• September 4, 2015

Catholic Colleges 20 Years After 'Ex Corde'

Catholic Colleges 20 Years After 'Ex Corde' 1

John Macdonald for The Chronicle

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John Macdonald for The Chronicle

Twenty years ago, Pope John Paul II issued Ex corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church), an Apostolic Constitution that defined Roman Catholic colleges and created guidelines to assist them in fulfilling their missions.

Catholic higher education has never been quite the same since.

The specific guidelines to put Ex corde into practice were formally approved by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2001, after more than a decade of dialogue and debate. Many Catholic academics disapproved, and the ensuing tension—at times rancor—made it seemingly impossible to have a reasoned discussion. The key issues were protecting the autonomy of Catholic colleges and the requirement that faculty members teaching Catholic theology receive the mandatum that they were "teaching within the full communion of the Catholic Church," recognizing its doctrine.

Clearly, in 20 years of such disputes, Catholic colleges have changed. But how?

Ex corde is certainly no longer the front-burner issue among Catholic educators that it once was. Many younger faculty members may not have even heard of it. Many dire predictions about its impact did not occur: Catholic colleges did not lose government funds, non-Catholic professors and trustees were not dismissed, and there has been no loss of academic freedom.

Those who hoped that Ex corde would usher in rapid change have also been disappointed. Many advocates maintain that the bishops have never fully enforced its guidelines. Catholic colleges still remain highly autonomous and do more or less what they want. When I talk to American Catholics outside academe, most draw a blank when Ex corde is mentioned. When Pope Benedict XVI addressed Catholic educators during his visit to the United States in April 2008, he made no direct reference to the Apostolic Constitution.

As a consequence, it is understandable that many today might regard Ex corde as "clinically dead." But they would be wrong. In fact it has had a steady and profound impact on Catholic higher education in the United States, albeit more subtle than critics feared and reformers hoped. Moreover, there are several reasons why it will continue to shape, guide, and inspire us in the future.

First, Ex corde significantly increased awareness of Catholic higher education as a unique segment of postsecondary education in the United States. The Land O'Lakes Statement, issued in 1967 mostly by priest presidents of major Catholic colleges, has often been described as a sort of Declaration of Independence from the church, and its influence was felt for the next quarter century. It was peculiarly devoid of what makes a Catholic college distinctively Catholic. Instead it proffered the notion of a Catholic college as the "critical reflective intelligence of the Church," standing in judgment of—instead of adherence to—the Catholic faith. Its blueprint for attaining a vaguely defined "academic excellence" emulated the practices of secular universities.

The collective inferiority complex embedded in the statement set the stage for a meager view of Catholic higher education by consciously dismissing small Catholic liberal-arts colleges and assiduously avoiding any direct reference to church teaching or doctrine, magisterium (the teaching authority of the church), the pursuit of truth, or indeed even to Jesus Christ.

In contrast, Ex corde, with its rich discussion of truth, the integration of knowledge, faith, and reason—all within the broader context of a Christ-centered vision of a Catholic college—immediately inaugurated a genuine dialogue among educators about the true relevance of Catholic higher education. Suddenly terms like "Catholic identity" and "faith and reason" were circulating, bolstered by Pope John Paul II's 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason), which was widely discussed on Catholic campuses.

Increasingly today, those colleges are beginning to recognize that emulating secular institutions might be worthwhile in some instances, but not at the expense of what makes them truly Catholic and, therefore, distinctive. Even those who openly criticized Ex corde have become engaged in discussion—albeit reluctantly. The importance of theology and philosophy, undergraduate core curricula, and how graduates of Catholic colleges should be distinguishable from those of secular institutions has emerged because of Ex corde. Nothing similar resulted from the sterile and presumptuous Land O'Lakes Statement.

