The occasional flaps between professors at Roman Catholic institutions and the bishops in their dioceses often hinge on whether allegiance to church orthodoxy trumps the free spirit of inquiry celebrated in academe. The church’s efforts to strike a balance between those two sometimes-competing values will soon be brought to the forefront again, as bishops begin a formal review of how well colleges are upholding their Catholic identities.
The key guidelines the church lays out for colleges are contained in Ex corde Ecclesiae, a document  released by Pope John Paul II in 1990. The document stresses that colleges have the institutional autonomy to preserve academic freedom, while at the same time insisting on “fidelity to the Christian message as it comes to us through the Church.” Those dual tenets have at times created tension, as professors at Catholic colleges grapple with questions about prickly issues such as abortion, contraception and human sexuality.
A vote this week by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops set out the parameters for a review of Ex corde over the last 10 years. While the specific questions governing that review have not been publicly released, the process is expected to assess how Ex corde is playing out on campuses – much as a previous five-year review sought to do.
“Essentially, the bishops are asking how are you implementing this document,” said the Rev. Charles L. Currie, president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges & Universities.
“Ex corde has encouraged a lot of activity on the part of these schools to be more intentionally Catholic,” he added. “At the same time they are trying to be the best college or university they can be.”
The present discussion surrounding Ex corde reflects years of debate over the relationship between the church and Catholic universities. Caught in a firestorm over that very issue was the Rev. Charles E. Curran, who in 1986 received a letter  from then-cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, saying Father Curran was “not suitable nor eligible to teach Catholic theology.” Father Curran, who left the Catholic University of America after the rebuke, had been critical of the church’s stance on issues including birth control, homosexuality and divorce.
Cardinal Ratzinger went on to become Pope Benedict XVI, and Father Curran, well, he went on to teach theology at Southern Methodist University – not a Catholic institution. Now in the post for more than 20 years, Father Curran says some of the tenets of Ex corde remain cause for concern.
“The tensions only continue to grow, that’s why I do worry with this thing in place,” he said.
And Father Curran continues to have run-ins with church officials. Just last month, a Dallas bishop criticized him  for planning a lecture titled "The U.S. Catholic Bishops and Abortion Legislation: A Critique From Within the Church.”
Individual bishops may well disagree on what constitutes sufficient adherence to Catholic principles. Opinions varied, for instance, on whether the University of Notre Dame acted appropriately by granting a speaking invitation to President Barack Obama, who supports abortion rights and stem cell research.
Other controversies have been tied to Catholic colleges’ treatment of openly gay faculty . Marquette University, for instance, recently drew criticism by withdrawing a deanship offer to Jodi O’Brien, a sociologist at Seattle University who is a lesbian and writes about sexuality and gender. In another case at Benedictine University, Laine Tadlock lost her job as director of an education program after a local paper announced her wedding  to a woman.
Whether specific incidents on Catholic campuses will be assessed in the context of these 10-year Ex corde reviews is at the discretion of bishops, said the Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, president of DePaul University and a member of a working group that proposed parameters for the process.
“If that local bishop has a concern in that regard that’s entirely possible,” he said. “This instrument doesn’t necessarily go hunting for that kind of issue.”
Critics charge, however, that hunting is exactly what this process should invite. The Cardinal Newman Society, a watchdog group on Catholic colleges' adherence to church teachings, was quick to criticize the review process before it even began. The group's rapid response is not terribly surprising. Indeed, some Catholic college leaders are critical of the society, saying that it belittles the genuine efforts of institutions to promote Catholic values in a pluralistic society by seizing on anything that may deviate from a traditionalist point of view.
Patrick J. Reilly, the society's president, said the fact that bishops will follow an Ex corde review process described as essentially identical to that of five years ago indicates little will come of it.
“The process the bishops announced does not give one a lot of hope,” he said.
Reilly, who holds no formal position within the church or a university, said he would prefer to see a more concentrated approach aimed at truly assessing compliance with Ex corde. The Cardinal Newman Society has sought to do some of that confirming on its own, he explained, by asking bishops to disclose how many theologians on college campuses have been granted a mandatum – a formal acknowledgment  by the church that a theologian is teaching “within the full communion of the Catholic Church.”
“The bishops have declined to do that, and nearly all of the colleges have declined to identify which professors have received the mandatum, and very few colleges require the mandatum as a condition for hiring,” Reilly said.
There is considerable debate about the roles and responsibilities of theologians in Catholic institutions. Those who suggest theologians must exercise absolute fealty to Catholic doctrine – never engaging in open-ended scholarly analysis – hold a view inconsistent with Canon law, said one Catholic scholar whose writings have been criticized by a bishop.
“Any theologian with any credibility certainly has to present Catholic teaching accurately and thoroughly,” said the professor, who asked not to be identified in order to speak candidly without fear of reprisal. “But that doesn’t mean you can’t question that teaching and critically analyze it, and that’s where the bishops are getting caught up, I think.”
As bishops worked out how to implement Ex corde 20 years ago, the greatest debate among academics centered on the idea of the mandatum, explained G. Dennis O’Brien, author of The Idea of the Catholic University  (University of Chicago Press). In practice, however, mandatum hasn’t brought about the issues some feared, he said.
“The general line has been where if you request [mandatum], you’ll get it. But you don’t have to request it,” O’Brien said. “So it turned out to be kind of a non-issue.”