U.S. Catholic Bishops Discuss Abortion and Academic Freedom

November 18, 2000

Source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch

On November 18, 2000, the St. Louis Dispatch reported that "Roman Catholic bishops who gathered in Washington this week issued some of their most dramatic rhetoric yet on abortion and struggled with a request from the pope to take more responsibility for what is taught in the theology departments of Catholic universities...Each morning, the bishops confronted stacks of heavily footnoted studies, resolutions and background material, prepared by various committees with the assistance of the professional staff of the United States Catholic Conference and other scholars. On social issues, there are few religious bodies as liberal as the National Conference of Catholic bishops. However, observers often label them as conservative because they condemn abortion. The bishops counter that since they believe that the fetus is human, opposition to abortion is a key human rights issue...For the first time, as a group, the bishops labeled so-called 'partial birth abortion' as 'virtual infanticide.' The bishops used the phrase in a statement 'condemning' a recent Supreme Court ruling that upheld a Nebraska law allowing the procedure. The bishops consider the procedure different from an abortion because it is performed when most of the body is outside the womb. On theological issues, most Catholic bishops are traditional and they proved it again this week. The Vatican has become more conservative in recent years, saying many of the ways Americans experimented with ideas presented during the Second Vatican Council were unorthodox. The Vatican has pushed the American bishops to stiffen up in those areas...For 10 years, the Vatican has been trying to get Catholic bishops to follow the thousand-year-old European tradition that requires Catholic theologians to ask their bishop for a mandatum, a certificate or permission slip to teach theology, Scripture or church history....Many U.S. Catholic bishops have resisted the Vatican insistence on giving bishops authority over college faculties. Some bishops have told the pope to his face that such a practice would break with the tradition of academic freedom in this country. And as the bishops defended the hard-won reputations of U.S. Catholic colleges, some professors became more and more fearful. Finally, the Vatican called on a group of cardinals - bishops who have been chosen as the pope's closest advisers - to plead with the American bishops to figure out formula to issue mandatums...On Wednesday, Daniel Finn, a social ethics theology professor at St. John's College in Collegeville, Minn., opened a remarkable 80-minute session on the mandatum issue...'Some voices in academe could threaten basic values of religious belief,' Finn said. 'Some voices in the church could threaten basic values of academic discourse.'...He criticized the bishops for failing to consult theologians earlier in the process. He said theologians weren't included in any discussions with the bishops' organizations until the last two weeks, even though the bishops have been discussing the mandatum issue with college presidents for three years...Many bishops think the pieces of paper, the mandatum, are mostly Vatican courtesies...'We need to be careful,' said Bishop John Leibrecht, bishop of Springfield-Cape Girardeau diocese in Missouri. 'We might harm (professors') reputations, especially their livelihood, when (reports of error) do not have merit.'..The bishops did not expect to vote on the draft this week and they didn't. Many warned their brother bishops to take their time. The bishops agreed to first meet and listen to theology professors in their dioceses before reporting for a special all-day session in midwinter at which they will frame a second draft. They may be ready to vote on that by next June. But many said to move slowly...In the end, all agreed that universities are autonomous and that bishops cannot force a university to fire a professor, even those who do not have tenure."