Second, a new generation of leaders is emerging in American Catholic higher education. The postwar baby boomers are rapidly approaching retirement. They began their careers about the time of the Land O'Lakes Statement. Later they generally represented a distinctive viewpoint, strongly imprinted with the "spirit of Vatican II" and imbued with a general disdain for tradition and orthodoxy.

The emerging generation of academic and religious leaders, however, has experienced a different face of the church than their forebears. Often referred to as the "Pope John Paul II generation," or now the "Benedict XVI generation," the younger leaders are often far more receptive to the principles articulated in Ex corde. Consider that José H. Gomez, who is to become Archbishop of Los Angeles—the largest archdiocese in the United States, with nearly five million Catholics—was in his mid-20s when John Paul II was elevated to the Papacy; or that the Rev. James P. Shea of the University of Mary, in Bismarck, N.D., one of the youngest Catholic-college presidents in the United States, had not yet started kindergarten.

This generation is bolstered by the remarkable number of converts to Catholicism in the past 20 years, including academics and intellectuals like the political scientist Hadley P. Arkes and the theologian Scott Hahn. Moreover, students are helping to alter vividly the landscape of Catholic higher education. New student groups like the University of Notre Dame's Identity Project are growing in strength and influence as they promote stronger Catholic identity. Such students may well become one of the most vigorous and unanticipated change agents in Catholic higher education in the coming years, and they share one distinguishing characteristic: They have read Ex corde and are animated and inspired by its principles.

Third, the landscape of Catholic higher education has changed appreciably in the past 20 years, with the renewal of a vibrant Catholic identity at several colleges, as well as the creation of new Catholic institutions rigorously faithful to church teachings. The first group includes the Catholic University of America, in Washington, sponsored by the American bishops, and Ohio's Franciscan University of Steubenville, once considered one of the nation's top party schools. Many other colleges around the country have also substantially strengthened their Catholic identity since 1990.

The trend toward establishing new, faithful institutions in response to the secularization of Catholic higher education began when Thomas Aquinas College, in California, was founded by laypeople in 1971, even as the Land O'Lakes Statement was still in vogue and many small Catholic colleges were closing their doors. Others have followed, like Magdalen College, founded in 1973 in New Hampshire; Christendom College, in Virginia (1977); St. Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, in New Hampshire (1978); Wyoming Catholic College (2005); and John Paul the Great Catholic University, in California (2006), to name just a few.

Those new and renewed Catholic colleges have woven Ex corde deeply into the fabric of their missions, curricula, hiring practices, governance, and student life. Many are relatively small institutions that the remaining adherents to the Land O'Lakes Statement dismiss out of hand as lacking social prestige. Yet most have been successful and continue to grow, while their graduates increasingly assume positions of leadership in our society and in the church.

Fourth, the question of Catholic identity abruptly rose to the surface throughout the world in the spring of 2009, when Notre Dame invited President Obama to speak at its commencement exercises and receive an honorary degree. For many American Catholics, that was a shock. More than honoring a president who is strongly opposed to Catholic teaching on abortion and embryonic stem-cell research, Notre Dame's leaders showed disregard for the local bishop, John M. D'Arcy, who was not consulted or informed and did not attend, and to his fellow bishops who rallied to his support.

More than 367,000 signatures were gathered on a petition by the Cardinal Newman Society objecting to the speech, and the commencement and surrounding events were covered on major news media.

This was clearly not just a passing episode; instead it unexpectedly mobilized American Catholics like a riptide under seemingly calm waters. The Notre Dame scandal laid bare the fact that the relationship between Catholic higher education and the church remains unresolved even 20 years after Ex corde. Such incidents drive the point home: Ex corde Ecclesiae must be seen as a guiding light to ensure that Catholic colleges remain true to their own mission. Without it, in our highly secularized world dominated by what Pope Benedict has called "the dictatorship of relativism," Catholic higher education relinquishes its raison d'être—and respect from Catholics and non-Catholics. We are blessed with a highly diverse system of higher education in the United States. But we lose some of that diversity when Catholic institutions become Catholic in name only.

