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What types of Catholic university do we find?
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What types of Catholic university do we find?

Let us begin at the simplest and most obvious test: When is the adjective “Catholic” used for a “university”? Clearly, when people perceive some kind of connection or association between a university and the Catholic community. Not much investigation is required to notice that this use of the term can cover a great variety of situations.

Those situations, however, are not so disparate that they could not be classified into a few types, each displaying a different kind of structural link between a university and the believing community. I shall list six of them, moving from the loosest of relationships to the closest of unions. Please note that these models are not mere conceptual constructs but they represent concrete situations. They are typified images leaving aside many individual variations. After the description of each I shall add also a short note about their position in canon law.

1. Secular universities in a Catholic environment

There are universities, established and operated by a secular authority, but within an environment where the Catholic influence is strong. Inevitably, the religious beliefs of the persons on campus, faculty, students, administrators, will have some impact on the operation of the institution itself. As a rule, the narne Catholic would not be applied to such institutions; or very loosely, to distinguish them from other universities attended principally by non-Catholics. In this sense the National University in Dublin was called, in less ecumenical times, a Catholic university, in distinction from Trinity College which was spoken of as a Protestant institution.

Canon law has no competency in this case.

2. Secular universities integrated with a Catholic academic unit

There are secular universities with confessionally dedicated theology departments. Such universities are not referred to as religious, but their academic units are known under the name of the church which sponsors them. Thus, in Germany, Austria and Switzerland there are state universities with Catholic or Evangelical or Reformed “faculties” of theology.

Virtually all such Catholic “faculties” have their special statutes approved by the ecclesiastical authorities within the framework of a concordat between the civil government and the Holy See.

3. Universities nourished by Catholic tradition but with no formal institutional commitment.

There are universities, officially classified as non-denominational (non-sectarian), but which were founded under Catholic auspices and are operating strongly within that tradition. Although in their institutional structures they do not reflect any religious commitment, they assert their fidelity to a living tradition, and their various constituencies de facto keep the Catholic ideals alive, as a free choice on their part. (4) Such Catholic universities can be found in the United States and Canada.

4. The reason for not inserting any religious commitment into the charter or by-laws of some traditionally Catholic universities is usually in the civil law system within which they must operate. A legal tie with a religious denomination would civilly disadvantage them to the point that they could be compelled to close down altogether; which is a good illustration of the thesis that no amount of abstract reasoning can decide what is the best way for a university to be Catholic. If what is theoretically the best may lead practically the worst, less perfect ways must be found to uphold and support Christian values in a secular society.

Such universities exist and operate outside of the canonical structures. Since the church asserts a “proprietary” right over the term “Catholic,” if they want to use it in their name, they must petition for a “license.”

4. Universities with institutional commitment to Catholic ideals but without an eclesiastical charter.

There are universities which by their own decision wanted to commit themselves to the pursuit of truth within the context of Catholic ideals. To assure this orientation, they inserted into their statutes significant provisions to the same effect: e.g. some members of the board must represent a religious community, the President must be Catholic, and similar ones. They have not, however, petitioned for an ecclesiastical charter, hence they have not become “persons” in canon law; they are not (as an institution) under the jurisdiction of the Holy See or of the local ordinary. (5) Still, they wish a close relationship with the church, a “communion” built on mutual respect and trust. Rightly, they describe themselves as Catholic universities, although as a rule without using that adjective in their name. Often they are closely associated with, or supported by, an institute of consecrated life or a society of apostolic life. This type is mostly found in the United States.

5. This does not mean that the Catholic persons working at such universities are not under the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical authorities.

They are as individuals. This distinction becomes very important for deciding how issues of church discipline must be handled, should they ever arise. On the level of law, either the Holy See or the local ordinary ought to contact directly the person concerned.

There is no other correct approach in canon law. Unless an institution obtains legal personality in the church, it cannot have legal rights and duties in the church.

It is a different question whether or not an institution which professes itself Catholic is morally bound to take action against a member who publicly displays a destructive behavior against the religious commitment of the university. There is no a prori answer to this question; it is a matter for prudential judgment. More of this later in the text.

Such universities can prosper as Catholic institutions only if all its constituencies (faculty, students, administration, alumni, benefactors, etc.) freely support their orientation. This is true, of course, of the next category as well.

The same as above.

