Do Catholic Schools Need the Common Core?

The following considerations related to the Common Core were provided to Catholic bishops on November 13, 2013, in Baltimore, Maryland. The Cardinal Newman Society partnered with the National Association of Private Catholic and Independent Schools and the Catholic Education Foundation to present a seminar on the Common Core during the annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

This publication is part of a series of reports on the Common Core State Standards Initiative and how those standards potentially impact Catholic education.

Our core is the Catholic Faith.

  • The core purpose of Catholic education is student formation and nurturing souls.1 These must be the primary standards from which curriculum and teaching methods are developed and schools are assessed.
  • Catholic identity is not an add-on; it cannot be reduced to values and traditions to be “infused”2 into secular standards. The standards will determine how and what to teach and how schools are evaluated.
  • Catholic schools are successful because of their mission… period. Their emphasis on faith and formation points to classical curricula, good literature, reason and ethics, and individualized attention.
  • Mission drives standards; standards drive curriculum and teaching. Our mission and that of government schools are profoundly different, and different missions demand different standards.
  • Common  Core  is  explicitly  and  only  “college  and  career”  focused.    Our  schools  are focused on assisting our students to encounter Christ and to pursue truth, beauty and goodness.  In the process, they are also well-prepared for college and life beyond.
  • Education should prepare students for life, but college and career cannot be the sole or primary objectives for Catholic school standards.3 Educating for secular ends leads to either pride or despair.
  • Our standards must inspire, not content with the minimum but pressing forward to- ward the maximum.

Catholic schools are already among the best in the nation.

  • On the federal NAEP tests, Catholic schools have significantly outperformed public schools for 20 years. Grade 8 scores in 2013: Reading 286 (public schools 226), Math 295 (public schools 284).4
  • In 2011, religious schools far outperformed public schools on the SAT: Reading 531 (public schools 449), Math 533 (public schools 506), Writing 528 (public schools 483).5
  • Parents care about Catholic identity, school environment and learning outcomes—in- cluding test scores and high school/college  success. But they don’t seek conformity to public school standards.
  • Standards influence how and what students learn, but there is no certain correlation between standards and test scores. States with standards rated both “A” and “F” by the Fordham Institute report similar test scores.6
  • Catholic schools can excel on nationally normed, non-Common Core tests available for the next several years.7 Afterward, testing companies will be eager to serve our schools’ 2 million students.8
  • Avoiding Common Core will highlight Catholic school competitive advantages: choice, freedom, authentic difference, human excellence, Christian faith, proven, successful, safe, outstanding education.

Catholic schools already prepare for college and careers.

  • Catholic high schools have a 99% graduation rate (73% public schools), and 85% of Catholic high school graduates attend four-year colleges (44% public schools).9
  • Good teaching can ensure success on college entrance exams, even when Common Core-compliant, perhaps with some test preparation. The ACT is not changing signifi- cantly, so scores should be stable.10

Common Core is not required for Catholic schools.

  • No government or accreditor requires Catholic schools to adopt Common Core.
  • Some  states  may  tie  Common  Core  to  funding.  The  Church  should  defend  religious liberty and school choice without compromising Catholic schools’ autonomy.
  • We must lead with confidence; we do not follow in fear or from intimidation. We do not simply “get on board” because others are doing it.  Common Core is becoming toxic, and every failure will be laid at our doorstep if we rush into this.

Common Core seeks radical change in education.

  • “The  Common  Core  represents  a  fundamental  shift  in  the  teaching  and  learning process.”11 It proposes to fix broken public schools, but Catholic schools are not broken.
  • Common Core embraces theories of exploration learning and constructivism, conflict- ing with the proven method of direct instruction in younger grades.12
  • Common Core is largely a privately funded initiative of the morally reprehensible Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation,13 which pays the NCEA to promote Common Core.14
  • Common Core advocates reassure parents that the standards “are not a curriculum.”15 That’s a red herring. The standards are intended to drive changes in curriculum, teach- ing and assessment.16

Common Core is untested and experimental.

  • Before any intervention, there should be 1) a need and 2) empirical evidence that the need will be satisfied. Common Core offers neither; its standards have never been test- ed.17 They were developed by little-known “experts” with no solid research basis, de- spite misleading claims.18
  • Common Core’s proponents—the Gates Foundation, several state governors and school leaders, the Obama administration, and “big business”—have quietly avoided public scrutiny and accountability by working around Congress, state legislatures, and now Catholic school educators and parents.
  • Common  Core’s  emphasis  on  informational  texts  depends  upon  distortions  of  NAEP data and lacks solid evidence. The 2006 federal Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) found that higher literacy scores correlate to more reading of novels and less frequent reading of information.19

The Common Core standards are flawed.

  • Common Core demands greater emphasis on reading informational texts, with a cor- responding decrease in great literature.20 Some recommended (not required) texts are morally problematic.
  • Common Core imposes “reform math,” not our traditional and successful math pro- grams. It lowers standards: pre-algebra or algebra is no longer the eighth-grade norm, nor pre-calculus or calculus for 12th grade.21 22
  • There  is  a  misalignment  with  early  grade  expectations  and  lack  of  detail  in  upper grades.23
  • There is a lack of specific content knowledge; too much is simply skills-based.24

Common Core aims for nationalization, not pluralism.

  • The Church favors “a plurality of school systems” to “safeguard her objectives in the face of cultural pluralism” and increasing state control of education.25 Common Core seeks national uniformity.
  • Catholic schools risk losing autonomy by accepting national standards. The Church’s relationship to the state should focus on protecting autonomy and school choice, not embracing national uniformity.26
  • Common Core is quickly moving toward a state and federal government program. It is becoming a political issue in the states, and the Obama administration has tied it to federal funds.
  • It is not valid to argue that we must follow Common Core because we always follow state standards. This is something much more, aiming for nationalization and substan- tial change. Common Core is under intense scrutiny, in ways that state standards never were.

Common Core poses a creeping threat to schools’ Catholic identity.

