University Identity Crisis

On the Feast of the Assumption in 1990, Pope John Paul II issued another in a long series of great documents—documents that in more than a few cases are likely to order and enhance the life of the Church for decades if not centuries to come. This particular document was Ex corde ecclesiae, “From the Heart of the Church,” John Paul II’s Apostolic Constitution on Catholic Universities.

Ex corde ecclesiae defines and describes—and prescribes—what an institution of higher education must be and do in order to merit the name of “Catholic.” This apostolic constitution was more than twenty years in the making. It involved a long process of consultation, including careful listening by the Holy See, dating back even to before the accession of John Paul II. This consultation included, among others, a number of typical prominent American Catholic academics and college presidents, along with the established Catholic higher education associations, all insistently attempting to explain why the typical practices and the supposed “requirements” of higher education in the United States forbade the imposition here of any overarching Roman document such as this one “governing” Catholic higher education.

After all of this careful listening—and no little careful paring down of some of the Church requirements contained in earlier drafts perceived by Catholic educators among others, to be too onerous, especially in the United States—the Holy See did what it had to do in order to preserve authentic Catholic higher education in an era of unprecedented change and confusion: John Paul II approved and issued Ex corde ecclesiae.

Henceforth it is impossible for anyone to be mistaken about what are the real requirements for being a Catholic university. Among other things, ECE incorporates and applies the relevant canons pertaining to higher education from Canons 796-821 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which govern Catholic education generally.

During the decades-long drafting process of this document many efforts were made by the heads of a several major Catholic universities, as well as by the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU) and the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU), to forestall the issuance of any Roman document on Catholic higher education at all. So we cannot really be very surprised that these same elements have been tenaciously and systematically opposing the implementation of the document in the United States now that it has been issued.

Happily for the faith and the Church but unhappily for the bishops, however, the General Norms of ECE (Art. 1 § 2) require the American bishops to issue local “Ordinances” based on the document; these ordinances would be valid for all Catholic universities and institutions of higher education in this country except purely ecclesiastical institutions (the latter are governed by the slightly different norms contained in John Paul II’s 1979 apostolic constitution Sapientia christiana).

In 1991, the U.S. bishops began working on a set of such ordinances implementing ECE that would apply to all Catholic colleges and universities in the United States. In 1993, a set of draft ordinances was produced; these draft ordinances were so moderate and even minimal, however, that many doubted they would ever be able to obtain the requisite approval by the Congregation for Catholic Education in Rome. Yet even they were decisively rejected by the Catholic college and university people, mostly connected with the ACCU, with whom the bishops’ committee had been “dialoguing” on this whole matter.

However that may be, in 1995, the bishops’ Ex corde ecclesiae Implementation Committee, headed by Bishop John J. Leibrecht of Springfield–Cape Girardeau, produced instead of revised draft ordinances a simple paper entitled “Ex corde ecclesiae: An Application to the United States.”

This paper, presented to the full body of the bishops at their annual meeting in November 1995 was described as “an effort to place Ex corde ecclesiae within the context of our nation.” It established a process rather than producing a product—a process of continuing “dialogue” based on “mutual trust” between university representatives and Church authorities. The paper did not even go as far as the earlier draft ordinances in attempting to apply the actual provisions of ECE (and of canon law) to the American situation in Catholic higher education. Rather, the paper was expressly put forward as a “non-juridical application” that was intended “to preserve the values inherent” in ECE and canon law rather than actually implementing them.

The main difficulty in getting this, or any, application of the papal document accepted by the Catholic higher education establishment in this country was identified by the bishops’ committee as Canon 812. Canon 812 prescribes that “it is necessary that those who teach theological disciplines in any institute of higher studies have a mandate from the competent ecclesiastical authority.”

This language can scarcely mean anything else but that a theology professor in a Catholic university needs to be “approved” by the bishop of the place; that, indeed, is what ECE’s General Norms unmistakably do require (Art. 4 S 3). It is also, of course, what principally alarms many if not most of the current crop of Catholic university presidents, who understand very well that the contemporary theological establishment is not about to agree peaceably to any such thing; or, at any rate, these presidents are very positive that they should not be the ones to have to attempt to impose any such thing on their theology departments in the present climate.

