Catholic Colleges 20 Years After 'Ex Corde'

John Macdonald for The Chronicle

September 12, 2010

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.