  • Common  Core  reduces  Catholic  school  autonomy  and  focuses  assessment  on  secular objectives, thereby distracting educators from their core mission. Catholic schools have always  been  independent,  but  beware  the  secularizing  path  of  Catholic  universities, hospitals and charities.
  • Common Core’s priorities “crowd out” the elements of a rigorous, classical Catholic education, emphasizing skills and practicality over vocation and reasoning from a foundation of truth.
  • State and federal involvement in Common Core could lead to religious liberty viola- tions. Catholic schools’ protection depends on consistent Catholic identity27 — which Common Core diminishes.

Bishops, parents and educators are being ignored.

  • We can see no evidence that the NCEA and many diocesan educational leaders have listened to the bishops on Common Core, recognizing their canonical authority and responsibility for the Catholic identity of our schools.
  • Parents have been poorly informed and not consulted about Common Core changes in Catholic schools, despite their primary authority and responsibility for the education of their children.
  • Catholic school teachers and principals also have been poorly informed and not prop- erly consulted about Common Core. Among the nation’s best Catholic High School Honor Roll schools, 92% of principals have concerns about Common Core’s impact on Catholic identity.28
  • Should we not pause and more carefully study and evaluate the Common Core?


10 Critically Important Adaptations to the Common Core for Catholic Schools*

This publication is part of a series of reports on the Common Core State Standards Initiative and how those standards potentially impact Catholic education. 

As of yet, there has been no serious effort to analyze the impact of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS)1  on Catholic education—one that engages Catholic school educators at all levels as well as parents, the primary educators of their children. In view of the current environment, it would seem reasonable for those in leadership positions in Catholic education to pause, reflect and plan prior to moving forward with either adopting or adapting the CCSS.

But in the complex environment of operating a Catholic school system, there may be instances where, for whatever reason, a Catholic School has decided to implement the Common Core State Standards.  These schools claim that they are not entirely assimilating the troubled and controversial public school standards, but rather “adapting” the standards by changing them to fit with their Catholic mission and pursuit of academic excellence.

While such an attempt (sincerely implemented) is a step above merely copying the public school system, it does not address the fundamental conflict associated with the integral formation of students.  Since standards drive curriculum, a Catholic curriculum must include standards that are integrated with the magisterial teachings of the Catholic Church.

For example, consider that Catholics have much to say about literature, history, science, and, above all, about Truth, goodness, and beauty.  And, since the object of every academic disci- pline is truth, the Catholic curriculum should be based on the conviction that all truths ultimately converge in their source—God.  This standard, among others, is sorely lacking in the Common Core.

If a Catholic school or school system chooses to take the more problematic road of adapting the Common Core Standards (as opposed to creating their own standards), the Catholic school system would greatly benefit from a public discussion (or basic research) about how—if at all—Catholic schools are actually changing the Common Core. Additionally, parents should ask their Catholic school officials what elements of the Common Core (if any) they have found necessary to change/adapt.

As yet, there has not been a significant study or public discussion as to what possible changes Catholic schools might be making in voluntarily implementing the Common Core in our schools. I would like to take the initiative to begin this discussion by enumerating ten important changes to consider.

1. Renounce the English Language Arts (ELA) Percentages for Literary and Informational Texts (which are not research-based).2

  • Do not alter your literature selections based on the standards.  Stick with the best literature from recognized masters. Use great works with compelling themes that speak to the heart of the human condition across the ages. Do not remove poetry, drama or literature; conversely, do not artificially add more informational texts into your ELA program.
  • Throw out the Common Core Appendices. These claim to provide examples and recommended texts. Stick to your tried and true curriculum as much as possible if using Common Core Standards.

2. Reduce textbook use when possible.3

  • Move to actual documents and unadapted works. Middle and high school students should not use mass-produced anthologies. Give them the actual texts. This allows them to mark up the texts and keep them on their library shelves at home for future reference or re-reading. Also, a “between-the-covers book” slows down instruction and respects the dignity of the work.  It allows the students to feel that they are getting the “real deal” and not an excerpt or adapted exposure to the brightest and most creative minds. Even if they do not read the entire work, students now have access to it.
  • Set your teachers and students free with authentic, un-sanitized texts and original questions and assignments. Because the Common Core allows for generic national lessons and lesson plans on topics presented in textbooks, there is a risk of homogenization and standardization, which runs contrary to human diversity and exploration.

3. Respond to the texts, not the Standards.

  • Do not use the Common Core Standards as the primary guide for inquiry into litera- ture. The Standards attempt to dissect literature into a set of measurable skills or generic questions.4   However, literary study should not be stuffed into a pre-determined standard or examined with canned questions, which do not directly emanate from the experience of reading a particular work. Literature needs to be unleashed and encountered “as litera- ture”—the product of a creative mind in dialogue with the reader in exploring the human condition. Treating literature simply as grist for the mill of college and career readiness saps its transformative power of inquiry and translation of experience. Yes, there are some relevant skills that the discipline of literary study requires, and the Common Core identifies some of these; however, development of these skills/tools  should not become the goal of reading great works.
  • Stay away from canned materials and exemplar units. The best teaching is creative, adaptive and natural, as the teacher and students explore the wonders of reality together with joy, passion and excitement. Keep your teachers and instruction creative. Exemplar units and straight textbook “canned” instruction are fine for the teacher to consult so as to get an idea of how effective lessons and units can unfold; just make sure that they do not become the basis of your regular lessons. Some teachers may try to ensure test score suc- cess by not straying from the approved lessons, but authentic learning is often messy and organic—and risky. Beware that computer-based instruction can also be overly scripted and become a crutch and distraction.

