Loyalty Oaths
By A.D. Freudenheim

25 June 2001

I recently saw an intriguing series of news reports about a rule then under consideration (and subsequently approved) by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB). Encapsulated in a document entitled "Guidelines Concerning the Academic Mandatum in Catholic Universities," the new rule would function as a loyalty oath for any professor of Catholic theology teaching at a Catholic college or university: each professor must sign a "mandatum" issued by their local diocese, certifying that they have agreed to teach only "within the full communion of the Catholic Church," i.e. what the Church explicitly states as doctrine.[1] The oath focuses on "the content of the professor's teaching, and thus the mandatum recognizes both the professor's 'lawful freedom of inquiry' and the professor's commitment and responsibility to teach authentic Catholic doctrine and to refrain from putting forth as Catholic teaching anything contrary to the Church's magisterium."[2]

If universities, and a university education - even a religious one - are supposed to be about intellectual freedom, then the effort to require a mandatum is not particularly comforting. Indeed, much of the discussion about the implementation of the mandatum seems to have concerned the question of exactly what kind of discretion professors would have, and likewise, what kind of restrictions the bishops would themselves be under. How far will intellectual integrity be compromised? The answer appears to be that no one really knows - and even those involved acknowledge that the rules "will be applied unevenly according to the personality" or the supervising bishop.[3]

Not everyone agrees, or at least, believes that the bishopric's bias will likely favor the Church. In his article "The Academic Mandatum: Another Step Toward Implementation," canon law expert James J. Conn argues that in the event of a dispute, resolution should be sought via the Church's law, which is "…applied according to the principles of natural equity, which assure persons the right to know the charges against them, to know their accusers and to mount a defense."[4] Historically, though, whether the subject is as old as the Inquisition of the 13th century or as recent as the Church's disputed collaboration with or resistance to the Nazis attempts to exterminate Jews, relying on the Church and its officials to impose canon law fairly has been - at best - a questionable proposition.

As a religious body united under the leadership of the Pope, and encompassing his authorized agents around the world, the Catholic Church is an organization that implicitly requires an oath of loyalty from its members, in the form of baptismal and confirmation ceremonies, followed by a presumed life-time of devotion to its rituals and observances, according to each member's own conscience. Within the framework of an organized religion, then, most of the above topics are logically open to the organization's own interpretations and standards, regardless of what they may be. A sworn oath required in addition may be unnecessary by most standards - and troublesome in its uneven application, singling out one group of people, perhaps unfairly - but within the confines of a private group, it is no more shocking than the oath required of Boy Scouts. Furthermore, it is precisely in relation to this point that the mandatum strategy get more explicit - and more problematic. According to the official Guidelines, "'Catholic theological disciplines' in this context signifies Sacred Scripture, dogmatic theology, moral theology, pastoral theology, canon law, liturgy, and church history."[5] Arguably, most of that makes sense.

Of all the religious subjects included in the definition of "Catholic theological disciplines" listed above, the last item in that list, church history, is the most problematic - and what a problem. Including church history as one of the disciplines requiring a mandatum from the professor begs the specific religious questions associated with belief in a god or the rules constructed around that belief by a particular religion. Making church history a subject whose teachings should come under the direct control of the body of the Church suggests that the teaching of history itself can be controlled according to Catholicism's official position at any given moment - that, in effect, the history of the Church does not proceed outside of its own defined, historical framework. While practically speaking the Church probably can control its own narration, it follows that most of the history recorded there is likely to be only that which the Church itself wishes to acknowledge to the outside world at any given moment in time - and is thus tainted.

Attempts at controlling its intellectual development have not always been so successful in the past; just look at the history of one of the most important monastic orders within the Catholic Church: the Society of Jesus, otherwise known as the Jesuits. In 1773, Pope Clement XIV closed down the Jesuits under pressure from European monarchic powers who were opposed to some of the Jesuits' teachings and practices. Officially, the order ceased to exist and it was not officially restored until 1814.[6] Despite its tremendous missionary presence throughout the world, and its all-important intellectual role in sustaining Catholicism in Europe in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation, the Jesuits were formally abolished for a period of 41 years.

Today, the Jesuits are once again responsible for a significant portion of the scholarship, theology and intellectual development within the Church; they run schools, missions, and libraries around the world, including Georgetown and Fordham Universities here in the United States. Does the official history of the Catholic Church as stated by Rome acknowledge the gap in the Jesuits' existence? Might it decide in the future that it is more politically appealing to gloss over this fact, or will it decide to spin it as an example of the undue influence of politics over religion? Surely every Catholic bishop would acknowledge that without the intellectual freedom and integrity of the Jesuits, the Church would be a philosophically poorer place today.

The Catholic Church has always been critical of what it considers "revisionist" histories of subjects near to its heart: from the life of Jesus, through the beginnings of the Church, the split between the eastern and western church bodies, the evolution of papal infallibility, and so on. Yet it seems an obvious point to acknowledge that, despite whatever its "official" position on any given issue may have been at any given time, the body of the Church - made up of its members and devotees throughout the world - sustained a strong intellectual dynamic within the confines of the conscience of each individual Catholic. It was free-thinking, of a sort, an ambiguous policy of intellectual freedom and tolerance that left some things unstated. In choosing to create and enforce an explicit loyalty oath requiring adherence to official policy at all times, without a true acknowledgement of the validity of individual perspective or interpretation - with the removal of conscience, in other words - the Catholic Church has taken a decisive step backwards, in an effort to consolidate papal control and enforce the importance of blind faith over the flexibility of free and inspired thought.

[1] Section 1a, "Guidelines Concerning the Academic Mandatum
in Catholic Universities (Canon 812)," issued by the National
Conference of Catholic Bishops, 15 June 2001. Available on the web at:
http://www.nccbuscc.org/bishops/mandatumguidelines.htm, as part
of the June 2001 Bishops' Statements.
[2] Ibid, Section1b
[3] Quote by Father Dennis Dease, president of the University of
St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN, from "Implementing license to teach worries
theologians.", by Patricia Lefevre, National Catholic Reporter,
16 February 2001. Available on the web via http://www.findarticles.com
[4] "The Academic Mandatum: Another Step Toward Implementation," by
James J. Conn, S.J., America, 5 February 2001. Available on the web via
[5] Guidelines, Section 2d
[6] The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, published in 2000 by the
Columbia University Press, New York.
Copyright 2001, by A.D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! Contact A. D. Freudenheim for further information.
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