5. Universities established by the church with a canonical charter.

There are “Catholic universities” which are incorporated into the legal structures of the church. In canon law they have a juridical personality, accordingly they are subjects of rights and duties. They are, as an institution, under the jurisdiction of the Holy See (and of the local bishop, or of a committee of bishops, as the case may be); they report to the Congregation for Catholic Education and they have a standing before an ecclesiastical court. Their assets are ecclesiastical goods, normally subject to the canonical rules of acquisition and alienation. They need not have an exclusive or even primary orientation toward the “sacred sciences.” The degrees they confer, although recognized by the church, may simply follow the civil pattern customary in the country. All such details are handled in their church-approved statutes. The Catholic universities of Leuven and of Louvain-la-Neuve fall into this category; also The Catholic University of America.

The canonical status, the rights and duties, of such universities are regulated in the Code of Canon Law; see the chapter on “Catholic Universities and Other Institutes of Higher Studies”; canons 807-814.

6. “Ecclesiastical Universities and Faculties” established by the church and dedicated to “sacred sciences”.

There are “Ecclesiastical Universities and Faculties” specifically founded by the authority of the Holy See and under the direction of the same. Their main purpose is to do research in the field of “sacred sciences” (such as biblical studies, church history, theology, canon law, etc.) and to teach them in a scientific manner. They confer ecclesiastical degrees with canonical effects. They are juridical persons in the church, with corresponding rights and duties. Their establishment and operations are regulated by an apostolic constitution, Sapientia christiana, which requires each to present its own statutes for approval. De facto most of such institutions are instrumental also in training candidates for ordination. The Pontifical Universities in Rome (Gregorian, Lateran, St. Thomas and others), the specifically “ecclesiastical faculties” (Theology, Canon Law and Philosophy) of The Catholic University of America are good examples for this category.

For the applicable laws see the chapter in the Code of Canon Law on “Ecclesiastical Universities and Faculties”; canons 815-821 and the Apostolic Constitution Sapientia Christiana, promulgated April 15, 1979, and the subsequent Ordinationes by the Congregation for Catholic Education, promulgated April 29, 1979.

These are six typical situations, but to know them for what they are a few more remarks must be added.

* The dividing lines between the different types cannot be always sharply drawn. At times, their individual variations are such that they blend into each other; this may especially occur between the first and second, the third and fourth, and the fifth and sixth categories.

* When it is a question of assessing the Catholic character of a university, it is never enough to ask about the structures of its organization; such as how many courses on religion are offered, whether or not certain offices are reserved for Catholics, etc.; it is necessary also to inquire about the internal dynamics operating in the institution. The forces which create and sustain the religious commitment of an institution are never immobile and unchanging (no less than in a human person); in the real world such an energy is either increasing in intensity, or decreasing in vitality. To observe such a movement over a longer period of time is just as important as to know the structures.

It is quite possible that two institutions exhibit the same static pattern today, but underneath they are moved by opposite forces. The full impact of those internal currents will be revealed only in, say, fifty years, when one will be a strong and healthy Catholic institution, the other a respectable seat of learning but without any religious orientation.

* The intensity of religious dedication should be always distinguished from legal structures and corporate charters. High-sounding statutory statements may not cover deep convictions, and vice versa, deep convictions may be present even if there are no legally sanctioned expressions.

* There is nothing, absolutely nothing, in any of the six types that would be objectionable from a Catholic theological point of view. All are honest and respectable combinations of academic life and religious dedication. The question, however, which must be raised is whether or not a given combination is the best (the most prudent, the most efficient) way of upholding human and religious values in a given place and at a given time.

Thus, it may not be wise to push for a canonically chartered Catholic university at a place where public universities operate in a Christian spirit within a Christian climate.

Also, it may not be wise to compel Catholic universities which operate freely and vigorously in a secular society to enter into a legal bond with the church if by this act they become so disadvantaged civilly that they lose their position and must reduce their service to the community. (6)

6. This would be a typical case of losing concrete values in the real order for the sake of abstract values conceived in the abstract order.

But it may be wise for a Catholic institution in a country with an oppressive government to obtain a legal charter from the Holy See and secure the protection that canon law can give in order to be free from interference by the state.(7)

7. At times one hears the statement: the mind of the church is that to be Catholic a university must be under the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical authorities. I doubt that such could be the mind of the church. In all likelihood the church would be very glad to have Catholic institutions of the third and fourth type (bond of communion with the church, but no legal tie) in countries where the official policy of the government is to propagate and support atheism. The mind of the church would be to take full advantage of the freedom granted. No responsible person in the church would disavow such institutions because they do not have a canonical charter; their support from the hierarchy would be overwhelming.

From: The Church: Learning and Teaching, by Ladislas Örsy, Michael Glazier 1987, chapter 4. Read the whole chapter here.

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