The mandatum matters … what’s a mandatum?

High school seniors are now thinking in a serious way about college visitations and applications for higher education. A campus visit typically exposes the high school student to faculty, staff, and undergraduate students all seeking to highlight the uniqueness of their institution.

These schools might market their number of National Merit Scholars, scores on student standardized examinations, and exceptional student athletes as well as faculty-to-student ratios. If visiting a Catholic college or university, the future college student would undoubtedly be offered a visit to the chapel, shown campus ministry activities, and maybe even told of a Sunday evening Holy Mass offered in the dormitories.

But do they mention how many of their theologians hold a mandatum? Probably not.

If students and families are seeking an education with assurances that the Catholic viewpoint will be present in the conversation, then understanding the mandatum matters.

How do you know if the theologians on the faculty have made a (usually written) declaration that they will teach in full communion with the Church? They have a mandatum, offered by an ecclesiastical authority such as the local bishop, which is an acknowledgement by the Church that the theologian will not misrepresent Church teachings. Seems like a “fair” request of a teacher: Be honest in offering your students the Church’s position.

As practitioners, the theologians retain the full academic freedom to research and explore and consider by evidence and disputation the reasons for the truths as taught by the Catholic Church. That is theology and what theologians should do. In that context, however, the theologian remains accountable to those Jesus Christ divinely empowered to authoritatively teach the faith—the bishops of the Catholic Church in communion with the Holy Father. Thus, as a safeguard against false (as opposed to faithful) dissent, Pope St. John Paul II instituted the requirement for a mandatum in the wake of Vatican Council II.

However, even as the mandatum is a specific requirement in canon law, in practice it may not (currently) enhance the laity’s understanding of a university or college’s institutional alignment with the Catholic Church.

But it should.

The 1983 Code of Canon Law is organized into seven books, with Book III focusing on the role of education in the Church. One of the prescriptions from the Code is the requirement for a theologian to “have a mandate from the competent ecclesiastical authority” (Canon 812). This is reinforced in the Apostolic Constitution Ex corde Ecclesiae (ECE) on Catholic universities, reminding Catholic theologians “that they fulfill a mandate received for the Church” (John Paul II, 1990, article 4), as well as the U.S. bishops’ “Application of ECE for the United States” stating that “Catholics who teach the theological disciplines in a Catholic university are required to have a mandatum granted by competent ecclesiastical authority” (USCCB, 2000, article 4).

Unlike SAT scores, extracurricular clubs, and the number of majors offered at a particular institution, the indication that their theologians do (or do not) hold the mandatum is rarely provided to prospective students. Rather, the informed potential applicant almost always must inquire.

It is important to note that this is an individual, not an institutional, requirement. While the university is notified when the theologian’s application process is complete, the guidelines are crafted so that the decision to announce the conclusion of the approval process is made by the respective school. In fact, the American bishops’ language seems to discourage public notifications, in general, and prohibits it without the theologian’s approval in those cases where the mandatum is denied.

In turn, if individual theologians are silent, then it follows that institutional silence should be considered neither unreasonable nor abnormal. The possible reasons for reticence are many: the inability to obtain the credential, to avoid negative media coverage in a society undergoing cultural changes with respect to religion, respect for the individual desires of the theologian, a desire to avoid controversy that might exist over fulfilling this requirement with colleagues within the academy, humility in the achievement, or perhaps comfort with institutional stature such that the need or desire to market this credential is thought to be unnecessary.

Yet, public image is important to every college and university; thus, the credentials and accomplishments of the faculty become points of pride. Given the core nature of the academic mission, being justifiably proud of faculty that have established bona fides assuring others that they are teaching in communion with the Magisterium can be as important to the Catholic academy as those other indicators are to secular institutions. However, while providing a prospective student the means to easily confirm the status of the mandatum process would be helpful in ascertaining alignment with the teachings of the Catholic Church, it would not be justified in concluding a misalignment if the information is not publicly available.

As it is written, there is no expectation that this information would be made readily available to the general public; that choice ultimately resides with the theologian. But the times have changed and families today are seeking indicators that sharpen the focus on education in a Catholic intellectual tradition. It seems reasonable that an inability to ascertain the status of meeting this canonical requirement is information that is relevant in making a determination as to the strength of alignment for the school’s theology faculty with the Roman Catholic Church. Said another way, why attend a Catholic university or college if you cannot determine if the core mission is faithful to presenting Catholic teachings for students who are preparing for their life’s vocation?

With the issuance of ECE in 1990, the Vatican established a set of characteristics for Catholic higher education. However, Catholic colleges and universities continue to debate and discuss its implications, often suggesting presumed threats to institutional governance and academic freedom, and some disagreement continues over the imposition of the mandatum for theologians.

These issues were an active part of the dialogue during the 20 years of debate prior to, and now 27 years since, John Paul’s promulgation of ECE. Whatever the reasons were for originally softening the public’s attention on this canonical requirement, the time has arrived to consider proactively publicizing the completion status of this unique theologians’ teaching credential so as to showcase institutional Catholic identity. Schools asserting to be Catholic should be eager to share the good news… and students making judgments on authenticity have a clear benchmark available to them for their consideration.

Does a mandatum matter? Only if one desires some assurance that a Catholic college or university seeks to integrate the Catholic worldview into the student’s educational experience.

TIMOTHY J. COLLINS has been involved in Catholic education for nearly three decades. He earned his doctorate from Benedictine University in Lisle, Ill. Collins is the Chief Government Relations Officer at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

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