Finally, any doubts about the Vatican's commitment to Ex corde were laid to rest with Pope Benedict's address to American Catholic college presidents in April 2008. While his speech did not directly refer to the document, it resoundingly affirmed and expanded upon its principles. Noting that Catholic identity demands and inspires much more than a core of Catholic faculty members and orthodoxy of course content, the pope told presidents that at a faithfully Catholic college, "each and every aspect of your learning communities reverberates within the ecclesial life of faith." He discussed educators' responsibilities and opportunities to do more to meet the high expectations society places upon them. Affirming the value of academic freedom, Pope Benedict also made clear, echoing a similar point in Ex corde, that "any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and the teaching of the church would obstruct or even betray the university's identity and mission."

The pope told the presidents that they have the duty and privilege to ensure that students receive instruction in Catholic doctrine and practice, emphasizing that their public witness to the teachings of the church "shapes all aspects of an institution's life, both inside and outside the classroom. Divergence from this vision weakens Catholic identity."

The U.S. bishops are scheduled next year to conduct a 10-year review of their guidelines to put Ex corde into effect. That review affords Catholic academics and the bishops an exceptional opportunity to embrace and revive the vision that is exemplified by the principles and guidelines that they approved nearly a decade ago. Faithful Catholics can only hope and pray that both groups will renew their commitment to truth and integrity, set Ex corde fully in motion, and thereby prevail over the hypocrisy of being Catholic in name only.

David B. House is executive director of the Center for the Advancement of Catholic Higher Education, a division of the Cardinal Newman Society.


1. dearprof - September 13, 2010 at 06:47 pm

Please forgive the following reflection since I have been away from Catholic higher education for quite some time and am reminiscing about the past when I was a part of three Catholic institutions.
I applaud the movement to put Catholicism back into Catholic colleges. Too often, Catholic institutions have mirrored secular ones. Catholic faculty and administrators might well consider reading the Monsignor Ellis article, "Amereican Catholics and the INtellectual Life" (Thought, XXX, Autumn, 1955)to get a fresh perspective on what Catholic higher education could be. Also, the contents of a book inspired by the Monsignor Ellis article - American Catholicism and the Intellectual Life (Appleton-Century Crofts, 1959) - might be considered required reading, discussion, and reflection for students, faculty, and administrators of Catholic colleges and universities as well as the current works of Andrew Greeley, David Slavaterra, and Joseph Varacalli.
I have often thought that Catholic inteleccualism begins in elementary and high schools as students learn about past Catholic history and consider its influence on the present.It seems to me that Catholic education is more than the Catechism. Collegially....FLC

2. cnschron - September 13, 2010 at 08:06 pm

FKC, your statement that "Catholic intellectual life begins in elementary and high schools" is right on the mark. Unfortunately, that's where it often ends. The more Catholic colleges accept secular schools as the "gold standard," especially in curricular matters, the more they run the risk of losing their link to the great Catholic intellectual tradition.
Interesting, too , that you bring up the famous 1955 article by John Tracy Ellis. I'm sure that article played a major role in defining how the signatories of "The Land O' Lakes" statement regarded Catholic higher education barely a generation later. Msgr. Ellis offered some important insight in Catholic intellectual life, but his view of the Catholic university was, I believe, overly dismissive of Catholic liberal arts colleges and rife with academic arrogance. He was himself the product of a small Catholic liberal arts college, and it couldn't have been so very bad. After all, he seems to have benefited from it. Incidentally, there was another famous Catholic intellectual who graduated from the same college: Bishop Fulton J. Sheen.

3. wb2ldj - September 14, 2010 at 01:08 pm

Most so called Catholic colleges are in name only and i think you know that for the dishonor was created by and for liberals. I about the time it began, 1978 when they destroyed my career in higher education, and at a much higher level got rid of Pope John Paul 1. GS

4. texasguy - September 15, 2010 at 11:01 am

I do not think that this opinion page reflects in any way mainstream Catholic opinions.

