On The Collaboration Between Bishops And Theologians


On the Collaboration between Bishopsand Theologians


© 2002 Cardinal Newman Society
Published by Newman House Press. All rights reserved.
ISBN 0-9704022-3-6
Published in: Newman’s Idea of a University: The American Response
Newman House Press

The title assigned to my talk is an easy and peaceable one, but the subtitle I was given is a killer. It is the following question: Does the essential collaboration between bishops and theologians compromise the integrity of the university?

I shall proceed in three stages. First, I shall ask whether we have a real question here. Second, if we do, I shall present the affirmative answer (yes, the university’s integrity is compromised). Then, I shall consider some negative answers which I think are inadequate. Finally, I shall sketch what I think is the right negative answer (saying why the university’s integrity is not compromised).


Is there such a thing as “essential collaboration” between a theologian and his bishop? The most recent of the authoritative places to look for an answer is a document released by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on May 24, 1990, entitled Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian. Let us begin with paragraph 6, under the subhead “The Vocation of a Theologian”:

Among the vocations awakened … by the Spirit in the Church is that of the theologian. His role is to pursue in a particular way an ever deeper understanding of the Word of God found in the inspired Scriptures and handed on by the living tradition of the Church. He does this in communion with the Magisterium, which has been charged with the responsibility of preserving the Deposit of Faith.[1]

Let us skip now to paragraph 21, under the subhead “Collaborative Relations”:

The living Magisterium of the Church and theology, while having different gifts and unctions, ultimately have the same goal: preserving the people of God in the truth. … This service to the ecclesial community brings the theologians and the Magisterium into a reciprocal relationship. The latter authentically teaches the doctrine of the Apostles. And, benefitting from the work of theologians, it refutes objections to and distortions of the Faith and promotes with the authority received from Jesus new and deeper comprehension, clarification, and application of revealed doctrine. Theology, for its part, gains, by way of reflection, an ever deeper understanding of the Word of God … under the guidance of the Magisterium. Theology strives to clarify the teaching of Revelation with regard to reason and gives it finally an organic and systematic form.

Note that, so far, theology is about revealed data and achieves its good results under guidance from the episcopate. Now, here is paragraph 22:

Collaboration between the theologian and the Magisterium occurs in a special way when the theologian receives the canonical mission or mandate to teach. … The theologian’s code of conduct… is here reinforced by the commitment the theologian assumes in accepting his office, making the profession of faith and taking the oath of fidelity. [2] From this moment on, the theologian is officially charged with the task of presenting and illustrating the doctrine of the faith in its integrity and with full accuracy.

The Instruction goes on to enumerate the kinds or levels of assent which theologians are required to give to the several levels of magisterial teaching. So, according to the Holy See, there is indeed such a thing as “essential collaboration between a theologian and the episcopate. In a sentence I omitted, the 1990 Instruction even describes this collaboration as “in a certain sense” amounting to “a participation in the work of the Magisterium.” The Church’s current insistence (from Ex Corde Ecclesiæ) that professors of theology at Catholic colleges and universities apply for a “mandate” is an attempt to recapture and reinforce this sense of “participation.”

Before I leave this subject, I want to read you a very helpful statement that Cardinal Francis George of Chicago made in a speech to the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities on February 2, 1999:

… I had the idea that granting a mandate meant giving a license to hold a position in the university and would embroil a local bishop in judging the total output of a theologian s work. Practically, for the bishop, and legally, for the university, giving such mandates would create enormous difficulties. That idea of mandate seems to be behind many of the criticisms and fears we now hear – but it is not the understanding of mandates in the current proposal.[3] [He means the proposed “Application” of Ex Corde Ecclesiæ to the United States – then proposed, now approved.[4]]

The proposal defines a mandate as a statement of relationship not of direct control. It is a juridic recognition that a theologian teaches in communion with the Church that the theologian is related to the pastor of the faith community,who recognizes the importance of his or her work for the community of faith, and that the discipline of theology receives its data from that same community.[5]

