This month, Crisis is devoting an entire issue to a single topic, something we have never done before. What one issue could be so fundamental to Catholics everywhere? The conflict between the Holy See and the presidents of most of the approximately 200 U.S. colleges and universities that claim to be Catholic. The U.S. bishops have so far tried to avoid taking either side in the struggle, but will probably have to when they revisit the issue at a meeting this November.
At that meeting, they will take up the question of how to implement Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the apostolic constitution issued by Pope John Paul II in 1990 that holds the universities and colleges formally answerable for their Catholic character, a quality many college and university presidents have tried to blur for years—but without success. Bishops in every country were charged with the task of implementing Ex Corde by designing a process that would seriously appraise the fidelity and religious stability of all Catholic institutions of higher education. After years of wrangling, the U.S. bishops acquiesced to the presidents’ point of view by drafting a plan to apply Ex Corde that would surely fever no educator’s brow. Rome rejected the plan as unsuited for the task. This November, the bishops will give it another try, but the presidents have shown little readiness thus far to offer those who preside in the Church a serious accounting of the stewardship of their universities.
Meanwhile, more than 200 institutions of higher education in the U.S. annually present themselves to prospective students as appealingly Catholic, and have amassed billions of dollars in endowment from foundations, families, and individuals who believe they are furthering the work of the Church by their trust and generosity.
To untangle the complex issues and claims in the dispute over Ex Corde, Crisis has invited Father James Burtchaell to recount the sequence of events that will offer you, the readers, the background needed to appreciate this decade of struggle. Burtchaell is a priest of the Congregation of Holy Cross, and a Cambridge-trained theologian who spent years as a professor and administrator at the University of Notre Dame. He has testified on behalf of both Catholic and other Christian universities and colleges before governmental bodies, has founded a think tank to explore constitutional issues affecting church-sponsored higher education, was the first Catholic president of the American Academy of Religion, and has consulted on related issues with the Danforth Foundation, the Lilly Endowment, the Association of American Colleges, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Last year he published the most ambitious of his 13 books: The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from Their Christian Churches (Eerdmans). Voted in one survey as one of the three most important books on religion published in 1998, it is widely (and argumentatively) studied wherever college campuses still allow the issue of religious authenticity to be raised.
Here, then, is his reconstruction of this remarkable struggle.