4. Do not take the Common Core’s rightful emphasis on text-based arguments too far.

  • Do not follow the Common Core’s philosophy that the only way that a student can demonstrate knowledge gleaned from a text is using evidence from the text to support their claim. While careful textual citations of evidence is key, the Standards say that “student knowledge drawn from the text is demonstrated when the student uses evidence from the text to support the claim about the text. Hence, evidence and knowledge link directly to the text.” However, in Catholic schools, knowledge is attained and demonstrated when the human intellect, informed by the senses, judges things rightly. Our criteria include not only the text itself but also a rich and wonderful world outside the text (which the text might brilliantly unveil—sometimes with life-changing effect). Evidence and knowledge are certainly based on the text; however, they are ultimately grounded in truth, beauty and goodness. If we miss this, we miss everything about Catholic education.
  • Allow discussion about outside texts or ideas. Do not discourage middle and high school students from also making extensive references to other works; historical, philosophical and religious trends; or their “gut responses.” Do, however, be sure to require rigorous scrutiny of their positions and gut responses and link those back to explicit under- standings and assumptions about the world as well as the topic under exploration.  Teach them to unpack their responses in clarity and truth—not to suppress them so as to simply stick to the world of the text or increase standardized test scores.
  • Conduct a little test preparation. Teach older students how to sanitize their normal “human” responses for the purposes of the standardized test evaluation.

5. Avoid premature use of technology, peer-editing, research and rhetorical pedagogy in place of good old-fashioned writing instruction.

  • Use pencil and paper when you teach writing to young children. Technology is only a teaching tool, not a magic smart pill. Using technology to write can wait. Do not panic that your elementary students will be “left behind” if you are still teaching them to handwrite. None of us over 40 had computers in school, but we have managed somehow to be smart, productive, technologically proficient 21st century learners. Technology is the easy part; thinking clearly and deeply is the hard part, and this can happen without extensive technology. We don’t know what type of technology our students will have at their disposal in 15 years, but we do know what type of brains they will have; we need to prepare those brains for maximum clarity and facility of thought.
  • Avoid the early emphasis on peer-editing (a teaching technique and not a standard) and the too early emphasis on research. The Common Core requires peer input and writing using a computer in 1st grade, and “research” with technology in 3rd grade. Younger children may not be ready to evaluate, process and synthesize another ’s work and insights and should focus on their own thinking and writing. It is easy to find out (or copy/plagiarize) what others think; it is harder to clarify your own thinking and find your own voice. Young students deserve adult guidance at this stage and not the faux guidance of their peers who cannot teach what they do not yet know.
  • Remember that the goal of writing is to communicate the truth. Writing should not be viewed simply through the Common Core lens of effective rhetoric, where students learn how to manipulate words and use standard grammar to produce a cogent, if not somewhat detached, argument.5  Writing should fundamentally be at the service of truth, beauty and goodness, and it should assist the student to articulate his or her understandings or insights based on penetration into reality.  Naturally, since it is also a social activity, writ- ing should follow conventions of grammar and reason in service of the truth and effective communication. In sum, writing is ordered toward an explanation of one’s encounter with truth, goodness and beauty, but it can still attend to some of the Common Core’s skill- based focus.

6. Create your own explicit standards for your junior high and high school literature classes.

  • List the critical texts, time periods, authors and genres that you expect your students to cover. The Common Core Standards only chunk and repeat the same empty skills year after year. While this provides some generic guidance, it does not account for adequate content coverage or skills development necessary for effective high school literature.

7. Do not alter your math progression.

  • Keep mastery of the standard algorithms using multi-digits at the levels they are currently found. Do not delay these for a year as suggested by the CCSS.  Keep addition/ subtraction in 2nd-3rd grade, multiplication in 4th, division in 5th.
  • Keep Algebra in 8th grade as the norm for your school. A non-algebra track for struggling students can also be offered for those who fall short of the norm.
  • Keep your geometry program unchanged. Do not follow the unorthodox and failed version presented in the Common Core.
  • Develop explicit standards for classes necessary for future science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) majors. There currently are no explicit standards for classes such as pre-calculus, trigonometry, statistics, number theory, calculus, etc.

8. Avoid the temptation to push “higher-ordered thinking skills” too quickly.

  • Give novices (that is, grade school students) the direct instruction that they need. Be extremely wary of Common Core “inspired” instruction that over-emphasizes or pushes higher-order thinking skills too far down into the younger grades, especially in math. This causes an unnecessary sense of confusion or failure, which can lead to frustration and dis- taste for math at an early age. Experts are the ones who benefit more from a constructivist/exploration-based environment, and properly educated high school students are typically entering this “expert” level of mathematical reasoning. Hours lost in prematurely forcing younger kids into expert/abstract  thinking not only leads to frustration and a loss of confidence, but also it comes at the cost of exposure to necessary basics that they will need to become authentic experts in the future.
  • Continue to emphasize memorization in the younger grades. This is the raw material upon which abstract reasoning will draw, as their intellects naturally and gradually mature and bloom.

9. Avoid teaching to the tests.

  • Focus on good instruction, not this or that test. This is your competitive advantage in a Common Core test crazy environment. Enjoy having more time and freedom to teach; your students will flourish more in the long run. Catholic schools know this from years of experience with not getting trapped into incessant state testing. Authentic tests will expose authentic learning: good instruction trumps unnecessary testing.
  • Do still give norm-referenced tests with post-Common Core validity such as the Iowa’s to assist with student formation.
  • Do plan for SAT/ACT testing courses to be formally placed in your high school curriculum. Teach students in a discreet course “how” to take a standardized test and respond to prompts in a Common Core expected manner.

