Oath demands what many would willingly give

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Oath demands what many would giveIn 1989 the Holy See issued a new version of the "profession of faith" required to be made before taking on various official positions in the Catholic Church. In an interview on ABC radio at the time, I was asked whether I would be willing to make the profession. My reply was that I would, provided I could take it in Latin.

This was no piece of archaism on my part. I simply wished to make a point about one word in the profession, the Latin obsequium (translated as 'submission' in the published English text). This term specifies the kind of loyalty that one gives to authoritative but not infallible church teaching.

Obsequium can be translated as submission, but it can also be translated as obedience, loyalty, or respect. My point was, and is, that I am ready to promise respect for church teaching of this kind, but not unquestioning obedience. Respect can actually mean 'submitting' your mind and desire to the teaching. Your desire is to be guided by the church, indeed to follow the teaching if you possibly can. You submit your mind to teaching by making every effort to appreciate it and the reasons that underlie it, by having the humility to admit that the church may be a lot wiser than you are. But such respect or submission is ultimately compatible with not fully accepting the teaching.

My point was also about the nature of an oath (a solemn promise). We are dealing here with a legal instrument, and it is a long tradition of the church (embodied in canon 18 of the Code of Canon Law) that such instruments are to be narrowly interpreted. That means interpreted in such a way as to keep to a reasonable minimum any limitation on your "free exercise of rights". My interpretation of obsequium and submission is minimalist in that entirely appropriate sense.

All this is relevant to the controversy surrounding the current proposal in the Archdiocese of Sydney to require the profession of faith of people in executive positions in Catholic schools.

The aim of this proposal is an admirable one — to ensure that the Catholic tradition of faith remains central to Catholic schools. This is a matter of genuine concern and the Australian church is already addressing it through a variety of formation programs.



Whether the imposition of an oath will further its aim is, on the other hand, extremely doubtful. An oath is, as I have argued, a legal instrument of a rather blunt kind, of its nature demanding only minimal compliance, whereas what is needed is a positive atmosphere in which traditions and values can be learned and appreciated.

Oath demands what many would giveRespect for church teaching can be fostered through such positive formation. Requiring the taking of an oath is more likely to provoke unnecessarily negative reactions, especially if one gets the false impression that what is being demanded is unthinking obedience.

The 'submission' clause is one of the controversial parts of the profession of faith. Another controversial clause involves a promise to protect the communion of the church by one’s words and ways of acting. Some have wondered whether this would exclude from executive positions in Catholic schools someone who, in good conscience, practises contraception, even though they have never publicly questioned the church’s position on the matter.

If we apply the principle of narrow interpretation, it is clear that such a person would not be excluded, that they could in good faith make the profession of faith. The behaviour that one is promising to avoid is behaviour that would involve a breach in the communion of the church, the sort of behaviour that would lead to the excommunication of a person. Such 'crimes' are listed in canons 1364 to 1398 of the Code. Many concern very serious breaches of professional standards. Others concern heresy in the strict sense or very serious crimes against human life. Any of them can lead to excommunication only if it involves grave moral culpability.

It is not only the case that a person holding a senior position in a Catholic school would be unlikely to be guilty of such crimes. There are already policies in place that are more stringent in their requirements of the behaviour of Catholic school staff. A further oath is unnecessary, and once again likely to provoke unnecessarily negative reactions.

 

 

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David this article presents well the limited value of an oath in achieveing the purpose of safe guarding the Catholic tradition of Catholic schools. I don't know if the oath is to be the oath you refer to from 1989 profession of faith or something else.

From what I gather the relevant teachers union has no problem with the requirement of an oath and simply acknowledge the obligation of the bishops to ensure that leaders in their schools actively support and promote Catholic belief and values. Spiritual formation, and theological education seem to me to be more relevant to the aims of the oath. I wonder what formation and education of this kind is available to aspiring and current leaders in Catholic schools, universities, hospitals and other works of the Church?

It would be interesting to find out how this formation is addressed in order to get a more balanced picture.
Anthony | 14 June 2007


The oath would appear to be contrary to the teaching of Christ (Matthew 5:34-37).
Peter Downie | 14 June 2007


Anthony you ask about the formation and education of aspiring and current leaders in Catholic schools, unis, hospitals and other works. I can offer you some insight into what is available and mandated for leaders in Catholic Schools in Western Australia. In WA Principals are described as 'theological leaders' of their school community. Therefore Principals (aspiring or employed) are required to undertake a process of 'Accreditation to Lead a Catholic School'. This includes: the completion of approved tertiary studies at post-graduate level in theology (some of which must be masters level); 18 hours of inservice on the Religious Education learning area; 18 hours inservice on leadership in the Religious Education learning area; a two day inservice on Evangelisation and the General Directory for Catechesis (along with their school leadership team); and appropriate faith formation activities negotiated with the Director of Catholic education every 7 years. Once accreditation is granted there is a requirement for 30 hours ongoing renewal in theology and faith formation every five years once Accreditation has been certified. Principals appointed in WA must have worked in Catholic schools for at least six years. Leaders in the Religious Education learning area also have accreditation requirements appropriate for their role.

Each state Catholic education Commission has an Accreditation framework - this might give you some understanding of what is happening 'in the West'.

Thanks for your stimulating article Geoffrey!





Christopher Cotter | 14 June 2007


Anthony you ask about the formation and education of aspiring and current leaders in Catholic schools, unis, hospitals and other works. I can offer you some insight into what is available and mandated for leaders in Catholic Schools in Western Australia. In WA Principals are described as 'theological leaders' of their school community. Therefore Principals (aspiring or employed) are required to undertake a process of 'Accreditation to Lead a Catholic School'. This includes: the completion of approved tertiary studies at post-graduate level in theology (some of which must be masters level); 18 hours of inservice on the Religious Education learning area; 18 hours inservice on leadership in the Religious Education learning area; a two day inservice on Evangelisation and the General Directory for Catechesis (along with their school leadership team); and appropriate faith formation activities negotiated with the Director of Catholic education every 7 years. Once accreditation is granted there is a requirement for 30 hours ongoing renewal in theology and faith formation every five years once Accreditation has been certified. Principals appointed in WA must have worked in Catholic schools for at least six years. Leaders in the Religious Education learning area also have accreditation requirements appropriate for their role.

Each state Catholic education Commission has an Accreditation framework - this might give you some understanding of what is happening 'in the West'.

Thanks for your stimulating article Geoffrey!





Christopher Cotter | 14 June 2007


I agree with Geoffrey. A further oath is unnecessary. I have worked as a Principal in Catholic schools in two states over a period of 30 years and have never been in doubt that I had an obligation to uphold church teaching both publicly and privately. This was made very clear in my letters of appointment and more recently in Position Information Documentation. I would be quite happy to take a further oath as explained in Geoffrey's article, but it just seems unnecessaary.
Ray Ham | 15 June 2007


I like the balance of the article. It is sad, in my opinion, that the oath has been proposed at all. One cannot give up the right to think and to search for truth. One is bound by conscience and no oath can take that right away. I enjoy what Geoffrey King has written regarding "submission".
Jeffrey L. Calligan, FSC | 06 August 2007


I seem to detect a whiff of the Jansenist modus operandi in Fr. King's article. They were great equivocators too. Of course, what is required is thinking, not unthinking, obedience. If one cannot, in good conscience, thoughfully obey, then the honest and honourable thing to do is resign. Sometimes following one's conscience requires courage.
Peter John McGregor | 01 September 2007


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