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Research and higher education

Limited autonomy of the faculties of theology at public universities in Slovakia

Theological faculties in Slovakia have been part of public universities only since 1990. Before 1989, theological education took place in schools that were within the authority of the Ministry of Culture, had a special status and were not covered by the Act on Higher Education.

Before 1948, the Catholic Faculty of Theology was part of the university for a short time after its establishment in 1935. The Protestant theological faculty had the status of a church educational institute since its establishment in 1919, and in 1934 the state began to contribute financially to its operation. The Orthodox theological faculty was established in 1950. The youngest faculty of theology is the Greek Catholic Faculty, which was established only in 1990. The incorporation of the faculties of theology into public universities in Slovakia after 1990 meant the harmonisation of their position with other faculties of theology in Europe. This was also a kind of reparation of various historical wrongs caused by previous political regimes. Above all, however, it meant their submission to generally applicable university academic standards, which created the conditions for a fundamental increase in the quality of theological education and research in Slovakia.

However, the incorporation of the faculties of theology into public universities did not mean a complete adoption of the general principles applicable for public universities. The churches decided to keep from then on in their own hands the ideological control that was before 1989 in the hands of the state.

The current Higher Education Act contains several provisions which, in the case of the faculties of theology, guarantee exceptions (131/2002 Coll., § 34). This also applies to § 4 guaranteeing academic freedoms and academic rights. In practice, this means, for example, that an academic senate at a faculty of theology can approve its internal statutes and regulations under the condition that they previously have been approved by the relevant church (§ 34).

Until 2018, a provision in the Higher Education Act allowed a faculty of theology to submit for accreditation only a curriculum previously approved by the relevant church (§ 83, para. 12). This provision has now been moved to the new Act on the Quality of Higher Education (Section 30, paragraph 2, Letter i, of Act 269/2018 Coll.). Theological faculties are no longer explicitly mentioned in this provision and the obligation to submit the consent of an external legal entity depends on the description of the field of study prepared by its guarantors.

The greatest interference in the autonomy and academic self-government at public universities is the right of churches to grant and withdraw their consent to persons teaching theological subjects at a faculty of a public university. It is enshrined in the treaty on Catholic education between the Slovak Republic and the Holy See (394/2004 Coll.) and in an analogous treaty between the Slovak Republic and eleven churches and religious societies (395/2004 Coll.).

The decision about who can teach at a theological faculty of a public university is therefore not the sovereign decision of a rector or a dean elected by the academic self-government but these academic representatives are subordinate to the church as far as these personnel decisions are concerned.

The limitation of academic rights and freedoms in the case of theological faculties also applies to the election, appointment, and removal of the dean of the faculty. This option is, however, not used by the Lutheran and Orthodox theological faculties. In the case of Roman Catholic and Greek Catholic theological faculties, this means in practice that the dean elected by the academic senate of the faculty may be appointed by the rector of the university only after prior approval by the Congregation of the Holy See for Catholic Education (see for example art. 10, paragraphs 3 and 4 of the Statute of Roman Catholic Theological Faculty of Comenius University in Bratislava).

All these examples show that the academic self-government and autonomy of theological faculties at public universities in Slovakia are limited and subordinated to the decision-making of churches. This situation has a negative impact especially on the field of theological research. Limited academic freedom leads to self-censorship of academic staff at theological faculties and to the absence of research in areas that churches in Slovakia consider controversial. These are, in particular, theological research from a feminist perspective, research in the field of liberation theology, interdisciplinary research in bioethical topics, or topics which overlap the field of human rights. All this is an obstacle to the increase of the quality of Slovak theological faculties.

D 4 March 2021    AOndrej Prostredník

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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