10. Keep the greatest distance possible between your curriculum and the Common Core Standards.

  • Do not cheerlead for the Common Core. If you are using the standards, that is one thing; there are many usable parts. However, there are also many deep problems with them (perhaps as with any set of standards). When parts fail or weaknesses become evident, you do not want to be married to them.
  • Do not praise the Common Core: Let it sink or stand on its own without your prior validation. The Common Core Standards are untested. They claim to be more rigorous and focused than many state standards, but that claim is up for debate. What is not up for debate is the fact that states with “rigorous and focused” standards do not have higher test scores than states judged to have poor standards. There is no correlation between state standards and test scores, as strange as that seems.
  • If you use the Standards, set them as sub-floor but not as a foundation for your Catholic education. The Common Core Standards can possibly be a partial and lower (but not critical) part of your larger more lofty efforts at complete human formation.  Our foundation must always be Jesus Christ.
  • Interpret the Standards as loosely and broadly as possible. Do not attempt to tie daily instruction and lesson plans directly to the Common Core Standards as is required in many public schools. Nevertheless,  it is possible with creativity and a healthy skepticism of the philosophies animating the Common Core Standards to give many of them a distant nod. This means essentially saying, “Well yes, when I glance at the Common Core Standards every now and then, I can point to places somewhere not too far from our grade level curriculum where we pretty much do something like that.” In other words, this approach entails not being faithful to the intent and explicit wording of the Common Core, but just acknowledging them close enough to get by.
  • Normally such behavior is witnessed when conscientious objectors face the tyranny of an unjust law or authority, and this is better than faithfully instituting the flawed Common Core program; but again, why would Catholic schools, who are not required to teach to the Common Core, select this less than ideal approach?
  • We do after all owe it to the world to witness to the Truth about authentic education and about the human person. We also owe a duty to the majority of Catholic children who at- tended public schools to voice our opposition to the flawed program to which they are being subjected. Some public school supporters of the Common Core point to our schools and say, “See, if the Catholic schools are using it, it must be good!”

With so many concerns, one wonders why Catholic schools would base their efforts on the Common Core at all. Catholic schools have had unparalleled and enviable success for decades using their own standards.

I am concerned that many Catholic schools may have jumped on the Common Core band- wagon too early. After all, the Standards have not had adequate opportunity to be vetted; no “body” of Catholic scholars or educators—especially the parents, the primary educators—has thoroughly explored or discussed them. There is no harm in hitting the pause button and continuing the conversation, as we watch the untested Common Core Standards unfold in the public school arena.

Regardless, as some Catholic schools choose to adapt the Common Core, it would benefit us all to discuss openly what is being adapted and why. As with any initial conversation, these remarks and ideas cry out for correction and expansion. I look forward to the conversation.

* The title has changes from the original, “10 Minimal Adaptations Catholic Schools Consider Making to the Common Core State Standards”

A Mandate for Fidelity: Pope Benedict Urges Compliance with Theologian’s Mandatum


On May 5, 2012, in his address to several American bishops during their required ad limina visit to Rome, His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI spoke on “religious education and the faith formation of the next generation of Catholics” in the United States.  He said:

On the level of higher education, many of you have pointed to a growing recognition on the part of Catholic colleges and universities of the need to reaffirm their distinctive identity in fidelity to their founding ideals and the Church’s mission in service of the Gospel.  Yet much remains to be done, especially in such areas as compliance with the mandate laid down in Canon 812 for those who teach theological disciplines.

The importance of this canonical norm as a tangible expression of ecclesial communion and solidarity in the Church’s educational apostolate becomes all the more evident when we consider the confusion created by instances of apparent dissidence between some representatives of Catholic institutions and the Church’s pastoral leadership: such discord harms the Church’s witness and, as experience has shown, can easily be exploited to compromise her authority and her freedom.1

Canon 812 of the Catholic Church’s Code of Canon Law states, “Those who teach theological disciplines in any institutes of higher studies whatsoever must have a mandate from the competent ecclesiastical authority.”2

The U.S. bishops’ 2001 guidelines for implementing Canon 812 describe the mandate, commonly identified by the Latin mandatum, as “fundamentally an acknowledgment by Church authority that a Catholic professor of a theological discipline is teaching within the full communion of the Catholic Church.”  It recognizes “the professor’s commitment and responsibility to teach authentic Catholic doctrine and to refrain from putting forth as Catholic teaching anything contrary to the Church’s magisterium.”3  The mandatum is requested by the theologian in writing, and it is granted in writing by the local bishop who presides over the diocese where the theologian is employed.

The Holy Father’s new call for “compliance” with Canon 812 is something of a surprise for Americans.  The mandatum has not received significant attention here since the 1990s, when it was vigorously opposed by major theological associations and the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, defended by the U.S. bishops and organizations including The Cardinal Newman Society and the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, and widely debated in both Catholic and secular news media.  One reason the topic has received little attention in the past decade is because it is very difficult for Catholics to identify which theologians have received the mandatum; many Catholic colleges and universities refuse to reveal such information, even to students and their families.

Now despite the long silence—or perhaps because of it—Pope Benedict has expressed concern about the lack of compliance with Canon 812, giving the matter renewed importance.  Moreover, the Holy Father has declared that compliance with the mandatum is “especially” lacking in the work of Catholic colleges and universities to reaffirm their Catholic identity.  This appears to assign to the colleges and universities some responsibility for compliance with Canon 812.  In the United States, it is widely understood that it is the individual theologian’s responsibility to request the mandatum, drawing from the language of Canon 812.  But many Catholic colleges and universities reject corresponding responsibilities—drawing from the nature of Canon 812 as a statute in the Code’s section on Catholic institutes of higher learning—to employ only Catholic theology professors who receive the mandatum and to disclose to students and others which theology professors have the mandatum.

In response to the Holy Father’s renewed attention to the mandatum, The Cardinal Newman Society has prepared the following report to provide Catholic families a better understanding of the mandatum, identify concerns about compliance with Canon 812, and suggest responsibilities of Catholic colleges and universities.  We have invited several Church officials, college leaders, canon law experts, and theologians to contribute their insights. Quite appropriately, none of these wished to guess the personal concerns and intentions of the Holy Father, but they did identify serious compliance issues that may, we hope, find resolution in Catholic colleges and universities’ response to Pope Benedict’s charge.

Chief among those who responded to our queries is His Eminence Cardinal Raymond Burke, prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura and Archbishop Emeritus of St. Louis.  He serves as the chief judge for the Vatican’s canon law courts and therefore has great influence on matters of canon law. Cardinal Burke is also a member of the Congregation for the Clergy and the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, and he is Ecclesiastical Advisor to The Cardinal Newman Society’s Center for the Advancement of Catholic Higher Education.

