Academic freedom in Catholic universities

Responding to the question I raised in this column the other day—whether Ateneo de Manila University can call itself Catholic and, at the same time, invoke academic freedom—a reader sent me an Internet link to the webpage of Neumann University ( This school in Pennsylvania describes itself as “a Catholic university in the Franciscan tradition.”

In describing its mission and purpose as a Catholic university, Neumann draws from Pope John Paul II’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church). Written in 1990, the document states: “Every Catholic university, as a university, is an academic community which, in a rigorous and critical fashion, assists in the protection and advancement of human dignity and of a cultural heritage through research, teaching and various services offered to the local, national and international communities. It possesses that institutional autonomy necessary to perform its functions effectively and guarantees its members academic freedom, so long as the rights of the individual person and of the community are preserved within the confines of the truth and the common good.”

This highly nuanced statement reflects an attentiveness to the complex issues and opportunities posed by the pursuit of Catholic ideals in an institution that requires institutional autonomy in order to perform its work effectively.  There is nothing in the above quote that would not apply in equal measure to a secular university.

The document then proceeds to spell out the “essential characteristics” that set a Catholic university apart from other institutions of higher learning. These are: “1. A Christian inspiration not only of individuals but of the university community as such; 2. A continuing reflection in the light of the Catholic faith upon the growing treasury of human knowledge, to which it seeks to contribute by its own research; 3. Fidelity to the Christian message as it comes to us through the Church; and 4. An institutional commitment to the service of the people of God and of the human family in their pilgrimage to the transcendent goal which gives meaning to life.”

I have read all the statements issued by Ateneo professors on the Reproductive Health bill. First, I did not get the impression that they were speaking for the whole faculty or the entire institution. But, more important, they can very well argue that their views on the RH bill and their decision to express these in public were prompted by the same ideals advocated in Ex Corde Ecclesiae.

The one sentence that could be used to challenge their action is the third: “Fidelity to the Christian message as it comes to us through the Church.” But, though this sentence may appear clear in the abstract, its meanings in concrete situations are not easily defined. It is true that, in some instances, the leaders of the Church may find it necessary to declare the official position of the hierarchy on a specific issue. But dissent from this, particularly on matters pertaining to public policy, need not always be construed as a challenge to the Church’s teaching authority. Instead of assuming a disciplinary stance, the bishops might usually ask for clarification of statements issued by members of the Church.

The very high complexity that institutions confront in the modern world constrains them from acting like monolithic organizations preoccupied with regulation. This is true not just in the realm of religion but in all the other subsystems of society. No single organization today can encompass the immense complexity of the various domains of social life—not the government for the political system, not the market for the economy, not the school for education.

Perhaps no other pope in the history of the Church understood the unique challenges of the modern world more than Benedict XVI himself. In almost all his encyclicals, he was at pains to define the Church’s basic mission amid social complexity. In modern society where political life is organized under a civil constitution, the Church, says Benedict, can participate only indirectly in the quest for a just social order, leaving this task to the laity. “To form consciences, to be the advocate of justice and truth, to educate in individual and political virtues: that is the fundamental vocation of the Church in this area.”

As I wrote in a previous column, universities worth their name will always defend their autonomy if pressed against the wall. The Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, a famous bastion of liberation theology, recently found itself at the receiving end of the Vatican’s disciplinary action, and it has fought back with vigor. The university was asked to rewrite its statutes to keep them in accord with Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the basic constitution governing Catholic schools. It ignored this request, despite a visit by Vatican officials. In response, the Vatican told the university to stop using “Pontifical” and “Catholic” in its name. The rector himself turned this down. Last July 23, the Vatican ordered the school to turn over all its assets to the archdiocese of Lima. It’s almost certain this will reach the courts and disrupt the work of the university.

Ateneo is not a pontifical university.  The recent actions of some members of its faculty for which the school is being called to task pale in comparison to the open defiance shown by the governing body of the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru. Speaking for the school itself, the Jesuits have already said they do not agree with their faculty. Fair enough. Let’s hope the matter ends there.