Catholic educators uncertain of new rules

University of Notre Dame professor Lawrence Cunningham doesn't feel he needs approval from his local bishop to teach his theology classes.

''If (the bishop) wants to know whether I affirm the faith of the Catholic Church, I go to Mass every Sunday,'' Cunningham said.

Still, the Roman Catholic church hierarchy might not give him a choice.

Bishops nationwide overwhelmingly approved new rules aimed at controlling theologians and what they teach at the 235 church-related colleges in the country.

The vote caps a nine-year debate on ''Ex Corde Ecclesiae,'' a document issued by the pope in 1990 that includes a call for theology professors to receive a ''mandate'' from local bishops to teach.

While opponents see the new rules as a threat to academic freedom, supporters argue it only reaffirms adherence to church doctrine by Catholic colleges.

The Rev. James Conn, a dean and canon law professor at St. Mary's Seminary and University in Baltimore, said the changes simply establish clear guidelines outlining the relationship between the church and the universities.

''I'm a canon lawyer and so I like to see rules and procedures clear,'' Conn said. ''I think that this has just been unfinished business that's lasted nine years.''

Other Catholic educators and professors reacted cautiously.

The problem for many is that no one knows for sure how the changes especially the mandate will be implemented. More than 75 amendments were offered to the implementation plan, which won't go into effect until at least a year after expected approval by the Vatican.

Also, bishops still must write procedures for granting and removing their approval of theology professors, which hasn't calmed any fears of the changes.

''How are they going to implement it? What strategies are they going to use? To what degree is it going to be coercive?'' Cunningham said. ''I can just think of a million questions.''

Undoubtedly, among the biggest concerns to educators is what affect the rules will have on academic freedom.

The Rev. Edward A. Malloy, Notre Dame's president, led a very public fight against the changes on those grounds. On Wednesday, he issued a generic statement, neither criticizing nor supporting the vote. It said the university would work with the local bishop to implement the changes and that Notre Dame ''continues to cherish our Catholic identity and mission.''

Other school presidents, such as the Rev. Robert Wild of Marquette University, continued to question the wisdom of the mandate.

''This is the area about which I have the most concern, frankly, because it is still not at all clear how this is intended to be implemented, and because it goes to the heart of academic freedom and what it means to be a university,'' Wild said.

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