“The Holy Father only has a limited number of occasions during these ad limina visits to speak with bishops,” noted Cardinal Burke in his June 20th telephone interview with The Cardinal Newman Society, “and that he would devote one of the lengthier communications with the bishops to the subject [of the mandatum and Catholic higher education] certainly indicates to me that it is a serious concern on his part.”

His Excellency Bishop Joseph Martino, retired from the Diocese of Scranton and a long-time advisor to The Cardinal Newman Society, agrees that Pope Benedict’s address to the American bishops has real significance.

“The Pope does not bring up topics casually in his ad limina talks,” Bishop Martino told The Cardinal Newman Society.  “When all of the Pope’s talks to the U.S.A. bishops during their recent ad limina visits are analyzed, you have a summary of the Pope’s pastoral ‘worries’ about the Catholic Church in the U.S.A.”

Resistance to the Mandatum

Catholic identity in Catholic higher education has been a significant concern of both the Vatican and the U.S. bishops for at least three decades.  The mandatum is a key aspect of the Vatican’s response to secularization and theological dissent, and it is celebrated at several Catholic colleges and universities where theology professors are required to have the mandatum.  Many other institutions, however, have resisted the mandatum, claiming it is an infringement on academic freedom and institutional autonomy.

In 1983 His Holiness, Blessed Pope John Paul II approved the revised Code of Canon Law, which for the first time in Church history included a section governing “Catholic universities and other institutes of higher studies”—including the mandatum requirement for theologians.  But some American experts in canon law contended that the new section did not apply to most Catholic colleges and universities, because they are legally owned by trustees and not the Catholic Church.  As a result, the mandatum was largely ignored.

In 1990 Blessed John Paul II resolved the matter with the constitution for Catholic higher education, Ex corde Ecclesiae,4 which assumes canonical jurisdiction over any college or university that has an “institutional commitment” to Catholic education, regardless of legal control.  The constitution also insists on compliance with the mandatum.

Despite complaints from some theologians and academic societies, in 1999 the American bishops approved particular norms to implement Ex corde Ecclesiae in the United States,5 including the requirement that Catholic theology professors at Catholic colleges and universities obtain the mandatum.  In 2001 the bishops issued guidelines for compliance with the mandatum.6 And last year the bishops completed a nationwide review of colleges’ and universities’ progress toward complying with Ex corde Ecclesiae, including specific discussion of the mandatum.7

Nevertheless, a 2011 survey of U.S. Catholic college and university leaders revealed that serious concerns remain.  Forty-two percent of the respondents + Add New Issue said their institutions have neither a department nor a chair of Catholic theology as required by Ex corde Ecclesiae, and more than seven percent said that Catholic theology is not even taught in their institutions.  More than a third (36 percent) said they did not know whether their theology professors have received the mandatum, 10 percent said some but not all of their theologians have received it, and another 6 percent said no professors have it.8

In June and July 2012, The Cardinal Newman Society contacted the public relations offices of the ten largest Catholic universities in America, ranked by their undergraduate student enrollment.  We asked them to identify theology professors who have received the mandatum.

Only three of the ten universities replied by our deadline, and none provided the requested information.  DePaul University spokesman John Holden wrote, “I believe this question misunderstands the mandatum process developed by the bishops.  Faculty request the mandatum directly from the local ordinary.  A university would not generally have this information.”

Father James Fitz, SM, vice president for mission and rector of the University of Dayton, reported likewise that the University views the mandatum “as a personal relationship between the theologian and the archbishop. …Therefore, the University does not have a list of those who have received the mandatum, nor does the University publish such a list.”

Marquette University spokeswoman Kate Venne explained that the mandatum is an obligation of the theologian, not the university, and information about who has the mandatum “is not something that is shared with the university or a department chair.”

The remaining seven large universities did not respond at all to our request: Boston College, Fordham University, Georgetown University, Loyola University Chicago, St. John’s University in New York, Saint Louis University, and the University of Notre Dame.

By contrast, other Catholic colleges and universities—including several that are recommended in The Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College9—have taken a much different approach to the mandatum.  They see it as an institutional obligation to ensure that theology faculty have the mandatum, and they offer full disclosure to students and others.

In June and July 2012, The Cardinal Newman Society requested and received confirmation that all theology faculty have the mandatum at Aquinas College in Tennessee, Ave Maria University, Belmont Abbey College, Benedictine College, the College of Saint Mary Magdalen, DeSales University, Franciscan University of Steubenville, John Paul the Great Catholic University, Mount St. Mary’s University, St. Gregory’s University, Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, the University of St. Thomas in Texas, and Wyoming Catholic College.  At The Catholic University of America, where the theology and religious studies department is a pontifical faculty, all professors have the similar missio canonica from the Archbishop of Washington.

The Mandatum and Catholic Higher Education

Pope Benedict’s May 5th address to U.S. bishops considers a key question: Is the mandatum only a theologian’s private, individual commitment of fidelity to the Church, or does it also have significance for a college or university’s Catholic identity?  The Holy Father appears to confirm the latter.

Cardinal Burke reflected on Pope Benedict’s address in his interview with The Cardinal Newman Society.  In that address, says Cardinal Burke, the Holy Father “mentions that some important efforts have been made, but that much remains to be done in terms of the Catholic identity of the Catholic colleges and universities, and then he cites specifically the implementation of Canon 812—namely that those who are teaching the theological disciplines in the Catholic university should have certification that they are teaching in communion with the Magisterium, the official teaching of the Church.”

So how is the mandatum important to the Catholic university?  Cardinal Burke continues:

Well, it is the truth of the faith which is the highest goal of a Catholic education.  Everything that a Catholic student studies at a university or college is directed ultimately to a knowledge of God and His plan for our world and for us.

And so everything that is taught at a Catholic university must relate in some way to this—what we might call this wisdom, this knowledge of God and of His plan for us.  And it’s the professors of theology at the university who teach that highest form of learning, that learning towards which every other form of learning is directed at the university.  And for that reason, of course, the Church wants to be sure that those who are teaching theology are sound and clear in their teaching.

