USCC Watch: From the Heart

At their November meeting, the American Bishops will vote on an “Application to the United States” of Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church), the Apostolic Constitution of 1990 on Catholic Universities.

This document, which established norms to promote orthodoxy in Catholic universities, was welcomed by many as a Magna Carta for Catholic higher education. Six years later the American “Application” reduces this forty-nine-page constitution to barely a hundred lines, a reduction that extracts not only the teeth of Ex Corde but also, ironically, its heart.

This Application was drafted by an ad hoc committee of the bishops headed by Bishop John Leibrecht of Springfield-Cape Girardeau.

The committee includes seven prelates and eight others, mostly university presidents such as Fathers Edward Malloy, C.S.C., of Notre Dame; J. Donald Monan, S.J., formerly of Boston College; and William Byron, S.J., formerly of Catholic University of America.

The “resource persons” include Msgr. Frederick McManus, longtime head of Catholic University’s canon law department, and a major influence in the liturgical reform, and Sister Alice Gallin, who as executive director of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU) has been an outspoken critic of Ex Corde Ecclesiae.

The new head of the ACCU is Monika Hellwig of Georgetown, a former nun and past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, who has for years been associated with circles of dissenting theologians.

Although many Catholic faculty, and even several colleges, welcomed John Paul’s Apostolic Constitution, it was treated by most heads of Catholic universities, and many influential theologians, with the kind of rebellious outrage common on campuses in the 1960s. The pope was guilty of outside interference, critics of the document claimed, for insisting that every Catholic university must be characterized by fidelity to the Christian message, including “a recognition of and adherence to the teaching authority of the Church in matters of faith and morals.”

The document continues, “Catholic members of the university, are called to a personal fidelity to the Church with all that implies.” And further that, “Freedom in research and teaching is recognized and respected according to the principles and methods of each individual discipline, so long as the rights of the individual and of the community are preserved within the confines of the truth and the common good.”

Explanation for the negative reaction to the document can be found in the history of the twenty-year-long “dialogue” among theologians and canon lawyers, eventually involving bishops, concerning the “doctrinal complementarily” of bishops and theologians, and the rights of theologians who dissent from Church teachings.

In 1980 a Committee on Cooperation Between Theologians and the Ecclesiastical Magisterium was established, under the leadership of Fr. Leo O’Donovan, S.J., now president of Georgetown. In 1983 it presented “Doctrinal Responsibilities” to the NCCB Doctrine Committee, then chaired by Archbishop John R. Quinn of San Francisco.

This in turn led to a document presented to all the bishops in 1987. According to Hellwig, the latter document could be used no matter what doctrinal positions were at stake, since it dealt primarily with procedures.

The Application, which the bishops will consider at their November meeting, is a studied avoidance of the papal statement. Its few paragraphs stress “mutual trust between university and Church authorities, close and consistent cooperation and continuing dialogue,” (original emphasis) and especially urge the “special contributions of campus ministry” and sensitivity to “other religious traditions, ecumenical and interreligious relationships.”

These dialogues, the Application stresses, should, among other things, “manifest openness to a further analysis and local appropriation of Catholic identity.” Catholic identity is left undefined.

Some bishops have pointed out that the Application is a canonical anomaly, since it ignores the specifically juridical provisions of Ex Corde in favor of vague “dialogue.” Despite talk of subsidiarity, it is unlikely that any bishop would feel free, under the Application, to call his local college to task over its Catholicity.


Helen Hull Hitchcock is founding director of Women for Faith & Family and editor of its quarterly journal, Voices. She is also editor of the Adoremus Bulletin, a monthly publication of Adoremus - Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy, of which she is a co-founder. She is married to James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University. The Hitchcocks have four daughters and six grandchildren, and live in St. Louis.

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