met with Gregory Aymond, the Archbishop of New Orleans, this afternoon, and I couldn't have even tried to imagine a better conversation: what a first-rate guy! I had contacted the Archbishop's office in order to inquire about obtaining a mandatum
, a sort of official recognition by the Church that I am a teacher of Catholic theology, like my diploma is an official recognition by my university that I am academically prepared to be a theologian.
was a source of considerable controversy in the 1990s and 2000s, after it was promoted by the Vatican's Apostolic Constitution on Catholic Universities, Ex Corde Ecclesiae
("From The Heart of the Church"). The main objection was basically that such "outside" accountability would impinge on academic freedom. While certainly one could imagine that there could be political shenanigans involved in such a "certification" of Catholic theologians by the leadership of the Church, there's also the opposite shenanigans of creating conflict where there isn't any in order to further some other agenda. So caricatures of power-mad bishops and power-mad secularists can engage in battle, and maybe they do, now and then.
As a graduate student observing these discussions, even before admitting to myself that I was a Catholic, I got the feeling that a lot of that sort of objection came from non-Catholic faculty or faculty who weren't teaching theology anyway, and amounted to the sort of mild paranoia about the "all-consuming Catholic Church" that one runs into now and again. Certainly the idea that academically free scholars shouldn't be accountable to any organization outside their own university is a bit laughable for anyone familiar with how universities actually run. The amount of accountability required to the government, to accrediting and professional organizations, or to donors, all amounts to a small mountain of paperwork. The text of the mandatum
is pretty basic, stating that "As a professor of a Catholic theological discipline, therefore, I am committed to teach authentic Catholic doctrine and to refrain from putting forth as Catholic teaching anything contrary to the Church's magisterium." In other words, I've just pledged to teach my discipline accurately. Big controversy, eh? I thought that was just part of being an excellent (or even just an adequate) teacher in any field. I can teach things that aren't Catholic ideas (I have to master those and discuss them all the time), I just have to be clear on what is Catholic and what isn't. Again, that's just being a competent or honest teacher.
So while just inquiring about getting that recognition of being a professor of Catholic theology was my business for the afternoon, the conversation was really much more far-ranging. Being a bishop is an insanely-busy position, and I imagine being an archbishop is even moreso. (An "archdiocese," the responsibility of an archbishop, is designated as such rather than a regular "diocese" simply because it has a major city in its bounds: so it's the difference between being the mayor of Chicago or the mayor of my hometown of Oregon, Illinois.) Yet he gave me a little over an hour of his time and we spent most of that just getting to know one another, with his needing to get to know me (and since I had the advantage of reading his basic biography online
) taking priority. So we talked one another's educations, about my dissertation research and my other specialties, about teaching, about Catholic theology and the current intellectual context of the student body, the differences between academic theology at the university and catechesis or "religious education," about New Orleans, and the like. Naturally, we spoke some about ecclesiology, and the relation of the theologian to the Church and to the bishop of a diocese, or of the Catholic university. (Here I cited my Notre Dame mentor John Cavadini's provocative letter in the Notre Dame newspaper
that I'd heard about on the matter; I see John also has a recent and pretty kick-ass reflection on Ex Corde Ecclesiae in a recent National Catholic Reporter response
.) And we found that we were on the same matter-of-fact kind of page, not really finding anything too controversial in the controversy on the matter of the mandatum
, and both agreeing that this caused no problems for academic freedom. And so we talked about difficulties in theology and matters of ambiguity, finding that we both seemed to handle them in a similar straightforward, no-nonsense way. H
e even indulged me when I finally remembered something I had wanted to grab a bishop and discuss for years: the oddity and validity of my confirmation as a teenager. It's a story
that has turned into something of a theological toy over the years, like the "party trick" a person has, or a novelty that they trot out for entertainment. My priest or liturgical scholar friends have been pretty evenly split over the years as to whether my confirmation "counted," or whether I had made such a hash of it that I ought to actually just go and quietly run through the ceremony in a proper way. So I've been meaning to corner a bishop, who is responsible for that sacrament, and get an "official" answer out of him, once and for all. (Kind of akin to Mr. and Mrs. Farmer, my favourite customers on my paper route when I was a kid, who discovered after some fifty-odd years of marriage – if I remember the number correctly – that they had never actually signed their marriage license and that the whole thing, technically speaking, had never been legal or "official" to that point.) So, I know that it was now for me just a matter of "crossing the "t"s and dotting the "i"s, but I to try to tidy up my affairs (eventually). Archbishop Aymond's response was unequivocal: it was a valid confirmation. He then said something that I thought was brilliant in that straightforward manner I've already mentioned: "Who doesn't
approach a sacrament with some questions or doubts?" And that got us talking about the Catholic teaching of such things: that the act
itself is spiritually potent, or in other words, that the sacrament itself is efficacious – having its effects despite whatever the mental state of the people involved. This is utterly consistent with Catholic teaching – that the Spirit of God will do what God does, doing everything to draw us back to God, one way or another – and is why he as a pastor will enact a sacrament like confirmation even when he suspects that some teenage recipient is only half on board: it becomes an occasion for God to act, and that can be sufficient.
That's the way I had been looking at it for years, of course, since even though I acknowledged that their could be some formal irregularities in the way it played out for me, I had still (eventually) enacted it when I realized while doing my Master's in Theological Studies at Notre Dame that after all the years in-between – moving in Evangelical circles, reading Hinduism, working for the Lutheran Church, studying with a Zen Master for a year – that I was, in fact, a Catholic. I had even gone on and sponsored others in their confirmations in the Church, but it did feel good to just sort of finally get it from the competent official. So I told him that he had earned a spot in a twenty year-old anecdote, and apologized for the silliness of the question. He paid me the complement of thinking that I had been a brave kid, although I said that that might just have been me being a punk, but it had
been a question of conscience for me at the time: even though so many kids were just doing it as something of a "graduation from Church" rather than an acceptance of adult status and responsibility for Christian faith, I was very conscious at the time of the weight and import of the words of the rite, and I wanted to be as true as possible. So, anyway, he was a great guy, and I'm delighted to see someone like him as the chief teacher for the Church in New Orleans. If he weren't so terribly busy, I'd want to put him on the regular "let's have dinner" schedule, because I get the feeling that he'd be a cool friend.