5. wayne_detzler - September 16, 2010 at 10:05 am

As an adjunct professor at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut I have been encouraged by several trends. First, there is a serious attempt to utilize online education. Second, the administration from department chairs to the president have urged excellence in teaching and learning. Third, thanks to our President, there is genuine effort to integrate learning with the Catholic intellectual tradition. Fourth, the new chapel places worship at the center of campus life and dialogue.

6. bossche - September 17, 2010 at 08:09 am

Talk about a "sterile" conception of Catholic education. No one promotes it more than the Cardinal Newman Society. The sad irony is that Newman's "Idea of a University" presents a classic articulation of what the modern university, secular or Catholic, should attempt to achieve. Newman's discussion is complex, contradictory, at times maddening, but always much richer than the one advocated by Mr. House.

7. esteele - September 17, 2010 at 08:29 am

For a different and more balanced and authoritative perspective see Barbara McCrabb's (Assistant Director for Higher Education of the Secretariat of Catholic Education of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) view in the National Catholic Reporter: http://ncronline.org/blogs/distinctly-catholic/q-barbara-mccrabb-usccb

8. willynilly - September 17, 2010 at 10:28 am

'Ex Corde' was and still is today no more or less than a hate document, which both discriminated against catholics and threatened academic freedom at their institutions. While Mr House chooses to dismiss the document as largely ineffective and relatively ignored by many Bishops, the facts are that a good number of Bishops worked earnestly to enforce its hate provisions. Their actions created and fostered public angst, terrible publicity, and hate mongering to the degree that the reputation of many catholic institutions was badly sullied. While there are several notable examples of my assertions on the public record, I will site one as an excellent example of my point. The Diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania where the immediate past Bishop became such a destructive demon in the eyes of the public that he had to be exiled - and rarely today is his name ever mentioned. If he had remained in office any longer catholic education would have been destroyed forever in that diocese.

9. also_not_a_prof - September 17, 2010 at 11:03 am

Ex corde is entirely appropiate for Catholic colleges/universities. Look, if you don't like Catholicism you're entirely free to go a non-Catholic university. The sad thing is the lack of nuns/priests to head up Catholic universities these days. Even my alma mater, Georgetown University, the first and arguably the best Jesuit institution in the US, no longer has a Jesuit at its helm.

10. liberalartsprez - September 17, 2010 at 11:47 am

As president of a Catholic college I actively work to distance myself from the narrow, insular, and misguided views of the Cardinal Newman Society and its representatives. I shudder to think that there are readers from secular institutions who might think that these views are mainstream in the Catholic higher education sector. To call an invitation and speech by the President of the United States a scandal is absurd. I have no qualms with the establishment of new Catholic institutions that foster the views expressed by House. But my institution has nothing in common with them.

11. rosmerta - September 17, 2010 at 12:08 pm

It seems so many of our problems with identity, morals, and discourse in the public forum began - and are ending, to an extent - with the boomer generation. I see the 1960s as little more than an aberration in our history, an era we're doing well to leave behind.

12. greeneyeshade - September 17, 2010 at 12:33 pm

liberalartsprez, the broad brush with which you paint the Cardinal Newman Society seems to be just as "narrow, insular, and misguided" as what you oppose.

I doubt House's apparent view that there is an overwhelming movement toward the values of "Ex Corde;" it may be a trend in the opposite direction to which 60s-bred dissenters have moved Catholic higher education, but Call to Action-type Catholics will continue to be a force, just like the folks now in their sixties who are catered to at my local Trader Joe's--still dressed like they just came from a commune.

Interesting how the parable of the wheat and tares plays out. But which group is the wheat and who are the tares? Or are each a combination of wheat and tares?

13. lslerner - September 17, 2010 at 12:45 pm

A century ago, George Bernard Shaw made the crack that a Catholic university was a contradiction in terms. American Catholic universities have worked very hard, and with no little success, to counter that view. Now Ex Corde, if taken seriously (as the author does) will re-validate Shaw's remark.

