Posted by: John B. Switzer, ObSB, PhD | August 2, 2012


ID-1006420According to recent reports, the Vatican is renewing its efforts to ensure that all Catholic theologians have a “mandate” (mandatum in Latin) as a prerequisite for teaching theology in Catholic colleges and universities.  The requirement is found in Canon Law (Can. 812) and is backed up by an instruction from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as well as the papal encyclical entitled Ex Corde Ecclesiae.  Many fine theologians have voiced concerns about the mandate.  Leaders of some Catholic colleges have made it mandatory for all theologians while others have recognized the problems associated with the issue and have allowed it to fade into the background.

As I have long suspected, there are those in Rome who do not wish to see the issue take a “back seat” at all.  In an address to American bishops on May 5th of this year, Pope Benedict took the time to mention it.  Regarding the “distinctive identity” of Catholic higher education, the pope noted that “much remains to be done, especially in such basic areas as compliance with the mandate laid down in Canon 812 for those who teach theological disciplines.”  For  him, the mandate (mandatum) is a “tangible expression of ecclesial communion and solidarity” between the church and its theologians in light of “the confusion created by instances of apparent dissidence” that sometimes crops up between theologians and the hierarchy of the church.

Now we have another voice from the Vatican weighing in on the issue, none other than Cardinal Raymond Burke.  He is prefect (person in charge) for the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura (the Roman church’s highest judicial panel).  Burke is an American prelate and former archbishop of St. Louis.  He recently spoke by telephone with representatives of the Cardinal Newman Society to offer his comments on the mandate.  His comments give us an idea of the mood in the Vatican with regard to theologians who don’t possess the mandatum.  Bishops wishing to be seen favorably by Vatican officials will undoubtedly follow suit.

In his comments, Cardinal Burke did not mince words.  He was direct and clear.  In summary form, it might be stated like this:  every theologian teaching in a Catholic college or university must have the mandatum.  If he or she does not have it, students and parents have a right to know.

Sadly, there are many in the church today who misrepresent this issue.  It is too causually presumed by many that theologians with the mandate teach genuine Catholic doctrine while those without it do not, but a mandatum doesn’t make a good theologian any more than a marriage license makes a good marriage.

Cardinal Burke wants parents and students to know about it when a theologian fails to secure a mandatum.  Perhaps he’ll support the idea that they should also know why.  There appear to me to be several good reasons why a Catholic theologian of integrity might not seek a mandatum from his or her bishop.

1.  Since the mandatum is a juridical statement recognizing communion with the church, a Catholic theologian might find it objectionable that it must be requested.  The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) guidelines for the academic mandatum state that a theologian in communion with the church “has a right to receive it and ecclesiastical authority has an obligation in justice to grant it.”  Presumably, if a bishop has evidence that a theologian is not in communion with the church he does not need to wait for a mandatum request before making it known to school authorities.  It would seem to be much more sensible to grant a mandate to every Catholic theologian upon being hired by a college or university unless evidence is readily available to invalidate it.  The USCCB guidelines appear to justify this stance by stating that “right intentions and right conduct are to be presumed until the contrary is proven.”

2.  The mandatum does not recognize the theologian as able to teach in the name of the church.  It is not “an appointment, authorization, delegation, or approbation of one’s teaching by church authorities.”  It does not make a theologian into a catechist; theologians teach in their own name by virtue of their academic competence and in line with their baptismal obligations.  In light of these admissions by the American bishops, a Catholic theologian might argue that no other recognition is necessary.  He or she might even go further and propose that the academic mandate, since it comes from a bishop, is a form of hierarchical intrusion upon the rights of the baptized to exercise a valid lay apostolate as explained in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church [Lumen Gentium], issued by the Second Vatican Council.

3.  According to church hierarchs, the purpose of the mandate is to assure the teaching of authentic Catholic doctrine and the prevention of presenting as Catholic teaching anything that is contrary to the church’s magisterium.  A Catholic theologian might point out that only a person lacking in integrity would knowingly misrepresent Catholic teaching.  Requesting a mandate from the bishop can do nothing to change this.  A Catholic theologian might also point out that there is a distinction to be made between “the church” and “the magisterium.”  There are even moments in ecclesiastical history when great saints were faithful to the church while being unpopular with (and even punished by) the magisterium.

4.  A Catholic theologian, even one who desires the mandatum, might rightfully point out that an unjust imbalance remains a component of church law at this time.  When a negative opinion of a theologian’s work is determined by a bishop, the USCCB guidelines call for efforts at mutual understanding and dialogue between bishop and theologian.  Nonetheless, as recent history has demonstrated, ecclesiastical power remains entirely on one side of the debate when a theologian is doubted.  The church’s hierarchical magisterium retains the power not only to legislate unilaterally, but to question, condemn, and judge theologians who have little recourse except to appeal to the very same magisterium from which the original judgment was derived.  A Catholic theologian of great honesty and integrity might rightly point out that this imbalance has too easily led in the past to abuse by bishops who are not theologically astute.

5.  Precisely because a theologian possesses great integrity, he or she might be in the difficult position of having to point out deficiencies in the doctrinal formulations of certain members of the magisterium.  Critical assessment such as this is the vocation of a theologian, even when it brings the disapproval of the hierarchy.  The tension arising from the relationship between bishops (as chief catechists) and theologians (as critical assessors) seems inevitable, though each of these vocations is in need of the other.  A Catholic theologian of integrity might point out while refusing the mandate that theologians were once understood to be part of the magisterium.  According to St. Thomas Aquinas, the magisterium has two “chairs”:  the pastoral chair of the hierarchically ordained, and the teaching chair held by theologians.

It would be a healthy development to see this doctrine reclaimed and reinvigorated so that controversial theologians might receive a fair hearing in the contemporary Church.  Until then, some men and women of great integrity just might refrain from requesting the one-sided mandatum.  Sometimes the best way to change the rules of the game is to refuse to participate.

Should bishops challenge theologians?  Yes, assuredly.  That’s part of their job.  Should theologians challenge bishops?  Definitely.  It’s also part of their job, even when it looks like “apparent dissidence.”

Photo courtesy of Simon Howden/


  1. This is a well thought-out, interesting post. I think it fruitfully advances dialogue on, and understanding of, an issue that (I assume) nearly all lay people really do not understand.

    I think a point in (1) above is especially important: “Presumably, if a bishop has evidence that a theologian was not in communion with the church he does not need to wait for a mandatum request before making it known to school authorities.” Indeed, I would hope that if a Bishop had genuine, credible evidence that a theologian was not properly teaching Church doctrine, he would act immediately, regardless of whether a mandatum was issued. So if it’s granted, it seems to confirm something already known; if withheld, then one wants to know why the Bishop did not take action sooner! Hence, I wonder what the practical import of the mandatum is.

    Perhaps its import, then, is entirely (or mostly) symbolic. I don’t know. Certainly symbols are important and useful. But of course they are important, useful, and powerful precisely when they are discussed and recognized as such – which is something that this post will help to do!

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