Bishops discuss increased oversight of Catholic colleges

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops went behind closed doors at its fall meeting Wednesday to discuss, among other issues, what action it should take to increase oversight of the nation’s more than 200 Roman Catholic colleges and universities.

Chicago Cardinal 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 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.

A decision by University of Notre Dame, the nation’s flagship Catholic university, to honor President 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.

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 as is the University of St. Thomas. 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.

2 Replies to “Bishops discuss increased oversight of Catholic colleges”

  1. Seems like a silly meeting to have. The bishops foolishly spent fifty years frittering away their privileges and authorities over colleges in their dioceses. They now have only four ways to address problems that occur at those colleges (like Notre Dame’s indefensible decision to award President Obama their highest honor): (1) a strongly worded letter to the president, (2) working for change through their single vote and single voice on Boards of Trustees dominated by wealthy donors with their own agendas, (3) revoking the right of the college to call itself Catholic, and (4) interdict. Options (1) and (2) have no teeth. Options (3) and (4) are atom bombs. And there’s nothing the bishops can do about it now. Still, at least they’re talking about it now.

  2. The Catholic Identity of our school needs to be defended. The Bishop’s role is to be Pastor to Christ’s flock and thus they have an important role in watching over our University. The University of St. Thomas must, I repeat must, promote Catholic values on Campus. Our world is in a state of turmoil, with the economy still struggling, the employment rate in double digits and more and more people going on food stamps. We must pray and learn to love like Christ loves. We can experience Christ and his love for us most vividly in the sacraments, especially the sacraments of reconciliation and Eucharist. By frequently receiving the sacraments, we allow God to pour more grace upon us and we can receive the his love and grace. If we do that we can change the world. Challenge yourself to live like Christ and you will change the world. Under the guidance of our Bishops, we will learn to live like Christ and change the world.

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