Catholic Theologians Face ‘Mandatum’ Deadline


A deadline looms today that could ignite a smoldering conflict over academic freedom between the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy and theologians at the nation’s 235 Catholic colleges and universities.

The winners and losers won’t be immediately clear, but in coming years jobs and the shape of Catholic higher learning may be at stake.

Acting on instructions from the Vatican, U.S. bishops have ordered Catholics who teach their faith’s doctrine, morality, Scripture, law or history at Catholic schools to obtain a “mandatum,” or mandate, from the bishop of the diocese where the college is located.

The document, which the bishops agreed should be obtained by today, attests the theologian teaches only authentic Catholicism.


While some, like the orthodox Cardinal Newman Society, have hailed the mandatum, opponents have derided the requirement as a loyalty oath. Faculty have complained that it tramples their academic freedom.

The penalties dissenters may face is uncertain.

Some bishops warned their colleagues last year that they couldn’t enforce the requirement. But schools could use the mandatum in rating faculty; it’s already affected hiring on at least one campus.

By design, the process is secret; a private matter between each theologian and bishop. For that reason, no one knows how many mandatums have been granted.

Estimates of Catholics teaching religious subjects on church-affiliated campuses range from 300 to more than 800 priests, nuns and lay professors.

“Everything will depend on the chemistry between a local bishop and the local institutions,” said William Loewe, who teaches at the Catholic University of America and heads the College Theology Society. “That leads to a whole wide range of outcomes.”

In Southern California, no theologians have yet requested a mandatum because a Los Angeles Archdiocesan committee is still hammering out the process for doing so. The committee, composed of representatives from the area’s five Catholic colleges and universities, is still grappling with such issues as how to request a mandatum, what criteria to use in evaluating a theologian’s work and what happens if the request is denied, according to David Shaneyfelt, spokesman for Thomas Aquinas College, a liberal-arts college in Santa Paula.

“Since we’re all making a good-faith effort to comply with this, no one’s going to get upset if we miss a deadline,” Shaneyfelt said.


Cardinal Roger M. Mahony has not publicly commented on the mandatum issue. But several theologians said he indicated in a meeting more than a year ago that he was willing to give them a “vote of confidence” and assume they were teaching correct doctrine. According to one theologian, Mahony assured them that “he wasn’t going to use [the mandatum] as a tool to go after people.”

Pope John Paul II called for certifying professors in a 1990 decree as a way to bolster the religious character of Catholic campuses worldwide, and the issue roiled U.S. theologians in the late ‘90s.

Despite opposition from many professors and academic groups, the U.S. bishops’ conference agreed to require the mandatum and put procedures in place last year. But the bishops gave themselves latitude. Each bishop can word the mandatum as he likes. He can let theologians seek one, or issue them unasked.

More importantly for academics and institutions, the mandatum guidelines leave any related hiring and firing to the schools.


The Rev. Dan Pattee at the conservative Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio displays his mandatum in his office. All 12 of his fellow professors, most of them laity, got one, he said.

“I don’t think the mandatum is asking us to do anything new,” Pattee said. It’s “just kind of formalizing things that Catholic theologians have already been doing for centuries.” He wonders why anyone would refuse.

So does his school, which requires new hires to get a mandatum and last year rejected a job candidate who declined.