BALTIMORE- Fallout continues from the summer controversy over the University of Notre Dame awarding an honorary degree to President Barack Obama, who supports abortion rights.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops went behind closed doors at their fall meeting Wednesday to discuss, among other issues, what action they should take to increase oversight of the nation’s more than 200 Roman Catholic colleges and universities.
Chicago Cardinal Dr. Francis George, president of the bishops’ conference, revealed this week that he had formed a task force charged with reviewing the issue. Its research included a look at what church law says about bishops’ authority over the schools.
The Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities has planned a similar discussion of canon law and bishops’ authority at the group’s annual meeting, set to begin Jan. 30 in Washington.
“Can bishops just pull the plug on us? It’s not that simple,” said Dr. Richard Yanikoski, president of the Catholic college association. He attended a meeting of the bishops’ education committee last Sunday that briefly touched on higher education. He expected the bishops’ would more fully examine the issue in their executive session.
The decision by Notre Dame, the nation’s flagship Catholic university, to honor Obama at its May commencement caused an uproar within the church and drew protests from around the country and on the school campus by anti-abortion groups.
More than 70 U.S. bishops spoke out against the university’s decision, a remarkable reaction given that it is customary for only a local bishop to comment. Notre Dame said Obama was honored as an inspiring leader who broke a historic racial barrier as the nation’s first African-American president – not for his positions on abortion or embryonic stem cell research.
Leaders of other Catholic schools worried that anger over Notre Dame’s action would spill over to all colleges and cause long-standing damage to their relations with bishops.
George said the issue would be taken up at the meeting as part of a broader look at what groups can legitimately call themselves Catholic.
“If those relationships – which don’t mean control, they mean relationship – are now weakened, then we have to think of ways to enter discussion in order to strengthen them, and to redefine perhaps what are the criteria for a university or any other organization to consider itself Catholic,” George said in an interview ahead of this week’s meeting.
There is no easy answer to questions of how bishops and schools should relate.
The discussion touches on canon law, civil law and Vatican documents on Catholic higher education, including the decree from Pope John Paul II called “Ex Corde Ecclesiae.”
With just a few exceptions, Catholic colleges and universities are incorporated independently from a local diocese and the church as a whole. Nicholas Cafardi, a canon lawyer and former dean of Duquesne University Law School, noted that John Paul’s decree recognizes the autonomy of Catholic colleges and universities.
Under canon law, bishops can revoke the right of a school to call itself Catholic, according to Edward Peters, a canon lawyer at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. However, that penalty is rarely applied.
Beyond that, Peters said, a complex analysis is needed on existing canon law to “work out implications in various fields such as civil law and sound theology. That is why they are forming this committee.”