BOSTON American bishops have overwhelmingly approved controversial Vatican guidelines for Catholic universities that require their presidents publicly to express a commitment to the faith and theologians to declare they will teach "authentic Catholic doctrine".
Critics said the document, called Ex Corde Ecclesiae, or "from the heart of the church", is part of an effort by the Vatican to clamp down on opposing points of view in the United States.
The decision is complicated by the fact that the church has direct control over hardly any of the nation's 235 Catholic universities, many of which are essentially secular and include students and faculty of all faiths.
There already have been conflicts between some Catholic universities and the church hierarchy over such things as allowing speakers on their campuses who differ from Catholic teachings in such areas as abortion.
It was, in fact, the increasingly secular nature of the schools that prompted the pope to suggest in 1990 that they take measures to retain their religious identity.
The Ex Corde affirms that Catholic universities should remain autonomous, but says their presidents and most of their trustees should be Catholic. Theologians would have to receive a written certification called a "mandatum" from their bishop. If they did not, it would be up to the university to decide what to do.
"I would say to the presidents of our Catholic colleges and universities: 'you have nothing to fear from us'," Roger Cardinal Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles, said.
But Margaret Farley, a professor of Christian ethics at Yale Divinity School and president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, said the Ex Corde was a threat to academic freedom and would create distrust between theologians and bishops.
"As such, it may discourage young scholars from pursuing theological degrees or from seeking teaching positions in Catholic colleges and universities," Dr Farley said.
Other critics complained that the church was trying to control what Catholics say in public. The bishops also discussed requiring Catholics who want to explain Catholic doctrine on television or radio to get the permission of two bishops, although no final decision was made on that proposal.
As for the universities themselves, they kept a low profile.
Notre Dame president, the Rev Edward Malloy, who had publicly opposed the changes, issued a statement saying the school "continues to cherish our Catholic identity and mission".
The document now goes back to the Vatican for approval. It is expected to take effect in a year.