Catholic Oaths and Academic Freedom

by Michael B. Lukens

Michael B. Lukens is associate professor of religious studies at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 1, 1989, p. 982. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The Vatican’s new restrictions on theological teaching at Catholic colleges and universities — including the reinstatement of loyalty oaths — will isolate Catholics and work to the detriment of the church.

The tension has been exacerbated by the recent Vatican decision to reinstate fidelity oaths and to tighten bishops’ regulation of theological teaching at Catholic colleges and universities.

This past February the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, led by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, raised the stakes for Catholic theological faculties and, indirectly, for all theological studies by announcing that both new church officials and theologians and philosophers already on Catholic faculties had to subscribe to a revised oath of fidelity and a profession of faith. This issue reaches beyond Catholicism, however. For Protestants, the Catholic squabble represents an ecumenical challenge. For the academic world, it reawakens deep concerns over a fragile arrangement between faculty and administrations with its fatiguing but constant need to review conditions of academic governance and authority.

Behind the current conflict between episcopal authority and proponents of open theological inquiry is the legacy of the Catholic "modernist" controversy of the early 20th century. In 1907 Pope Pius X, conservative successor to Leo III, issued two documents. The first, the encyclical Pascendi gregis, condemned all reconception of dogma and doctrinal development and the rise of critical methods of inquiry. The second was a catalog of errors, Lamentabili sane exitu, condemning 65 alleged modernist mistakes about Scripture and Catholic doctrine. The effect of Pius’s action was to shut down critical Catholic scriptural and historical studies.

In 1910, an antimodernist oath, the Motu proprio sacrarum antistitum, was developed for ordinands. This became a provision in the Code of Canon Law from 1910 until its revision in 1967. In the present code, canon 833 continues to require a professio fidei but omits the explicitly antimodernist disclaimers. This revision was necessary because of the great changes in Catholic theological and scriptural studies since World War II. which were so evident at Vatican II.

A profession of faith, then, is not new for those who speak in the name of the church -- cardinals, bishops, diocesan officials and rectors of universities and seminaries. In the revised law of 1983, the provisions of canon 833 extend also to theologians and others who teach in faith and ethics "in any universities whatsoever. The profession of faith has in recent decades focused largely on subscription to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 and has not been viewed as a divisive issue by either administrators or faculty in Catholic universities. After the revisions of 1967, when the antimodernist stipulations were removed, the profession simply went beyond the creed to declare:

I firmly embrace and retain each and every thing which has been proposed by the church regarding the teaching of faith and morals, whether defined by solemn judgment or asserted and declared by the ordinary magisterium, especially those things which concern the mystery of the holy church of Christ and its sacraments and the sacrifice of the Mass and the primacy of the Roman pontiff.

That single supplementary sentence has now been replaced by three sentences which move dramatically beyond the standard creedal expectations. If enforced, the three sentences will create substantial difficulty for theologians teaching in American Catholic universities.

The first additional sentence reasserts definitive magisterial authority:

With firm faith I believe as well everything (ea omnia) contained in God’s word. written or handed down in tradition and proposed by the church -- whether in solemn judgment or in the ordinary and universal magisterium as divinely revealed and calling for faith tamquam divinitus revelata credenda).

Much will depend here, obviously, on how extensively one understands the proposals of the "ordinary and universal magisterium." The second sentence in part qualifies the first by specifying doctrinal areas of required assent rather than the authority of the church’s teaching office:

I also firmly accept and hold each and every thing (omnia et singula) that is proposed by that same church definitively (definitive) with regard to teaching concerning faith and morals.

Here, too, much will depend on the canonical definition of the specific agencies in which the church speaks "definitively." But a deeper issue looms here. What does it mean to speak of something which is definitively "proposed"? Is this a broader category than something definitively stated and, if so, is one’s acceptance of something proposed the same as one’s assent to a formal declaration of doctrine?

The third sentence is the most problematic:

What is more, I adhere (adhaereo) with religious submission of will and intellect (religioso voluntatis et intellectus obsequio) to the teachings which either the Roman pontiff or the college of bishops enunciate when they exercise the authentic magisterium even if they proclaim those teachings in an act that is not definitive.

This sentence extends theological assent to include even positions in faith and ethics that are acknowledged as less than final. This addition sharply curtails the range of dissent from the official positions of the Vatican, because it blurs the distinction between fallible and infallible.

Yet even here much depends on the interpretation of key Latin words. Some have suggested that this whole issue rests on how terms like obsequium are translated. Charles Curran, for instance, has long contended that this term is central in discussions with the Vatican and that Ratzinger is pressing an interpretation of the term that is at odds with the spirit of Vatican II. One could interpret obsequium, as "deference" or "loyalty" and still hold a dissenting position. But in its strict sense of "submission," the term would make any dissent impermissible. How such terms will be understood clearly depends on the bishops themselves.

The National Conference of Catholic Bishops has not responded officially to this new Vatican initiative. It may be too early to assess any informal response of American bishops. in part because many are waiting to hear from the Congregation for Higher Education which met in Rome in April. and which is itself in the midst of revising a controversial set of guidelines regarding the relationship of the Vatican to all Catholic universities. But initial reactions and the largely conservative nature of American bishops portend a significant clash. This conflict may be offset by the critique of Catholic canonists, however. One of them, James Coriden of the Washington Theological Union, has recently raised an oblique but nonetheless significant challenge as to whether the Vatican decrees were themselves legitimately authorized.