To a more disinterested observer, one who has reflected upon the nature of the Catholic Church, however, the idea that the Catholic bishop of the place should have oversight over what is taught concerning the Catholic faith, even in advanced theology courses, surely cannot come as any great novelty. The Catholic bishop of the place necessarily has oversight over everything that has to do with the faith; nihil sine episcopo, “nothing without the bishop,” St. Ignatius of Antioch declared as long ago as the first century.

Nor, despite its exaggerated claims and pretensions to the contrary, does contemporary Catholic higher education in America possess any unique features that could possibly justify making it an exception to this rule of the universal Church. By the will of Christ himself, the bishops are necessarily always the arbiters and authorities concerning what is, and what is not, “Catholic”; this necessarily includes theological research and teaching in Catholic universities. There is no sense in which this has changed in regard to twentieth-century America; nor can it he changed.

On the other hand, it cannot be any great surprise that today’s Catholic colleges and universities, accustomed as they have become over roughly the past generation to operating pretty much as they pleased, should now balk at the prospect of being once again expected and required to meet certain definite standards if they are to continue to merit the name “Catholic.” These standards have always been those of the Church. In the past, actual episcopal oversight over what was taught as “Catholic theology” may not even have very often been necessary, since the schools themselves usually and effectively exercised their own kind of oversight. ECE itself recognizes the very same thing today when it prescribes that “the responsibility for maintaining and strengthening the Catholic identity of the university rests primarily with the university itself” (General Norms, Art. 4 1). A Catholic university is supposed to make an “institutional commitment” to the revealed faith and to operate in “fidelity to the Christian message as it comes to us through the Church” (Nos. 13.3 and 13.4).

Very realistically recognizing the existence of a widely divergent situation on many Catholic campuses today, however, Ex corde ecclesiae logically provides for episcopal oversight to ensure that schools using the name really are Catholic. This would seem to be a perfectly normal and sensible thing to do.

Nevertheless, given the prevailing situation on many Catholic campuses, at least for the moment, the bishops’ ECE Implementation Committee probably entered into serious contention for the Understatement of the Year Award when it stated that Canon 812 has “continued to raise concerns among bishops, educators, theologians, and canon and civil lawyers.” Anyone at all familiar with the contemporary Catholic higher education scene is surely only too well aware that probably a substantial majority of Catholic college and university heads today hold that the Church has no business trying to oversee their institutions in any way, not just in the matter of the appointment of professors in their theology departments.

A large number of Catholic college presidents today have continued to hold, from the time of the star-crossed Land O’Lakes Statement rashly put out by a number of them back in 1967, that they must not be encumbered by Church “interference”; they must be free from “authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself.” Certainly this has been the position of the Catholic higher education associations.

What this position entails, though, is that those who hold it thereby reject on principle that the Catholic bishops have any oversight at all over their institutions; in their view, the bishops represent an “external” authority. Apparently it is the Catholic university itself that is now to decide what is, and what is not, “Catholic.”

But it is, of course, an absolutely novel and unprecedented idea in the history of the Church that any entity or institution should be allowed to go on claiming to be “Catholic” while declaring de facto its total independence from the Church.

No matter that, where theology professors are concerned, what the Church declares the faith to be is necessarily “internal” to the discipline of “Catholic theology.” No matter that ECE itself insists that “even when they do not enter directly into the internal government of the university, bishops should be seen not as external agents but as participants in the life of the Catholic university” (No. 50). The bishops’ ECE Implementation Committee’s paper very properly quotes this same paragraph from the papal document.

Otherwise, however, this bishops’ committee paper reflects only too tellingly the evidently acute—and dismaying—dilemma which the bishops’ committee has come up against, and with that it has no doubt been anxiously trying to wrestle for the past several years, namely, the fact that the principal representatives of the current universe of Catholic colleges and universities with whom the bishops have been dialoguing on the subject of Ex corde ecclesiae evidently reject the very notion that their institutions even come under the jurisdiction of this apostolic constitution (or of the canon law of the Church) at all. This is what they think it means to be free from any “authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself.”

But what this position really means, of course, is that these Catholic colleges and universities are in effect declaring that they simply decline to be Catholic as the Church defines that term. They do not normally say it that plainly, of course, and for a number of rather obvious reasons; but underneath all the typical purring about Catholic “ideals,” commitment to “dialogue” and to “the spirit of Vatican II,” a decision not to be Catholic is the essence of the position they have adopted.