…This is even more critical in our time in which we are living with a secularized culture, where there is so much confusion and error about the truth about ourselves, about our world, and the truth about God.  So the Church is being particularly attentive that those who teach Catholic theology are indeed teaching in communion with the Magisterium.

The secularism in society, the errors which we find so commonly in many sectors of society, has its influence also on the Church.  The Church must take her own prudent and necessary measures to make sure that error doesn’t enter in to the university level of the Catholic college where young people—and older people—are coming with the idea of obtaining a solid education to equip them for a lifetime of good and upright living.  And that depends very much on the received theological education.

There are several indications that the Church regards compliance with the mandatum as integral to Catholic higher education.  Most apparently, Canon 812 is situated in the section of the Code of Canon Law for Catholic universities.  It was Ex corde Ecclesiae, the apostolic constitution on Catholic universities and not a document focused on theologians, that forced compliance with the mandatum seven years after Canon 812 had been published.  The mandatum is a requirement of the U.S. bishops’ “Application of Ex corde Ecclesiae,” and it was a topic of the bishops’ review last year of the implementation of Ex corde Ecclesiae.

Asked for some insight into why Canon 812 would be situated in the Code’s section on Catholic higher education, Cardinal Burke again reiterated the Church’s great need for education that is faithful and authentic, which the mandatum helps ensure:

The Catholic university—and this is stated in a wonderful way in Ex corde Ecclesiae—provides a distinctive service in society of preparing young people, or even older people, in the various arts and sciences with a solid, Catholic foundation to their knowledge, earlier referred to as knowledge of God as He has revealed Himself to us in the Church.

And so the Church has always viewed the Catholic universities and Catholic colleges as a most important means of carrying out the work of evangelization.  In other words, at the highest levels of the pursuit of knowledge there would be this fundamental obedience to the Word of God as spoken to us in our own hearts, in natural moral law and our consciences, and through the divine revelation, the Scriptures and the Tradition of the Church.

This is the great gift of the Catholic universities.  They should be in our society leaders and powerful forces for the New Evangelization, for the teaching, celebration, and the goodness of the Catholic faith with a new enthusiasm and a new engagement.

Public Disclosure of the Mandatum

In his May 5th address, Pope Benedict describes the mandatum as “a tangible expression of ecclesial communion and solidarity in the Church’s educational apostolate.”  The Cardinal Newman Society asked Cardinal Burke to explain how the mandatum is “tangible”:

It’s tangible in the sense that it’s a public declaration, in writing, on the part of the ecclesiastical authority that a theologian is teaching in communion with the Church, and people have a right to know that so that if you, for instance, are at a Catholic university or parents are sending their children to the Catholic university, they know that the professors who are teaching theological disciplines at the university are teaching in communion with the Church. They are assured in that by the public declaration of the diocesan bishop.

The mandatum, then, is by its nature a public act.  “The fact that I teach in accord with the Magisterium is a public factor,” says Cardinal Burke.  “That’s not some private, secret thing between myself and the Lord.”

Moreover, says Cardinal Burke, it’s the right of Catholic students and their families to know who has the mandatum:

Ultimately, the mandatum gives that assurance to students that, if they enroll in a given college or university, they can count upon receiving a solid education in Catholic theology. And that’s important, especially in an age in which there is so much confusion, even within the Church, with regard to teaching and discipline.

And so that is certainly a prime purpose of the mandatum, securing and ensuring the Catholic identity of a university, but at the same time, and inseparably from that, guaranteeing to the students and to all those who may be helping them to have a Catholic education that indeed the teaching of the faith which they will receive, and in those disciplines related to the faith, that the university is truly Catholic.

While all of this may come as a surprise to Americans whose experience of the mandatum has been as an entirely private matter between a bishop and a theologian, this is not the first time the Vatican has indicated the public nature of the mandatum.  Blessed Pope John Paul II, speaking to American bishops in 2004 during their ad limina visit to Rome, said: “Catholic colleges and universities are called to offer an institutional witness of fidelity to Christ and to His word as it comes to us from the Church, a public witness expressed in the canonical requirement of the mandatum.”10

In 2007 Archbishop Michael Miller, CSB, then-secretary to the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education, defended the rights of Catholic families in an address to Catholic college leaders gathered at the Franciscan University of Steubenville:

The Catholic faithful—both parents and students—have a right to the assurance, when choosing a university or a specific course, that those teaching theology are in full communion with the Church.  While no law obliges the university to make known those who have the mandatum, and many Catholic universities prefer it that way, such silence frustrates the purpose of the law and deprives the faithful of their right to assurance about the doctrinal soundness of a given professor.11

Contrary to the American approach to the mandatum, Archbishop Miller recommended that Catholic colleges and universities assess their Catholic identity with the question, “Does the university have a procedure in place which will guarantee that the mandatum fills its purpose?”

The Cardinal Newman Society asked the opinion of Father Thomas Weinandy, OFM Cap., executive director of the Secretariat for Doctrine and Pastoral Practices of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.  He says that theologians ought to be proud of receiving the mandatum, which is an honor “recognizing that theologians have a true vocation in the Church.”

I wouldn’t know why you wouldn’t want it to be public.  The whole point is public recognition that somebody is truly a Catholic theologian.  I don’t know why you would want to keep that hidden when the Church is bestowing the mandatum to recognize that somebody is truly a Catholic theologian.

Canon law counselor Robert Flummerfelt suggests that theologians prominently display the mandatum in their offices “in the same way that attorneys and professors hang their academic degrees, professional licenses, bar admissions, etc., in their offices for clients and students to see.”  He adds that colleges and universities should identify professors with the mandatum “in literature and on the institution’s web site.”

