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What are the limits of academic freedom?

What are the limits of academic freedom?

Freedom in an organized society always has its limits since it imposes a restraint on others; unlimited freedom would mean unlimited restraint. The limits in our case are determined by the boundaries of the academia; nothing more, nothing less.

As long as the reflecting, teaching, communicating is in the service of the purpose of the house of intellect, freedom is justified. If someone uses his position at a university for the promotion of other causes, such as for the spreading of unscientific ideologies or the support of commercial interests, he is surely overstepping the legitimate boundaries of freedom.

Can religious principles set limits to academic freedom?

The answer depends on the nature of the university. In a secular university operating in a pluralistic society it would be utterly wrong to set a limit on the basis of religious ideas. This is so clear that I do not see any need to discuss it further.

But if the constituencies of a university have freely chosen to commit themselves to the service of religious values, the situation is different. They have exercised their freedom by adding this specific scope to the generally recognized purpose of the university. If they want to operate within that scope, they must have permanent freedom to direct their operations toward it, and to demand that others should be restrained from interfering with it. If not, the commitment to those values is worthless.

It follows, of course, that a person who is unwilling to accept or respect the choice for religious values, should never participate in the work of an institution so committed. This is simply a matter of fairness and honesty for all concerned.

But human nature being what it is, problems still may arise. There could be misunderstandings in the beginning.

There could be even a change of heart in someone; a person may not wish to support or even to respect values that at one time he had judged desirable; in fact he may undertake a campaign against the same values right at the university. What to do then?

The ideal solution would be in a peaceful separation, which is usually the most efficient way of preserving respect for each other. If that is not possible, the next course of action depends on the local circumstances.

If the university is civilly chartered but has no canonical status, the matter ought to be regulated according to civil law. For the rest, it should be a matter for the wisdom of the university to find a way of safeguarding its own dedication—with fairness to all concerned.

If the university is merely canonically chartered (there are such universities in Europe), the case will have to be handled within the framework of canon law, which, as we have seen, provides in various ways for the protection of the Catholic orientation of the institution (cf. the requirement of mandate, canonical mission, etc.). (30)

30. All judgment should operate within a sound hierarchy of values. An attempt to dismiss a teacher for proven opposition to the religious commitment of the university may result in the university losing its civil privileges and eventually losing its students as well. A strong and healthy institution should know how to create the necessary dialectics to clarify the situation; by dialectics I mean sound and vigorous academic debates.

If the university is both civilly and canonically chartered, there may well be a conflict of laws. Such a conflict is hardly ever amenable to a resolution by principles because it originates in concrete and particular regulations. No one but those who are experts in both systems can even attempt to disentangle the complications. These are the situations to which I have already referred by saying that all the wisdom of Solomon may not be enough to find the correct solution. The available solution may be no more than an honest settlement among conflicting claims. (31)

31. The Declaration on Religious Freedom of Vatican Council II undoubtedly has relevance for an understanding of a religiously committed university in a pluralistic society. The church must respect the mind of the nation (the light, imperfect as it may be, of the conscience of the nation) in organizing its own institutions of higher education; it cannot simply withdraw from the scene and follow its own ways. (Dignitatis humanae)

Admittedly, the most delicate and complex cases are likely to arise in “ecclesiastical faculties” dedicated to research and teaching in sacred sciences. There freedom must be maintained within the parameters set by religious beliefs. Some guidelines and norms for achieving harmony can certainly be conceived, such as:

—the rights and duties of the individual faculty members and of the university should be clearly spelled out before any appointment is finalized;
—there should be good and workable structures to handle disputes or conflicts;
—besides the local remedies, there should always be ways and means for appeal.

Once these provisions are in place, it remains still true that there is no substitute for wisdom and prudence in all concerned. Even the best of structures can be turned into instruments of oppression or endless turmoil if they fall into the hands of the wrong persons.

Who should be the judges?

The right to judge belongs to those who have responsibilities for, or towards, the university. Accordingly, whatever the procedures may be, they are likely to be complex. A good judicial system will always try to give a scope to the intimate knowledge of the insiders, and a scope to the detached perception of the outsiders. Should there be a prima facie case of violation (someone inside the university overstepping the boundaries, someone from the outside unduly interfering) it is fair and just that those who are closest to the case and know the circumstances best should form a first judgment; this is the judgment of peers. It is equally fair and just that there should be an opportunity for some kind of appeal, be it to a constitutional court, or to an accrediting body, or to a commission appointed for the purpose.

A remark concerning canonically chartered institutions.

It is now easy to locate the specific problem of ecclesiastically chartered institutions: they are supervised by the episcopate of which the specific task is pastoral care, and they have to function as universities of which the scope is scientific research and teaching.

The first step toward handling the relationship is the awareness of this difference on both sides; otherwise, the wrong types of expectations will build up. The hierarchy will expect and request pastoral help; the researchers will demand episcopal endorsement for their tentative hypotheses.

The second step is in balancing the proximity brought about by the bond of law with the due distance postulated by the differences in scope and task.

Thus we come to say it again: ultimately it will be a matter for prudential judgment. No matter how perfect the statutes may be, how many rules are drawn up, there comes a point where there is no substitute for a sound particular judgment.

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

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