The Vatican has been stressing for years that Catholic universities should have a distinctively Catholic character and follow Church doctrine. Pope John Paul II spelled this out in a 1990 document called Ex corde Ecclesiae and Vatican officials have used this to discipline universities that stray too far from Church teaching. Traditionally, rebellious theologians were the ones who caught their eye. In recent years, bioethical issues have emerged as a flashpoint. Universities researching in vitro fertilisation or embryonic stem cells — both of which the Church opposes — have been threatened with withdrawal of their Catholic status unless they stop.
Now the question has come up whether a basketball coach at a Catholic university can be in favour of abortion and embryonic stem cell research. Mollie Ziegler at GetReligion has picked up a fascinating story about Saint Louis University’s coach Rick Majerus, who expressed his personal views to a local reporter while attending a Hillary Clinton campaign rally. SLU describes itself as “a Jesuit, Catholic university.” It is not legally controlled by the local Catholic diocese. St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke is one of the most outspoken Catholic prelates in the United States — he said in 2004 he would deny communion to John Kerry because of his pro-abortion views, said the same last year about Rudy Giuliani and has now said it about Majerus. And he says SLU should discipline Majerus.
It’s hard to imagine that Burke will just let this drop because of details such as the lay composition of its board or how the state of Missouri views the university’s status. If this document on Ex corde Ecclesiae by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is any guide, he seems to have a moral responsibility for all Catholic universities in his diocese, whether they officially come under his control or not. What he can do is not clear. The Vatican has ways to exert its influence, especially with the Jesuits. Look at the way it pushed Fr. Tom Reese out of the editor’s chair at America magazine.
Coincidentally, this comes just after the Jesuit order elected a new superior general, Adolfo Nicolas (a Spaniard, like its founder Saint Ignatius). Shortly before the vote, Pope Benedict sent the outgoing superior general a letter recalling the order’s special vow of obedience to the Pope. Vatican Radio said Benedict made a special point of asking “that the Congregation reaffirms, in the spirit of Saint Ignatius, its own total adhesion to Catholic doctrine, in particular on the crucial points under attack today from secular culture”.
This is a story to watch.