The bishops’ committee, to the extent that it realizes how serious the problem is, is understandably reluctant to acknowledge that this really is what the Catholic higher education establishment is saying or to recognize the stark implications of it. And so the result is a bland bishops’ committee “paper” that skirts the real issues raised by the obduracy of their academic interlocutors and sets forth instead a proposed “non-juridical application” of norms belonging to the universal Church that essentially waives rather than applies these norms.

There can be no doubt that Ex corde ecclesiae authoritatively sets forth the Church’s authentic principles, standards, and norms regarding Catholic higher education: there can no longer be any other way to be a “Catholic” university than what ECE spells out.

Nor can there be any doubt about how earnestly and sincerely the bishops have attempted to dialogue about applying the document with the Catholic education associations and with many of today’s Catholic college and university presidents. But the final result of the bishops’ effort is only too evident: for the moment the bishops have run up against a stone wall.

Canon 812 is not really the basic problem. Ex corde ecclesiae enumerates a number of the “essential characteristics” required of any university if it is to be truly Catholic (No. 13). Most of these essentials are not even touched upon in the bishops’ ECE Implementation Committee paper, which focuses unduly, indeed almost entirely, on the Canon 812 issue.

No doubt this focus on theology and theologians came about primarily as a result of the long and unedifying history of the theological dissent that has unfortunately been widespread in this country following the initial, massive outbreak of dissent against Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae vitae in 1968. Since then many academic theologians have been in the forefront of the contemporary attempt to claim that there can be valid “Catholic” positions that diverge from and even contradict the Church’s positions.

However, the Church has in fact set forth her standards for Catholic theologians as clearly as she has set forth her requirements (in Ex corde ecclesiae) for Catholic universities. Initially the Church did this by finding in 1986 that Father Charles E. Curran, then of the Catholic University of America, was neither suitable nor eligible to be a Catholic theologian in view of his justification of open dissent from authentic teachings of the Church’s magisterium.

Interestingly, especially in view of the dire consequences in the secular world many Catholic academics have steadily predicted would inevitably follow upon any attempt on the Church’s part ever to discipline dissident university professors, the Church’s judgment concerning Father Curran was resoundingly upheld in a trial court as far as the civil law is concerned: this was the principal result of this erstwhile Catholic theologian’s failed lawsuit against the Catholic University of America for dismissing him; a secular court upheld the Church’s, and the university’s, right to declare what was, and what was not, Catholic.

Subsequently, the Church definitively settled the issue of theological dissent on the level of principle by the issuance of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s masterly 1990 “Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian,” Donum veritatis, a document taken for granted as being in force and cited, pertinently, in Ex corde ecclesiae itself.

So Canon 812 is not the real issue. In any case, how can Catholic universities and higher education associations pretend to take a valid stand on the supposed right of theologians to a “freedom” that is not only expressly not recognized by the Church, but that is not required by the standards and practices of American higher education either? The civil law, applicable court decisions, current accrediting agency standards—all these fully recognize the right of Church oversight over what is taught about the Catholic faith in the institutions the Church sponsors.

The Catholic higher education establishment has regularly alleged, to the bishops, to the Holy See, and to the public at large that the institutional autonomy and academic freedom of institutions calling themselves Catholic would be irreparably harmed by any Church “interference” in their operations. There might indeed be a media outcry in the present climate against any Church measures to “penalize” or “discipline” refractory schools.

But the real truth of the matter is that the definitions of institutional autonomy and academic freedom contained in Ex corde ecclesiae itself, along with the qualifications also mentioned there (Nos. 12 and 29), are entirely compatible with standard U.S. higher education practice; there are no specific American higher education “requirements” that make the implementation of this papal document inadvisable or impossible in the United States, as so many Catholic educators have continued to claim.

I currently serve as chairman of the board of a free-standing Catholic graduate institute awarding the master’s degree in religious studies. This institute recently (1994) received full academic and institutional accreditation from one of the major U.S. regional accrediting associations, even while the institute was expressly declaring its full acceptance of Ex corde ecclesiae and implementing the document in its operations in all applicable respects, including the ECE episcopal oversight conditions. In the course of one of the accrediting agency visitations, the academic dean of the institute, in reply to a question concerning the academic freedom of the professors, replied that the institute’s professors were all “entirely free to teach the Catholic faith in accordance with the magisterium of the Catholic Church.”

All of this proved wholly satisfactory to the accrediting agency—an agency that accredits all colleges and universities, secular and denominational, in a vast region of the United States. The institute’s position was acceptable to the accreditors so long as all of the institution’s special principles, policies, and conditions in these matters related to its Catholic character were clearly spelled out up front in the institution’s mission statement, its faculty and student handbooks, its faculty contracts, its announced institutional disciplinary policies on campus, and so on.

