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Selections from ARCC LIGHT
the ARCC Newsletter 
edited by James E. Biechler, Ph.D.

A Question of Rights
Catholic Theologians & Academic Freedom

By James E. Biechler

"I'm generally in favor of academic freedom but I don't see how such freedom from church authority can apply to the area of Catholic theology. After all, the pope and bishops are responsible to see that Catholic doctrine is kept free from error; this in turn will assure that our young people are not contaminated by the errors of our secular society. Shouldn't ARCC rethink Right No. 20 of its Charter?"
--Anon., NYC 

Are you afraid to sign your letter for fear that your academic superiors will punish you in some way for having anything to do with ARCC? In China this would be understandable. In America all responsible thought and expression are protected by law and, surprise, surprise, the Code of Canon Law does the same for the Christian faithful. Academic freedom is not "freedom from church authority." Neither the church nor any other institution has authority over truth. Nor can the church set up prohibitions or restrictions to the free pursuit of truth. To do so would be to violate the very laws of human existence established when humankind was created "in the image and likeness of God." It is especially by reason of its intellect that the human person mirrors God. Catholic doctrine is not kept free from error by restricting free investigation and discussion. Precisely the opposite is true. Errors in natural science are corrected by free discussion and experimentation. That is also true of theology, the so-called "queen of the sciences." How many times do we have to hear the story of Galileo to get the point? 

Our chief current problem in this area is that the natural right to academic freedom guaranteed in the Code of Canon Law is left without adequate juridical sanction. Violations of freedom of expression in the church can be perpetrated without effective means of redress. The only recourse available to a person whose right to this freedom has been violated is to seek an administrative resolution by appealing to the violator's superior in the hierarchical chain of command. This is provided for by Canon 1737 which states that "one who claims to have been injured by a decree can make recourse for any just reason to the hierarchic superior of the one who issued the decree." 

Dioceses concerned about protecting human rights, like the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, have established mediation services to facilitate due process in the resolution of grievances. Cincinnati reports that its experience has been very successful. Civil lawsuits have been avoided in most cases. While I have no information on the effectiveness of mediation and administrative due process in matters involving academic freedom, there would seem to be no intrinsic reason why such matters should not lend themselves to resolution by these methods. Should mediation or due process machinery be unavailable, the administrative recourse mentioned in Canon 1737 can be used. Since the law on administrative recourse is a bit involved and strict time limits must be observed, I would recommend the services of a canon lawyer in such cases. 

It seems likely that the church in America will see more difficulties vis-à-vis academic freedom in the coming years. The Vatican appears intent upon establishing worldwide uniformity in Catholic thought. It has called for oaths of fidelity, control over academic appointments, and dismissal of professors whose lives do not demonstrate the requisite moral probity. Of great concern to the leaders of Catholic institutions of higher learning is the Vatican requirement that authority external to that of the academic community exercise executive oversight of the university. Because this is contrary to the principles of academic freedom which obtain in American higher education, some Catholic educators fear that their institutions will suffer a loss of credibility and might even lose governmental funding. 

There are few hopeful signs that the American bishops will resist this Vatican rejection of American cultural values. Pope John Paul II has spoken glowing words about "inculturation," the need to respect the cultures of others when preaching the gospel to them. American culture seems to be an exception for those Romans of fascist predilection. "Americanism" became a label of heterodoxy for some officials in the Roman curia a century ago. Granted, the current Vatican crack-down on Catholic institutions of higher education is not focused solely on institutions in the United States. But it is in the United States where principles and practices of academic freedom find their clearest expression. American bishops should defend these principles as part of their own American cultural identity and should stand up to those who speak glowingly of academic freedom, the free pursuit of truth, and inculturation, only to take them back with the iron fist of fascism. 


Dr. Biechler, an emeritus professor of religion, is a member of ARCC's board of directors. He also holds a licentiate in canon law and is a longtime member of the Canon Law Society of America. 

E-mail Comments to Dr. Biechler

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Ingrid H. Shafer, Ph.D.
e-mail address: ihs@ionet.net
Posted 18 July 1999
Last updated 18 July 1999
Copyright © 1999 Ingrid H. Shafer
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