Several Catholic bishops have already indicated strong interest in an authoritative resolution of the kind of conflicts reflected in the Curran case. One who is in a strategic position to work toward that resolution is Adam Maida, bishop of Green Bay. Maida, who has degrees in both canon and civil law and is presently a peritus for the Vatican Congregation for Higher Education, has in the past responded favorably to the kind of revisions which the Vatican has now made. He has been quoted as saying that "to be a Catholic college or university, one must reflect the teaching mission of the church and be consistent with those who are the teachers, the magisterium -- the holy father, the bishops -- who reflect the traditions of the Church." His may be the dominant view among the American Catholic hierarchy. In this view a theologian cannot take a position in faith or ethics that is contrary to the magisterial teaching "any more than you could espouse as fact in a secular university that one and one are three." Maida’s position and Curran’s treatment at Catholic University of America (Maida is also a CUA trustee) shows clearly that there are substantial limitations on intellectual and academic freedom in matters of faith and ethics. In fact, Catholic academic freedom is seriously at odds with normative academic freedom.

The second difficulty would arise within Catholic faculties of theology and religious studies, and in other departments wherever courses in faith and ethics are studied. At least three tiers would exist as a consequence of the oath and profession. Those who subscribed to 833 would be one group, officially the "Catholic theologians." A second group would be those who have not subscribed and have no license; they could teach only in those other areas where "faith and ethics" are not involved or not substantively so. This could be like asking someone to teach biology without mentioning biochemistry. A third group would be non-Catholics who by definition could not take the oath and would not be expected to adhere to Catholic teaching. Not being "Catholic theologians," they could teach with episcopal approval in several areas of theology and religious studies such as world religions and comparative and critical studies.

These distinctions and divisions create a minefield. They would bring about a curricular nightmare and would undermine disciplinary as well as professional unity. Such a three-tiered system would work only with great difficulty. In reaction, departments would probably adhere to the safety of the first tier, sliding back into an old-line "theology department" heavily involved in catechetics. In that case, the other faculty would probably move to departments of history, philosophy, sociology and area studies.

Much more significant for theologians than these practical difficulties, however, are issues of principle. It is not clear whether such an oath would be compatible with the policy on academic freedom of the American Association of University Professors and its provisions for academic tenure. The requirement would not apply to faculty appointments made before the effective date of March 1, 1989, assuming church law is not retroactive. But schools seeking to apply both the current civil standards of academic freedom and this canon to new faculty would invite litigation.

Beyond legal questions of academic tenure, however, are three problems which may be much more serious. First, the revised canon fails to understand that the church college or university must stand in both the Christian tradition and the intellectual and scientific world. No one would grant credence to a church-related institution which chose contemporaneity over fidelity to its own tradition. At the same time, a church college or university is worthless as an institution of inquiry and intellectual integrity if it seeks fidelity at the cost of contemporary scholarship. Its challenge, but also its deepest mission, is to live faithfully and to probe honestly. Catholic higher education will cease to be genuinely higher studies if it does not engage the challenges; it would become merely an extension of a parochial enterprise, confirming what some catechists have long sought and what many suspicious secularists have long believed.

The revised canon fails to understand the true nature of the Catholic college or university because it assumes an enduring conflict between faith and truth or, at least, assumes that faith seeking understanding will always operate in obedience to the institutional understanding of faith. To assent to the magisterial formulations not only now but in the future is not to give assent but to surrender -- to surrender the intellectual freedom that lies at the core of the church’s educational mission. Unconditional assent is directly opposed to scholarly integrity. Hence, such a profession of faith goes against the very purpose of Catholic higher education.

The revised canon condemns the Catholic theology and religious studies department to a second rank and will inevitably diminish faculty recruiting. With the enforcement of the oath and profession, a clear distinction will emerge between the freedom and pluralism of the non-Catholic schools and Catholic faculties. Further, the restrictions which officially apply only to theologians and certain philosophers will affect the recruitment of faculty in other disciplines, especially in small colleges. Faculty in the social and natural sciences will hesitate to apply to a small college where such a policy of oaths exists, even if only in another department.

In the preliminary discussions which have been held by academicians in Catholic institutions since the decree was announced, there has been a consensus that the oath and profession could severely damage the intellectual reputation of Catholic colleges and universities, returning them to their isolated position of the 19th century. This possibility guarantees resistance to the policy.

The revised canon also ignores the interdisciplinary and ecumenical nature of contemporary religious studies and theology. The Vatican seems oblivious of one of the most obvious and impressive facts about contemporary theology-that one cannot draw the traditional lines between Catholic theological efforts and those that spring from other parts of the Christian tradition or even from non-Christian sources. This has long been recognized in scriptural studies, but it is also commonplace in systematic theology and theological and social ethics. Just as Protestants study today with great profit the works of Rahner, Tracy, Ruether, McCormick and Ratzinger, so Catholics study the works of Pannenberg, Gustafson, Wainwright, Yoder and Pelikan. Indeed, theologians don’t think primarily in terms of confessional theology, particularly when confronting contemporary science, philosophy, secularity or social crisis.

The oath and revised profession of faith attempt to go back to an earlier confessional period in theological studies. This may create the illusion of a more orthodox Catholic faculty, but it will also isolate Catholicism from the current stream of theological studies, to its loss and to the loss of the wider church as well.