14. drj50 - September 17, 2010 at 01:35 pm

I am sympathetic to the goals of Christian (Catholic or otherwise) higher education and I think I would like to believe that some of what the author wants to see is actually happening in some degree. But, if it is, this essay fails to demonstrate it. It is long on anecdote, emotionally laden language, and wishful thinking, while offering little real evidence.

The essay is long on unsubstantiated adverbs, such as "Increasingly today" and "changed appreciably." Then there the claims enhanced by emotional adjectives such as "vibrant Catholic identity" and "remarkable number of converts." (However, the author cites only two converts and there are always a few notable converts to Catholicism, as to many other faiths and causes. This proves nothing.)

I was particularly troubled by the slippery paragraph that begins "The emerging generation of academic and religious leaders, however, has experienced a different face of the church than their forebears." The author claims that "Younger leaders are often [another adverb] far more receptive to the principles articulated in Ex corde," but cites as evidence only that two leaders of some prominence are relatively young men. Perhaps they share the author's aspirations for Catholic education, but the paragraph as written offers no evidence that this is the case.

Catholic higher education has a wonderful tradition of clear-headed thinking. This essay does not belong to that tradition and it prompts me to wonder exactly what kind of Catholic higher education would result if the author's hopes were to come true.

15. willynilly - September 17, 2010 at 02:55 pm


16. new_theologian - September 17, 2010 at 03:47 pm

"Ex Corde" is a "hate document"? Am I the only one here who can see how inflammatory and potentially dangerous that assertion is? In an age in which "hate speech" is threatened with legal action, to call a magisterial text--a text binding on Catholic institutions--"hate speech" is to place the Catholic Church and her educational institutions at risk of prosecution, if our laws in the U.S. ever take the shape they've taken in Canada.

And, for all the "distancing" from the Cardinal Newman Society, can anyone point to any specific point that warrants their being shunned? Drj50 (#14) criticizes the article above for its general, unsubstantiated assertions (though I doubt anyone would be interested in an opinion piece that was actually an actuarial chart). So what are the specifics that make the Cardinal Newman Society a group that a president of a Catholic College should want to push away?

17. liberalartsprez - September 17, 2010 at 07:53 pm

Greeneyeshade- Perhaps I wasn't clear. My views of the CNS are not arbitrary; I have significant experience with them. They see no value in an education that opens the minds of students, they believe that students' (particularly women students') exposure to certain artistic, literary, and philosophical views should be limited, and they spend countless hours berating me, my facutly colleagues, and other presidents for valuing, supporting, and promoting the free exchange of ideas. The true Catholic intellectual tradition and the liberal arts are very compatible. The Cardinal Newman Society does not see it this way.

18. new_theologian - September 18, 2010 at 10:54 am

Liberalartsprez: I understand these concerns about the CNS, but I don't see the concrete examples. I've had similar suspicions, but have not experienced it. So I'm wondering what it is that people are seeing--not just how they're reacting to it.

If the CNS is saying that a Catholic institution of higher learning must not present nihilism as a viable life choice in the context of its mission, then I have to agree with that. But if they say that we should not teach Nietzsche and present him in his most favorable light, then I don't agree with them. Which is it?

19. stinkcat - September 18, 2010 at 10:50 pm

"They see no value in an education that opens the minds of students, they believe that students' (particularly women students') exposure to certain artistic, literary, and philosophical views should be limited,"

Are you talking about the vagina monologues here?

20. geremia - September 19, 2010 at 08:15 am

Thomas Aquinas College is the U.S.'s par excellance Catholic college that actualizes best Ex Corde Ecclesiae.

