic universities have been in permitting widespread abuses in the teaching of Catholic theology. For those who go to Mass on Sunday because they want to — apart from any Church law — it is no insult that there is such a law for their brethren, who might need the stimulus of law to take advantage of that incomparable opportunity. Why should Catholic educators who fulfill their responsibilities be upset by laws which are necessary only for others who have failed to fulfill them? The power of bishops to prevent people from calling themselves Catholic theologians while steadfastly attacking many Church teachings is not paternalism. Theologians and Catholic educators are mistaken if they feel they have as much right as a bishop to define Catholic teaching.

Do the canons undermine academic freedom? Academic freedom does not include the power of false labeling. Anyone who taught mathematics and called it biology would not get very far by invoking academic freedom. Nor would a candidate for a physics job who knew Newton well but had never heard of Einstein.

The difference, of course, is thai physicists usually get to define physics, and so theologians want the right to define theology. But the question is “Who gets to define Catholic theology?” If Catholic theologians get to define Catholic theology, how do we know who the Catholic theologians are? The Catholic answer to the question Pope and bishops have the right and duty to answer that question. It may be true that a university which insisted on the logical consequences ot its Catholic character would suffer diminished prestige and influence among its secular brethren. Catholic views are often unpopular ones, especially in a culture whose intellectuals have been formed by philosophical systems incompatible with or explicitly hostile to Catholicism. American Catholic intellectuals sometimes face a tug-of-war between their Americanism and their Catholicism, because the cultural values of the one sometimes conflict with the doctrine of the other. This is difficult for them because maintaining their religious ideals could not only cost them prestige — which intellectuals especially value — but also because of their natural desire to have influence on the intellectual world.

But the lure ot the “mainstream” is a temptation when the price is to undermine the special character ot a Catholic university. Academic freedom cannot be a cover for secularizing the theology taught in a Catholic University.

If the University were a purely private place, perhaps the maintenance of the priority of the Church’s teaching could be handled internally. But any University is profoundly “public.” Its theologians derive prestige and influence in their societies from their positions they are conceded authority as “experts.” Multitudes ot students pass through their courses and are intellectually formed there. Those in the Church who have the duty to ensure that its doctrine is proclaimed clearly, without distortion, cannot simply concede unfettered juridical power to individuals who — whatever their personal merits — lack the ultimate source of competence in such matters: the authority of Christ which they derive from their office.

Of course the power of the bishops in this regard is subject to abuse. Power without the possibility of abuse is not power, and individual acts by individual bishops are not infallibly protected from error. No one finds it impossible to conceive of, say, an intellectually unsophisticated bishop refusing a mandate to an intelligent and orthodox theologian whose thought or language may be simply unfamiliar to him. Yet, a simple look at the contemporary episcopal landscape does not reveal fire-breathing bishops set to hurl anathemas — if anything, bishops today have tended to err on the side of laity. Second, it there are some errors, this is an inevitable concomitant of the exercise of any just power. Better to suggest procedures for minimizing abuses than to deny the need for the power altogether. Third, the danger of abuse is not to be measured in the abstract, but against the concrete alternatives: especially the abuses of our contemporary situation, the contusion and scandal occasioned by the heterodoxy and agitation ot some theologians. It is the widespread abuses we have experienced so strikingly that call out for a remedy. On the whole, we should worry less about the abuses of power and more about the possible non-use.

But perhaps what underlies the whole uproar is not simply the possibility that the proposed canons may occasion abuses. Rather it is the principle of authority itself. American Catholic educators want to be free. They bridle at being subjected to someone who is not one ot their own, and so they join ranks to protect their absolutized autonomy. Within their domains they protect the “academic freedom” of those who would use it to attack the teaching of the Church. Religiously neutral civil laws tolerate this, of course, but why should the law of the Church? It seems only common sense — even from a secular viewpoint — that the Church authorities take steps to prevent the harms which arise from universities over-stepping the limits of their autonomy. For whatever the expertise of Catholic educators in all other matters, it will never give them definitive power to say who is or is not a Catholic theologian. That competence belongs not to administrators or theologians or journalists, but only to the successors of Peter and the apostles.

From Vol. 1, No. 1 of the original “Catholicism in Crisis”, published November 1982.


  • Christopher Wolfe

    From 1989 to 2021, Dr. Wolfe was President of the American Public Philosophy Institute, an interdisciplinary group of scholars from various universities, supported by local business and professional leaders, that promotes a natural law public philosophy rooted in the principles of the American Founding. The APPI is now the Dallas Forum for Law, Politics, and Culture, and Dr. Wolfe is President Emeritus. He also is one of Crisis Magazine's original writers.

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