I think this is a very helpful clarification of what the Vatican Instruction was driving at. A theologian’s “essential collaboration” with the bishops is not a matter of being their employee or their licencee, to whom they have “contracted out” a part of their work. Rather, it is a matter of two things: (1) it is a matter of ecclesial communion — the theologian is in communion with the Church through the diocese over which his bishop presides — and (2) it is a matter of theology’s nature as a discipline — to do theology is to receive data from the Church. And “data” here does not mean raw subject matter to be studied, as animal behavior is data for ethology, or as the behavior of Catholic teenagers is data for sociology; no, “data” here means obligatory starting points (in what God has said) and even obligatory conclusions about the meaning of what He has said.

Well, this last, of course, is the neuralgic point. It means that we do have a real question here. If theologians “collaborate essentially” with bishops because theology itself, as a discipline, takes data of this kind from the bishops — from an authority that is outside the academic world and is accepted on faith —must it not be the case that their collaboration compromises the integrity of the university?

Before we say, “Pish-tush; of course not; the Church begat the universities,” we had better be aware that the answer is, “Of course, yes; the universities have outgrown the Church and matured into their own distinctive ethos,” according to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).


In its founding Declaration of Principles in 1915, the AAUP said that in all disciplines “the first condition of progress is complete and unlimited freedom to pursue inquiry and publish its results.” Such freedom is “the breath in the nostrils of all scientific activity.”[6] The 1915 Declaration acknowledged the right of the board of trustees at a denominational college to govern the institution according to its religious tradition, but the Declaration voiced “serious reservations” about the academic integrity of such institutions. They do not, at least as regards one particular subject, accept the principles of freedom of inquiry, of opinion, and of teaching, and their purpose is not to advance knowledge by the unrestricted research and unfettered discussion of impartial investigations but rather to subsidize the promotion of the opinions held by persons usually not of a scholar’s calling, who provide the funds for their maintenance. Concerning the desirability of the existence of such institutions, the committee does not desire to express any opinion. But it is manifestly important that they should not be permitted to sail under false colors. Genuine boldness and thoroughness of inquiry and freedom of speech are scarcely reconcilable with the prescribed inculcating of a particular opinion upon a controverted question.[7]

Thus Catholic institutions were held to be obligated to make it clear that they did not practice “academic freedom to the full extent desirable. In 1940, the AAUP promulgated its famous “limitations clause” having to do with faculty contracts. It said that “limitations in academic freedom because of religious and other aims of the institution should be clearly stated in writing at the time of appointment.” To be sure, thirty years later, in 1970, the AAUP said that “most such colleges no longer need to state such a limitation clause.” But this was not because the AAUP had acquired a kinder view of theology or a broader view of what academic freedom might permit. It was rather because the major Catholic colleges had signed in the meantime the Land o’Lakes Statement (1967), in which they declared themselves off-limits to any kind of authority.

Here is the key passage in the Land o’Lakes Statement:

“The Catholic university today must be a university in the full modern sense of the word … to perform its teaching and research functions effectively, the Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself.”[8]

So the AAUP thought that the Catholic colleges were coming around to its position, and its position remained unchanged. In 1982, the AAUP put the matter this way: “A college or university is a market-place of ideas, and it cannot fulfill its purpose of transmitting, evaluating, and extending knowledge if it requires conformity with any orthodoxy of content and method.”[9]

Lest the meaning be unclear in any way, a subcommittee of the AAUP, empaneled to review the organization’s position on religious colleges, issued a report in 1988. Institutions that require doctrinal fidelity, it said, lack “the moral right to proclaim themselves as seats of higher learning.” It was, moreover, “wrong,” the subcommittee said, “for an otherwise free university” to include a department of theology “that requires creedal orthodoxy as a consequence of its singular religious mission.” Such a department may be “in the university but, being unfree, is not of the university, and it has no business being there.”[10] Thank heaven, the subcommittee report was never actually adopted. But it does show the position of a strong group within the American professoriate.


