The Unfinished Reform of Catholic Colleges

Twenty years ago, the opposition of certain Catholic college leaders and professors to Pope John Paul II’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae was strident.

They claimed the Vatican’s guidelines for Catholic colleges would encourage dictator-bishops to violate academic freedom. Non-Catholic faculty members would sue bishops and colleges for discrimination. Colleges would become second-rate catechetical programs.

Many others were excited about the apostolic constitution. Although the first major universities in Europe were established with Catholic sponsorship or support, Ex Corde Ecclesiae was the Church’s first formal definition of Catholic higher education. It would rein in the scandals and dissent at American colleges and help a new generation of educators reclaim even the most wayward Catholic universities, like Georgetown and Boston College.

This Sunday marks the 20th anniversary of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, and yet we find that none of this has happened. Why not?

Two reasons:

  1. The dire predictions were preposterous. Some may have believed them, but often the exaggerations were intended to obstruct the Vatican’s goal of renewing Catholic identity at highly secularized Catholic colleges.
  2. Ex Corde Ecclesiae has yet to be fully implemented.

The latter point may be less than obvious, even to many Catholic educators, because the 1990s conflicts over Ex Corde Ecclesiae also helped confuse many about the nature of the document — reducing it to a demand for the mandatum for theology professors.

In fact, the controversial mandatum — which requires teachers of theology to pledge fidelity to Catholic teaching — is but a footnote in Ex Corde Ecclesiae. It refers back to Canon 812 in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which the American colleges simply ignored until John Paul forced the issue.

And yet, a recent history of Catholic higher education in the United States — posted at the Cardinal Newman Society Web site — provides clear evidence that there is still a crisis in Catholic higher education.


On this 20th anniversary, it is helpful to reconsider the key provisions of Ex Corde Ecclesiae. A brief selection:

  • “Catholic teaching and discipline are to influence all university activities, while the freedom of conscience of each person is to be fully respected. Any official action or commitment of the University is to be in accord with its Catholic identity” (ECE General Norms, Art. 2, § 4).
  • “‘Academic freedom’ is the guarantee given to those involved in teaching and research that, within their specific specialized branch of knowledge, and according to the methods proper to that specific area, they may search for the truth wherever analysis and evidence leads them, and may teach and publish the results of this search, keeping in mind the cited criteria, that is, safeguarding the rights of the individual and of society within the confines of the truth and the common good” (ECE footnote 15).
  • “In ways appropriate to the different academic disciplines, all Catholic teachers are to be faithful to, and all other teachers are to respect, Catholic doctrine and morals in their research and teaching. In particular, Catholic theologians, aware that they fulfill a mandate received from the Church, are to be faithful to the Magisterium of the Church as the authentic interpreter of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition” (ECE General Norms, Art. 4, § 3).
  • “In order not to endanger the Catholic identity of the University or Institute of Higher Studies, the number of non-Catholic teachers should not be allowed to constitute a majority within the Institution, which is and must remain Catholic” (ECE General Norms, Art. 4, § 4).
  • “The education of students is to combine academic and professional development with formation in moral and religious principles and the social teachings of the Church; the programme of studies for each of the various professions is to include an appropriate ethical formation in that profession. Courses in Catholic doctrine are to be made available to all students” (ECE General Norms, Art. 4, § 5).
  • “Every Catholic University is to maintain communion with the universal Church and the Holy See; it is to be in close communion with the local Church and in particular with the diocesan Bishops of the region or nation in which it is located. In ways consistent with its nature as a University, a Catholic University will contribute to the Church’s work of evangelization” (ECE General Norms, Art. 5, § 1).
  • “A Catholic University is to promote the pastoral care of all members of the university community, and to be especially attentive to the spiritual development of those who are Catholics” (ECE General Norms, Art. 6, § 1).

As for the mandatum for theologians that was so controversial in 1990, the implementation has been quiet. The U.S. bishops approved guidelines for the mandatum in November 2000, but in practice the mandatum has had little impact on Catholic colleges: Most do not require it to teach Catholic theology, and most refuse to disclose to students which professors have the mandatum.


Is there a future for Ex Corde Ecclesiae in the United States? There is reason to hope for renewed attention to the constitution:

  • When Pope Benedict XVI addressed Catholic college presidents at the Catholic University of America in April 2008, he reinforced key themes of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, including the proper limits of academic freedom and the need for an institutional commitment to the Catholic Faith and students’ spiritual development.
  • The fight over Notre Dame’s honor last year to President Barack Obama alerted Catholics around the world — from hometown U.S.A. to the Vatican — of the continued crisis in U.S. Catholic higher education. The principled stand of the American bishops signaled their resolve to confront the problems.
  • Next year, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has scheduled a formal review of the implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae in the United States. It will be difficult to be very positive about the results, but the review may prompt new action for the future.

Throughout my 17 years at the Cardinal Newman Society, I have been challenged by well-meaning Catholics who believe that Catholic identity is unrecoverable at many Catholic colleges, especially the large universities.

To the contrary, we have seen institutions like the Franciscan University of Steubenville, the Catholic University of America, Belmont Abbey College, and others significantly strengthen their Catholic identity in recent years. This is not impossible at the other Catholic colleges with strong leadership and faith. At the root of the “crisis of truth” is a “crisis of faith,” Benedict told Catholic college presidents in 2008.

So I see perhaps the most important sign of hope in the Holy Father’s beatification of John Henry Cardinal Newman this September. Newman’s Idea of a University cuts to the heart of the problem in modern academe. We must pray that, by Newman’s intercession, the long-desired renewal of Catholic higher education will finally come to pass.


Image: University of Notre Dame

Patrick Reilly


Patrick J. Reilly is president of The Cardinal Newman Society, which promotes and defends faithful Catholic education.

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