Father James Conn, SJ, a canon law scholar at the Gregorian in Rome, has studied the mandatum extensively and has both written and given lectures to bishops and canonists on the subject.  Currently a visiting professor at Boston College, Father Conn tells The Cardinal Newman Society that the mandatum’s purpose “is to declare that the teacher of theology is carrying out his function in communion with the teaching authority of the Church.”  He adds:

The mandate is important because it gives assurance of doctrinal integrity in circumstances in which the faithful have a reasonable expectation of it.  It guarantees, as it were, truth in advertising, even when the advertising is only implicit.

In view of what is asserted above, it is of course to be made public.  The norm otherwise makes no sense.

Monsignor Stuart Swetland, director of The Cardinal Newman Society’s Center for the Advancement of Catholic Higher Education and vice president for Catholic mission at Mount St. Mary’s University, makes an interesting comparison to other public acts that involve private commitments:

You can’t get any more private than the act of marriage in one sense, but it’s almost always a public act.  In the rarest cases of persecution or legal issues, you could have a secret marriage.  The exception proves the rule that marriage is a public act.

Monsignor Swetland describes the mandatum as “an act of being in communion with the Church, a sign a professor who teaches theology is teaching in full communion with the Church.” Therefore, he argues, “It’s a counter sign to talk of something as building up the communion of the Church and then to keep it private.  Communion is by its very nature for the community.  To privatize something that is required seems to me to run counter to its purpose.”

But as for who is responsible for publicly disclosing recipients of the mandatum, canon law provides no clear answer.  Cardinal Burke suggests:

With regard to who makes it public, I suspect that there could be a number of ways of doing that. The bishop, simply, when he gives the mandate, he could make that public in various ways, in the diocesan organs of communication and so forth because it is a public fact—that this is not some kind of secret thing where people don’t know, “Do you have the mandate or don’t you?”

So the bishop could make it known, and certainly I believe that there are Catholic universities which state publicly all of the professors in Catholic theology and the related disciplines at our university have the mandate, and a university would want to make that known for the sake of its own public integrity and also to reassure the students and parents and others who will be concerned.

And also, too, if I were teaching Catholic theology in a Catholic university or college or in a chair of Catholic theology, I would want people to know that I was doing so with a mandate from the diocesan bishop that certifies that my teaching is in communion with the Catholic faith.

Father Conn has similar thoughts:

Perhaps the theologian should make it public that a mandatum has been granted, though it is not clear what means should be used.  Since the university is asserting its Catholic character, it is perhaps its responsibility to make the information public.  Failing that, or for other reasons, the responsibility would fall upon the bishop.

Archbishop Elden Curtiss, retired from the Archdiocese of Omaha, told The Cardinal Newman Society that he believes it is “primarily” the responsibility of the bishop to release names: “The bishop should make it public because he’s saying to the people, ‘This is a reliable source of Catholic theology.’”

It was in 2001, when the U.S. bishops approved their mandatum guidelines, that Archbishop Curtiss first advocated publicly disclosing recipients of the mandatum.  He later told theologians in his archdiocese that if they refused the mandatum, he would release their names.

Bishop Martino would place the responsibility for disclosure on the college or university:

The college should display its communion with the Bishop by being the appropriate entity to publish the names of those college professors with or without the mandatum.  In the absence of the local college’s fulfillment of this act of ecclesial communion, the Bishop should publish the names and keep them published and updated, for example, on a diocesan website, for future inquirers.

The Mandatum in Faculty Hiring

Aside from disclosing whether professors have obtained the mandatum, is a Catholic college or university obligated to ensure that its professors have complied with Canon 812?

The common assumption in the United States has been that because Canon 812 makes reference only to the individual theologian—“Those who teach theological disciplines in any institutes of higher studies whatsoever must have a mandate from the competent ecclesiastical authority”—a college or university need not, and perhaps even should not, assume any responsibilities regarding the mandatum.

Indeed, the U.S. bishops’ 2001 guidelines declare, “The mandatum is an obligation of the professor, not of the university.”  But while this fact seems to be universally accepted with regard to the act of requesting the mandatum from the local bishop—much as an individual in any profession would be responsible for obtaining appropriate certification—it seems clear that Catholic colleges and universities have responsibilities of their own.

The same 2001 guidelines, for instance, prescribe that if a new Catholic theology professor does not obtain the mandatum within the academic year or six months, whichever is longer, the bishop is to notify the college or university.  Why notify the institution if it is not expected to make use of the information—or if it is not, as some universities argue, appropriate even to monitor which theology professors have received the mandatum?

Canon law experts tell The Cardinal Newman Society that Catholic colleges and universities have a certain obligation to monitor which professors have the mandatum… and more.  Father Conn, for instance, argues it would be “inconsistent for Catholic universities to hire Catholic theologians who do not have a mandatum.”

Cardinal Burke likewise says that only theology professors with the mandatum should be employed at a Catholic institution:

…[T]he Catholic university will want that all its teachers of theology or the theological disciplines have a mandate and will not, of course, retain the professor in teaching Catholic theology or the theological disciplines who does not have a mandate, because to do so would be to call into question the whole raison d’etre of the university.  If a Catholic university doesn’t distinguish itself for its care, that those who are teaching theology and the other theological disciplines are doing so in communion with the Magisterium, what reason does it have to exist?

“If a Catholic university or college has been given the title Catholic (Canon 808),” says canon law advisor Robert Flummerfelt, “then it is the obligation of that Catholic institution to employ individuals teaching in the theological disciplines to promote Catholic thought completely faithful to the teaching authority of the Church.”

Choosing theology professors who have the mandatum is “an additional sign of the commitment that the Catholic university has to promote and teach the Catholic faith authentically,” Flummerfelt says.

Here Canon 812 intersects with Canon 810, which describes a Catholic college or university’s obligations with regard to employing professors in all disciplines:

It is the responsibility of the authority who is competent in accord with the statutes to provide for the appointment of teachers to Catholic universities who, besides their scientific and pedagogical suitability, are also outstanding in their integrity of doctrine and probity of life; when those requisite qualities are lacking they are to be removed from their positions in accord with the procedure set forth in the statutes.