How shall we reply to this position? If the AAUP is right, then what the Holy See calls “collaboration” makes the theologian unfit to function in a genuinely academic setting. So how shall we answer? I shall sketch two inadequate answers and then sketch (very inadequately) what I think is the right one.

(a) First inadequate answer

We could say that “academic freedom” is just the free- speech right as held by an academic. Then we could observe (with Ronald Dworkin, of all people) that free speech is not a right to speak one’s mind in a position maintained and supported by others.[11] Ergo, a dissenting theologian does not have a right to speak his dissenting mmd in a position maintained and supported by the Catholic people or their pastors. Ergo, the Catholic college violates no right by terminating or not renewing the contract of such a dissenter.

This answer makes a valid point, but it misses the relevant point. The AAUP does not contest the legal vulnerability of theologians (dissenting or otherwise) to non-renewal. It contests the nature of their discipline. It contests the appropriateness of their ever having held genuine faculty positions in the first place.

(b) Second inadequate answer

We could say that the AAUP is committing an error of mistaken identity. Its strictures do apply to “theology” as a ministry within the Catholic Church, but they do not apply to “theology” as a university-based discipline. How this latter differs (or is alleged to differ) from “theology” as the Church understands and promotes it has been summarized with unusual clarity, I think, in an address three years ago by Bishop Edward Braxton, Auxiliary of St. Louis (and himself a theologian of some renown before being elevated to the episcopal order). The address was given at Marquette in March of 1998 to the Black Catholic Theological Symposium. Let me quote Bishop Braxton:

University-based theology attempts to provide a refined and sophisticated account of the meaning of the Christian tradition in such a way that reasonable people employing the rigorous methodologies of the academy will be able to accept its judgments and conclusions, whether or not they are explicitly religious. The focus is placed on the unbiased analysis of the accumulated evidence, the internal consistency of arguments and the fidelity to established investigative procedures accepted by the academy. Theology in this context is especially concerned to maintain free, open, critical and collaborative inquiry in the manner associated with empirical science, constrained by no authority higher than the best available techniques of university scholarship.

Because of this, “university-based theology” is particularly concerned to show that the truth claims of religion can be vindicated or rejected when measured by commonly accepted methods of academic inquiry. This process is carried on by employing the special resources of philosophy, sociology, psychology, anthropology and other university disciplines. Philosophy, particularly contemporary philosophy, remains the most important partner of university theology, especially when it is seeking to give a clear analysis of the “truth claims” that religion proposes as answers to life’s fundamental questions.[12]

The Bishop notes in passing that some forms of contemporary philosophy (e.g., de-constructionism) yield problematic results in this partnership role. Then he continues:

… Therefore, even if theologians are, as a matter of fact, devout believers in the Catholic Faith … , they strive to make their arguments on strictly scholarly grounds …, without calling on Church Tradition or lived faith as the final recourse. Convictions, personal faith and beliefs, no matter how sincerely held, cannot serve as public grounds for defending affirmations about religion. The highest authority rests in the publicly available tools and methods of critical and disciplined intelligence.

A significant presupposition of this approach to theology is that there is no area of religious faith, belief or practice that is sacrosanct or untouchable. The foundational starting points are not particular beliefs, but rather the scholarly requirements of critical methodology. If fidelity to this methodology calls cherished traditional beliefs into question or even concludes them to be “erroneous,” the method is not abandoned in favor of the “beliefs.”[13]

