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Glen Coughlin will sign. Gladly. Oh yes, says the dean of Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif., he fully backs the Vatican requirement for Roman Catholic theologians to pledge, in writing, that they will teach “authentic Catholic doctrine.”

Call this truth in advertising, Coughlin says: People billed as Catholic theologians should accurately present Catholic teachings.

John Connolly will not sign. Absolutely not. The lay professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles has devoted three decades to teaching theology. But he says the so-called loyalty oath, formally known as a mandatum, is an affront to academic freedom and would restrict his ability to serve Christ and his church.

“It is unnecessary, unjust, un-Christian and a bad law,” he says.

The tale of two theologians underscores the divisions roiling the Catholic Church and campuses over the loyalty issue. As the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops prepare to implement the mandatum after more than a decade of debate and their recent approval of procedural guidelines, Catholic theologians are wrestling with how to respond.

Under the guidelines, all Catholic theologians — priests and lay teachers alike — at the nation’s 235 Catholic colleges and universities must obtain a certificate from their bishop that they are in “full communion” with the church. They also must commit to teach authentic doctrine as defined by the pope and bishops and to refrain from presenting as Catholic teaching anything contrary to church authority.

Promulgated because of concern that Catholic universities are losing their religious identity, the requirements took effect in May and must be fulfilled within the next year.

For many theologians, the loyalty issue has raised profound polarities between faith and academic freedom, sparked fears about jobs and reputations and created concerns of a chilling effect on robust classroom debate. It also has heightened tensions between Vatican orthodoxy and increasingly independent American Catholic theologians on a range of moral, gender and ecumenical issues.

Some critics see a dark attempt by Rome to extend control over the expanding group of lay theologians, who do not take vows of obedience to church authority as priests do.

In the last three decades, amid the liberal reforms of the Second Vatican Council, lay Catholics have flocked to the field of theology and today outnumber priests on many Catholic university faculties, said Kenneth Himes, a Franciscan priest and past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America.

The Vatican installed the mandatum as part of canon law in 1983, but U.S. bishops essentially ignored it until 1999, when Rome pushed the issue. In finalizing procedural guidelines at their national conference in June, the bishops did not adopt any penalties for failing to obtain a mandatum.

But some theologians are nervous at the prospect that Rome eventually might insist on them. And some conservative Catholic groups said they intend to push for consequences — including pressing bishops to publicize names of those who lack mandatums and remove them from Catholic theology courses.

Other consequences could include barring noncompliant theologians from speaking at Catholic events, from training religious teachers known as catechists or from representing the church at ecumenical gatherings, said Chris Erickson of Catholics United for the Faith. He said his group planned to alert bishops to any “problem” theologians.

“These kinds of steps will start to pinch the theologians and separate the wheat from the chaff,” said Erickson, whose Ohio-based group claims 95,000 members. “There are more Catholic theologians teaching contrary to the faith today than those who are authentic and loyal to the faith.”

A controversial Web site, www. mandata.org, has published the names of theologians and their mandatum status. Connolly, for instance, is a marked man, with a red circle and slash next to his name, for his public pronouncements that he will not seek a mandatum. Mandatum supporters are distinguished by check marks on the site, which has been traced to a priest in Alabama.

Erickson views such information as consumer aids to help students decide where to study and with whom. “You’ve got wayward theologians in there leading our children astray,” Erickson said.

Connolly does not see it that way. His job is not to persuade students to accept church doctrine, he said, but to expose them to a variety of views and help them think critically about them. Loyola Marymount’s 4,500 students — 60 percent of them Catholic — are required to take two theology courses, such as World Religions, Buddhism, Roots of the Catholic Tradition or Issues in the Contemporary Church.

Any classroom impact of the mandatum would involve the Catholic theology courses. In his undergraduate course, What Is Faith in Jesus Christ?, for instance, Connolly has introduced a variety of views on whether Christ is the sole path to salvation. The church position, adopted by the Second Vatican Council in 1964, affirms that even non-Christians who lead good lives can find salvation but, whether they realize it or not, must attain it through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Connolly also, however, presents a view rejected by the church: God can bring salvation to people through their own faiths. Connolly guesses that half of his students probably embrace that view but says he doesn’t push it, although he is sympathetic to it.

“Down the line, we could be told that you can’t teach anything outside the church position, which would totally destroy the notion of a Catholic university,” Connolly said.

Father Thomas Rausch, chairman of Loyola Marymount’s theological studies department, said the mandatum should be seen as an expression of a “purely personal relationship” between the bishop and theologian. Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles, has told area theologians not to be “overly concerned and that he would make every effort to work with us,” Rausch said.

“We said, ‘We have great respect for you, but what if someone else becomes the bishop?’” Rausch added.

In particular, younger scholars without tenure said the mandatum will make them think twice about applying to teach at Catholic universities.

Some theologians see the mandatum as part of a broad Vatican attempt to quash growing challenges to traditional church teachings on issues including women’s ordination, religious pluralism, birth control, abortion, divorce and homosexuality.

Members of the Catholic Theological Society of America have clashed repeatedly with Rome. In 1997, the group issued a paper expressing “serious doubts” about church teachings against women’s ordination, and passed a resolution calling for continued debate on the topic.

Two decades earlier, more than 600 American Catholic scholars signed a letter dissenting from a papal encyclical affirming the church ban on birth control.

Today, some Catholic theologians argue that abortion might be permissible for the first 14 days on the grounds that the fetus has not yet become an individual, personalized life.

Others have argued that condoms should be able to be used as protection against AIDS, and that same-sex relationships marked by stability, freedom and mutual respect could be sanctioned.

Such positions have appalled Catholic conservatives such as Erickson, who praised the pope for addressing a “crisis of faith” in the church. He said scholars who disagree are free to leave Catholic campuses and teach elsewhere.

That suggestion makes Loyola Marymount’s Connolly bristle.

He regards himself as a faithful Catholic. The Alabama native served as an altar boy, attended Catholic schools throughout his years of education, even spent eight years studying for the priesthood.

He decided to become a lay theologian instead, responding to what he described as Vatican II’s spirit of openness and encouragement of a “living role” for laity.

In his courses, Connolly has sought to teach that devout believers can still raise questions about their faith. He has prepared a letter to Mahony detailing legal and theological reasons why he will not seek or accept a mandatum. And he said he will not let his opponents drive him away.

“I’m not going to leave the church to them,” Connolly said.

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