Archbishop Curtiss sees it as a matter of truth in advertising: “If a Catholic purports to be teaching Catholic theology, then he needs a mandatum.”  On the other hand, “if he’s teaching some other kind of theology, then say so.”

Properly labeling professors and their courses, by clearly identifying what is authentic Catholic theology and what is not, would seem a related responsibility of the Catholic college or university.

The Mandatum and Non-Catholic Institutions

What about non-Catholic colleges and universities that employ Catholic theologians—does the mandatum apply only at Catholic institutions?  The U.S. bishops’ 2001 guidelines for the mandatum concern only “Catholics who teach theological disciplines in a Catholic university,” and the mandatum is most often associated with Ex corde Ecclesiae and the renewal of Catholic identity in Catholic institutions.

But interestingly, Cardinal Burke tells The Cardinal Newman Society that he believes Canon 812 can be applied to theology professors at state, secular, and other religious colleges and universities as well:

My interpretation of the canon is that it applies to anyone who teaches in a public and formal way Catholic theology, in other words also someone who would hold a chair of Catholic theology in another institute.

In other words, let’s say that at some secular university a chair is founded of Catholic theology and the person who is teaching it publicly claims to be teaching Catholic theology, then it seems to me that that person needs a mandate, in other words needs certification on the part of the competent ecclesiastical authority, which would normally be the diocesan bishop, that he or she is teaching in communion with the Magisterium.  Otherwise, you could end up in a situation where you’d have someone who holds a chair in Catholic theology who is teaching something that is contrary to the Catholic faith or even inimical to it.

Rescuing Theology

The Cardinal Newman Society interviewed several theology professors at Catholic institutions who responded favorably to Pope Benedict’s May 5th address.  They indicate that in addition to protecting students from dissident professors, a renewed emphasis on the mandatum could improve theology departments at Catholic colleges and universities—but while the mandatum will help, much more needs to happen.

“The mandatum is important, but it has been pretty much disregarded in this country,” laments Father Edward O’Connor, CSC, theology professor emeritus at the University of Notre Dame.  “Theologians don’t like to have anybody looking over their shoulders.  I thought it was absolutely wrong that the mandatum was disregarded.  We’ve got a lot of theologians in Catholic colleges who are not really Catholic.”

That, says Ave Maria University theology chairman and former Boston College theologian Father Matthew Lamb, is a problem with serious consequences:

Many of the pastoral problems bishops face find their roots in the failure of proper formation and education of the priests, religious, seminarians, and faithful in their dioceses as dissent spreads from theologians to the mass media and beyond.  The recent sexual abuse scandals that have damaged so many sprang from failures in moral and theological formation and proper oversight.  Those theologians now rejecting Magisterial teachings on the immorality of contraception, of abortion, of homosexual acts, and of euthanasia, as well as those rejecting Magisterial teachings on marriage, priesthood, and sacramental practice, are sowing the seeds of further scandals.

Father Lamb believes that “students, as well as their families,” should be told who has the mandatum, and Catholic institutions should not hire theologians without it.  University of Scranton theologian Brian Benestad agrees, noting that strict employment policies are “especially important today since the defense of dissent by Catholic theologians seems to be the rule rather than the exception.”

It’s a matter of justice, says University of Dallas theologian Christopher Malloy:

Let us not forget that who most need protection in the true faith are the poor.  The poor catechetically are those who want catechetical formation.  We must protect and nurture these souls.  Salvation is at stake, and purgatory is no cup of tea.  Theologians who complain about their “rights” are forgetting that we are servants of Jesus Christ, and He came to feed the poor.

Any theologian who is unwilling to request the mandatum is “a bad Catholic theologian,” says Larry Chapp, professor of theology and former department chairman at DeSales University.  That’s because “theology must focus on the ecclesial context of how Revelation is mediated to us, and that necessarily implies respect” for the Magisterium.

But Malloy adds:

Orthodoxy is the absolute minimum requirement of authentic theology.  It is by no means a maximal requirement.  This means that whoever is not orthodox is not fit to be a theologian.  However, being orthodox does not make one a theologian, much less a good theologian. …Parents and students should use their nose in discerning whether or not a theologian is truly orthodox, who loves Jesus and the one Church that Jesus founded.  It may be that a mandatum is issued, and yet a theologian is playing fast and loose with the magisterial teaching, especially in ways that most students are not able to detect but that have real, deleterious effects.

Mark Lowery, also a theology professor at the University of Dallas, worries that “some heterodox theologians who are angry about the mandatum might go ahead and sign it disingenuously.”  For this, he proposes a solution:

The department of theology should have a regular presence on campus through talks (with responses), symposia on current topics, and the like.  The student body should have fairly regular chances to see how their theologians’ minds tick.  That strategy goes a long way in discovering what a signature on a mandatum really means.

Ultimately the mandatum is one tool toward the larger goal of promoting fidelity in Catholic theology and, more broadly, throughout Catholic higher education.  Loyola University Chicago theologian Dennis Martin explains that the value of the mandatum is in shining a light on a discipline that needs to regain the trust of Catholic families:

[T]he mandatum puts the theologian on notice, makes him accountable when he’s tempted to disagree.  It does not mean that the bishop approves of everything that theologian has written or will write or has said or will say in class.  What it does is put the burden of conscience onto the theologian, first, to present the faith accurately and then, if he disagrees with it, to deal with that unfaithfulness in his conscience and acknowledge it to himself and students.  No person of integrity will do that for very long.

The several theologians, bishops and canon law experts interviewed by The Cardinal Newman Society seem to agree that by ensuring compliance with Canon 812—not only compliance by individual theologians seeking the mandatum, but also colleges and universities eager to ensure that students receive theological instruction from professors who have the mandatum—Catholic colleges and universities can significantly strengthen their Catholic identity.

As expressed in Ex corde Ecclesiae, preserving Catholic identity requires hiring professors “who are both willing and able to promote that identity.  The identity of a Catholic University is essentially linked to the quality of its teachers and to respect for Catholic doctrine.”  For this reason, the mandatum is crucial to the integrity of a college or university as Catholic.