The Bishop is not describing his own position, of course, but that of someone like David Tracy. Should we take advantage of this Tracy-esque position? If we do, we can say that “university-based theology” has all the “unlimited” freedom of impartial investigation that the AAUP’s founders said was wanted. So, why is this an inadequate answer? I reply: because it fails to distinguish “public grounds,” in the sense of neutrally acceptable standards of reasoning and research, from “public grounds,” in the sense of neutrally acceptable starting points or data. If we are talking about neutrally acceptable standards of reasoning and research, theologians are obliged to use them whether they are working on a campus or in a monastery. Theology calls for such standards already as a vocation within the Church.[14] Moreover, the AAUP does not accuse the Catholic theologians on campus of being bad logicians, bad philologists, or bad practitioners of historical research methods and therefore not belonging on campus.[15] No, the AAUP accusation is that, despite all such academic skills, Catholic theologians do not belong at universities because their discipline takes its starting points or data from an authority whose weight is not neutrally acceptable but becomes “visible” only to “the eyes of faith,” so to speak.

If campus theologians try to evade this charge by saying that the AAUP is still confusing Catholic “ministry” theology with “university-based” theology, because the latter uses only such starting points as are publicly acceptable on a neutral basis (or uses as its data only such tacts as believers and unbelievers alike can agree upon) then we should flatly deny that what the campus theologians are trying to defend is theology at all. A discipline that talks about religious matters but from starting points that are all as acceptable to non-believers as they are to believers is philosophy of religion. What else did William James do in The Varieties of Religious Experience? A discipline that talks about God Himself as a cause, but from starting points that are all as acceptable to non-believers as they are to believers, is pure philosophy. What else did Aristotle do in Book 8 of the Physics? So, if we agree with the AAUP that a discipline which takes its starting points from an authority whose claims are not neutrally acceptable has no place on campus, we effectively admit that a genuine theology department— as opposed to a philosophy department— has no place on campus. We need, then, a better answer.


To get a glimpse of how a better answer would start, let us return to the text of Cardinal George. He said that the mandatum recognizes that the discipline of theology receives its data from the faith community. He continued:

That theology receives its data from the community of faith governed and taught by its pastors is simply a statement of the condition of the possibility for doing Catholic theology like saying that 2 and 2 make 4 in a number system based on ten. You can deny it or treat it as a personal imposition on your work, of course, but you can’t do arithmetic if you do.[16]

In other words, no matter where theology is allowed to be done, and no matter how rigorous the standards according to which it is obliged to be done, it cannot be done at all unless it proceeds from starting points taken on faith (i.e., the articles of faith taught by the Church to have been revealed by God)— somewhat as arithmetic cannot be done at all if elementary sums are not accepted. It is easy to see how the AAUP would object: “You are saying that the very thing we don’t like about theology is the condition for its possibility. So be it. But when you compare the situation with arithmetic, the cases are not similar. The elementary sums are not taken on faith!”

To which I rejoin, “Ah, but the very foundations of mathematics are taken on faith!”

Let me prove it with some remarks about these foundations.

Every branch of mathematics can be (has been) articulated and justified within set theory, which is therefore considered the basis (the foundational discipline) for all of mathematics. As a result, the axioms of set theory are the starting points for all of mathematics.[17] What are those axioms like? Well, none of them is an analytical truth (with the possible exception of the Axiom of Extensionality),[18] and none of them is empirically verifiable. The Empty-Set Axiom, for example, asserts that there is an empty set, and the Axiom of Infinity asserts that there is a set with infinitely many members. These existence claims cannot be analytic or tautological truths,[19] and no conceivable empirical evidence could confirm or falsify them.[20] There is really nothing to say, then, about these foundations of mathematics, except that they are taken on faith — faith that they are true (as realists would say), or at least faith that their logical fertility is not leading the mathematical enterprise over a cliff (as even anti-realists must say).