21. llevitt1 - September 19, 2010 at 04:29 pm

The Chronicle, which speaks for and to the entire spectrum of higher education, had no business running an article by one clearly inimical to the traditions and purposes of higher education in the U.S. The intent and effect of Ex Corde do need to be explicated, but not by an extreme opponent of all that the greatest Pope, John XXIII, achieved for Catholicism. There are many Catholic theologians, clerics, ex-clerics, and lay men and women, knowledgeable and equipped to explain in scholarly, not partisan terms, this important subject. Your readers are entitled to an article by one or more of such persons, who constitute the best in Catholic scholarship and higher education.

22. letusdialogue - September 24, 2010 at 05:28 pm

According to its web-site, the Cardinal Newman Society (with which Dr. House is affiliated) aims to 'monitor' various activities at Catholic colleges and universities for their supposedly 'Catholic' or 'anti-Catholic' content. Sadly, the officers of the Cardinal Newman Society seem to have an astonishingly bad understanding of what Cardinal Newman himself actually said. In all likelihood, Cardinal Newman would have readily disagreed with many of the things that are said and done by this society operating under his name. Consider just a couple of brief, but illuminating, quotations from Newman himself:
(1) "Education, which implies an extended range of reading, which has to deal with standard works of genius, or what are called the classics of a language: and I say, from the nature of the case, if Literature is to be made a study of human nature, you cannot have a Christian Literature. It is a contradiction in terms to attempt a sinless Literature of a sinful man." From Discourse IX, The Idea of a University
(2) "For why do we educate, except to prepare for the world? Why do we cultivate the intellect of the many beyond the first elements of knowledge, except for this world? Will it be much matter in the world to come whether our bodily health or our intellectual strength was more or less, except of course as this world is in all its circumstances a trial for the next? If then a University is a direct preparation for this world, let it be what it professes. It is not a Convent, it is not a Seminary; it is a place to fit men of the world for the world. We cannot possibly keep them from plunging into the world, with all its ways and principles and maxims, when their time comes; but we can prepare them against what is inevitable; and it is not the way to learn to swim in troubled waters, never to have gone into them." From Discourse IX, The Idea of a University

23. pdhazard - September 27, 2010 at 06:51 am

Abandoned by my father who disappeared with his secretary to Las Vegas,my first ten years were spent at a Dominican academy followed by almost three years at a Catholic minor seminary (I was ejected at Easter by the Rector who caught us smoking in the Gothic Tower at midnight.) After two years in the Navy (1944-46) I spent three years studying philosophy in a Jesuit University. I won the Midwestern Province's annual senior essay contest with a rant entitled "Needed:More Redblooded American Catholics" by which I meant people fighting for social justice like the Commies were at that time. When I went off to graduate school two of those Commies exploited my innocence by appointing me chairman of the new Thomas Jefferson Forum. When I went back to my home U over Christnas, my metaphysics professor greeted me warmly with "I hear you've gone over to the enemy!" Merry Xmas!Period.Luckily, Paul Hallinan, my Newman Club chaplain, defended me before the Cleveland Chancery with "It's a University, gentlemen. We're seeking the truth:" He was speaking to John Krol, then a very ordinary Ordinary, later a right wing Cardinal in my hometowm. Paul became the first archbishop of Atlanta, an intimate of Martin Luther King. Only my sociology professor, John F.Coogan, S.J. had the balls to fight Father Coughlin and Detroit racism. Readers curious about my auto-laicized life can find it at my blog, www.myglobaleye.blogspot.com.or in www.broadstreetreview.com, the online magazine of the Philadelphia University of the Arts. The intellectual morons who invoke Cardinal Newman to criticize President Obama at Notre dame would better waste their cerebella studying Sharia Law which is the way the RC was before the enlightenment. The Pope who feebly fought Modernism in the 19th century with the fatuous doctrine of infallibility (the Virgin Mary was conceived without Original Sin), thereby insuring that celibates in the 20th century would abuse children with impunity and their bishops and Pope Benedict XV would all piously lie about these real Sacrileges. Patrick D. Hazard, Weimar, Germany.

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