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Proposal Concerns Catholic Colleges

January 4, 1999

BOSTON (AP) _ Some of the nation’s 236 Catholic universities and colleges fear a proposal to give the Vatican tighter control over their operations would erode academic standards and their national standing.

Details of the change to church control were proposed in November at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The bishops gave schools until May to comment before a final vote later this year.

The plan would require presidents of Catholic colleges to take an oath of fidelity to the church and force theologians to get permission to teach from local bishops. The universities also would be urged to recruit ``faithful Catholics″ for their faculties and boards of trustees.

``It is an attempt to clarify the meaning of Catholic, when you use that as an adjective before your institution,″ the Rev. Terrence Toland said Monday. Toland headed the committee that drafted the proposal.

Critics, including some college presidents, say the proposal could hurt faculty recruitment, prompt lawsuits over hiring and free-speech issues, and threaten federal funding for student loans.

``This is the kind of thing that will just scare the pants off faculty in any Catholic university because it just sounds like the church officials are going to come in and police the university without any respect for academic freedom,″ said Thomas J. Reese, editor of America, a weekly Jesuit magazine.

In 1990, the Vatican released a document containing guidelines for maintaining the religious identities of Catholic universities. U.S. bishops agreed on details for implementation in late 1996, but the Vatican rejected them, demanding tighter language to guarantee the bishops’ control.

The bishops say the stricter proposal isn’t final, but it is raising serious concerns. Some fear the plan also could cost schools in government aid.

If a Catholic school is controlled by a bishop _ rather than by a board of lay trustees _ it would be classified as a religious institution, making it ineligible for millions of dollars worth of government funding, including financial aid packages for students.

The universities say the dispute isn’t about maintaining their Catholic identities and their ties with the church, two objectives they share.

``We want these places to be as effectively Catholic as the bishops do,″ said Charles Currie, president of the 28-member Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities. ``We simply want to do it in a way which we think is appropriate within American higher education.″

University officials said Monday they are hopeful the draft proposal will be substantially changed by the time the bishops vote on it at their annual meeting in November 1999.

But, if the current version were to pass, Reese predicted, some institutions might become nonsectarian. Even more likely, bishops might be taken to court by academics suing over tenure and hiring decisions, he said.

``If bishops stick their noses into this business,″ Reese said, ``they’re going to get into trouble.″

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