I anticipate a new objection: “Not so fast! Those axioms, however mysterious they may seem to philosophers, are at least uncontroversial among mathematicians. So, unlike your ‘articles of faith’ in theology, the axioms of set theory do not ‘inculcate a particular opinion upon a controverted point.’ ”

Ah, but one of them does. The Axiom of Choice says that, wherever you have an array of non-empty sets, there is a function that will select just one member out of each (whether or not we can formulate the recipe on which that function works). This sounds innocent enough so long as we are dealing with sets having finitely many members. (For in such cases, we can always order the sets in advance and then formulate a recipe on which the choice function is to work: say, pick the first member of each set, or pick the third, or pick the last, etc.) But the Axiom of Choice becomes immensely powerful when we are confronted with infinite sets. For this reason, not all mathematicians accept the Axiom of Choice. Many are afraid of its power, even though the Calculus and contemporary Real-number Analysis cannot be put on a consistent foundation without it. These more fearful mathematicians can deny the Axiom of Choice or treat it as a personal imposition on their work, but they cannot do contemporary Real Analysis if they do. So current set theory has a starting point that is not neutrally acceptable among the community of scholars or rational persons. Nevertheless, current set theory is universally accepted as an academic discipline. In Fraenkel-Zermelo set theory alone, roughly 65,000 theorems have been proved on university campuses around the world. But every theorem whose proofs uses the Axiom of Choice is proved from a starting point which is “a leap of faith” on a controverted point! [21]

I hear the AAUP replying again: “If most mathematicians ‘believe’ that Axiom of Choice, it is a matter of their own scholarly judgment, not an obligation imposed by some off- campus authority. This has been our real point all along: other scholars are free, whereas theologians are not.”

This time the rejoinders are obvious. Alongside their acts of infused faith, genuine Catholic theologians also “believe” the dogmas of the Church as a matter of their own scholarly judgment. And off-campus authorities exist in many other fields. Try giving papers at mathematical congresses in which you repudiate the Axiom of Choice!

Try getting your stuff published in the journals controlled by reputable mathematical societies! Try getting tenure in a Women’s Studies Department if you deny, on however scholarly a ground, a major tenet of feminism! As the King James saith, “There be lords many.”

Well, um, uh … at least the officers in those professional societies and the referees on their journals, etc., are other scholars, whereas your bishops are “usually not of a scholar’s calling.”

To which I could reply: “I’ll stack up my bishops against your feminist agitators any day of the week.” But I prefer to close on a deeper note.

The AAUP was founded in the still-Cartesian atmosphere of the early twentieth century. Its founders took for granted that the edifice of human knowledge rested on secure, indubitable foundations, to which scholars alone, by their impartial investigations, could add new bricks. Universities were the construction sites of the one edifice of knowledge, to whose steady rise persons “not of a scholar s calling could be no more than spectators. In that one edifice, the posture of “belief” (religious or otherwise) had no role to play at all in the lower stories, and only a temporary role on the top story, where the conflicting hypotheses of today would surely yield to the certainties of tomorrow.

Today, the whole learned world knows that the Cartesian and positivist edifice is a myth. The real foundations of human knowledge are not indubitable, the roots of mathematics are uncertain, the deepest theories of science are revisable, and “belief” has a crucial role to play from bottom to top. (In Willard Quine’s The Web of Belief, the title alone says it all.) In today’s epistemological climate, there is room again for higher callings than the scholar s. And the calling to be a spokesman for God is one of them.

  1. I am quoting the English translation of the Instruction provided on the Vatican website; emphasis added.
  2. The allusion is to the Professio fidei and Iusiurandum fidelitatis approved by the Holy See in Acta Apostolicæ Sedis 81 (1989), p. 105; the English is in Origins 18 (1989), pp. 661ff.
  3. Francis Cardinal George, “Catholic Higher Education and Ecclesial Communion,” Origins 28/35 (February 18, 1999), pp. 609, 611-614.
  4. The final text is in Origins 30/5 (June I5, 2000),pp. 65-75. An accompanyingdocument, “Guidelines Concerning the Academic Mandatum in Catholic Universities,” was approved by the NCCB on June 15, and appears in Origins 31/8 (June 28, 2001), pp. 128-131.
  5. Origins 28/35 (February 18, 1999), p. 613.
  6. AAUP, Policy Documents and Reports (Washington, D.C., 1984), p. 164. Ihave drawn on a study of these documents by Fr. James Heft, S.M., “Academic Freedom: American and Catholic,” Origins 28/35 (February 18, 1999), pp. 614-623.
  7. AAUP, Policy Documents, pp. 167-168.
  8. Alice Gallin, ed., American Catholic Higher Education: Essential Documents(Notre Dame, 1992), p. 7.
  9. AAUP, Policy Documents and Reports, p. 21.
  10. George M. Marsden, “Liberating Academic Freedom,” First Things 88 (December 1998), p. 12.
  11. Louis Menand, ed., The Future of Academic Freedom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), p. 184.
  12. Bishop Edward Braxton, “Contemporary Catholic Theological Debate,” Origins 28/14 (September 17, 1998), pp. 242-243.
  13. Ibid., p. 243.
  14. Suppose the debate is whether “high Christology” is a Johannine invention or has older, even pre-Pauline origins (as I think Catholic orthodoxy demands). If a theologian is to make a theological contribution to this debate, it cannot take the form of saying, “The high Christology is old because my bishop says so,” or “Pius X said so.” He may believe it on their say-so, but he cannot defend it theologically on their say-so. His contribution must take the form of a historico-exegetical argument, and it will be a useful contribution only if it is a cogent argument. (N.B.: “cogent” does not mean “persuasive to the Jesus Seminar”; it means “sound by rational standards of evidence and inference.”) In short, a theologian takes from the faith-community what to defend, but not how.
  15. Nor could they. There is no such thing as an academic consensus to the effect that, by the sound standards of reasoning and research, the Catholic position on, say, the historical Jesus, or the origins of the episcopate, or the number of the sacraments, or the existence of the sort of Entity demanded by classical theism, etc., is untenable. There is plenty of debate in favor of non-Catholic positions, of course; but there is no consensus against the Catholic positions as “no longer defensible.” So our theologians are not in the posture of those who would still defend, say, the existence of the ether or the Donation of Constantine.
  16. Origins 28/35 (February 18, 1999), p. 613.
  17. For a quick and accessible survey, see Penelope Maddy, Naturalism in Mathematics (Oxford, 1997), pp. 36-62.
  18. This Axiom says that if set A has exactly the same members as set B, then A = B. Some say that this is analytic because it is just part of what we mean by “set”— thus Hao Wang, From Mathematics to Philosophy (London: Routledge, 1974), p. 533; but others disagree — e.g., Fraenkel, Bar-Hillel, and Levy, Foundations of Set Theory (Amsterdam: North Holland, 1973), pp. 27-28.
  19. Apart from the handful of eccentrics who still accept St. Anselm’s Ontological Argument as a valid proof of God’s existence, all philosophers agree that, outside of mathematics, statements of what exists are at best empirically justified, never analytically true. Inside mathematics, the situation is as follows. Once a mathematical structure has been specified by its axioms, certain items can be proved to “be there” within that structure (can be proved, that is, to be part of the structure), and an argument can be made that such ‘ existence claims are analytic; but existence claims used as axioms to specify the structure in the first place cannot be interpreted that way, and cannot be analytic because the existence of X is never given just in specifying what we mean by X.
  20. Tell me when the empty set was last “observed.” Tell me what physical experiment would turn out differently, depending on whether or not there is an infinite set.
  21. A similar argument can be made from other disciplines as well. Take cosmology. Is there enough dark matter in the universe to halt, eventually, its current expansion? Some physicists believe in this dark matter (among other things, it makes atheism more comfortable); others do not. Pick up a reputable work in the philosophy of science, such as W. H. Newton-Smith’s The Rationality of Science (New York: Routledge, 1990); observe that today’s philosophers of science freely assume the likelihood that physics will end up stuck between incompatible theories between which we cannot choose on empirical grounds. Their conflicting predictions may differ on a scale too small to measure. Physicists will believe one or the other. Will either faction be ejected from the university community for the crime of “inculcating a particular opinion upon a controverted point”?

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