Thus, the lesson is that Catholic institutions of higher learning may be fully and integrally Catholic, in accordance with all of the provisions of Ex corde ecclesiae, and yet still be fully accredited to operate within the American system of higher education.

Moreover, federal student aid, along with most other kinds of government aid to higher education, are tied solely to successful accreditation. So the allegation that religious institutions must secularize in order to keep their government aid is quite simply false with regard to most aid programs to higher education—as the hundreds of Catholic colleges and universities that have participated in the various G.I. Bills since the end of World War II should know already. The notion that Catholic colleges in America cannot really he Catholic and operate successfully as authentic American higher education institutions is a myth.

The freedom from any authority “external to the academic community itself” that was claimed in the original Land O’Lakes Statement—and which continues to be claimed by the Catholic higher education associations and by many Catholic college presidents today—is another myth. All U.S. colleges and universities regularly comply with numerous “external” federal regulations and state laws, as well as with myriad “external” requirements from accrediting agencies, professional associations, foundations and donors, and so on—even including, today, requirements issuing from politically correct pressure groups! American colleges regularly bow to all such outside agencies, and Catholic colleges and universities are no different from secular ones in this regard.

Nor do Catholic colleges and universities appear to be experiencing any problems in complying with the requirements of such “external” entities—so long as they are secular entities, it seems. Only when the question arises of complying with the requirements that the Church has now set forth do problems for these institutions suddenly seem to arise. Only then, apparently, does the familiar babble about institutional autonomy and academic freedom and freedom from external control suddenly recommence.

The fact of the matter is that U.S. Catholic colleges and universities are being disingenuous at least when they lay claim to a “unique” status and position within U.S. higher education and then seek to use this as a pretext for being exempted from the canon law of the universal Church—and nothing else!

The current position of the ACCU, the AJCU, and the heads of some of the better known Catholic institutions really amounts to this: that the canon law of the universal Church cannot be applied to universities on these shores.

It is almost impossible not to sympathize with the members of the U.S. bishops’ Ex corde ecclesiae Implementation Committee headed by Bishop Leibrecht. These bishops were assigned a mission that, in the short term, appears to have been simply impossible to realize: trying to get U.S. Catholic higher education to accept Ex corde ecclesiae. To revive an old farmer’s saying, the stubborn pig simply refuses to jump over the stile.

The bishops’ ECE Implementation Committee bent far over backwards in its first set of draft ordinances trying to accommodate the expressed concerns of the Catholic higher education establishment—only to have its efforts rejected out of hand. In the committee’s more recent paper, mention is made of “many months of consultation” and “many hours of study and discussion looking for the best means of preserving the value that underlies Canon 812″—without anybody on the university side apparently having been moved anywhere by all of this study and consultation.

The basic problem inherent in the “non-juridical application” proposed by ECE Implementation Committee was quickly noted when the committee’s paper was presented to the full body of bishops at their annual meeting in November 1995. At this meeting several cardinals and bishops pointed out that the effective abrogation of the Church’s canon law itself would be the inevitable result of the acceptance of the plan outlined in the committee paper.

Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua, archbishop of Philadelphia, declared that accepting this approach would make the bishops no better than today’s “cafeteria Catholics,” who pick and choose which Church rules and doctrines they will accept. In the Philadelphia cardinal’s view, it would amount to saying, “If we don’t like the law, we disregard it.”

Archbishop J. Francis Stafford of Denver echoed Cardinal Bevilacqua’s sentiments and reminded his fellow bishops how acquiescence in secular principles had led to the total secularization of what were once this country’s great Protestant universities such as Harvard and Princeton. Bishop James T. McHugh of Camden, New Jersey, pointed out what we have also noted here, namely, that the focus on Canon 812 was misplaced: universities need to be Catholic, and their teaching needs to be in accord with the magisterium of the Church in more areas than just their theology departments.

The honest thing to do, according to Cardinal Bevilacqua, would be to “follow a legal procedure and ask Rome for an indult” if it is truly believed that the Church’s canon law cannot be applied here. Indeed, Bishop James W. Malone of Youngstown, Ohio, a former president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, rose at this point in the bishops’ meeting to divulge the startling revelation that a delegation of American bishops actually did ask for an indult with respect to the university canons at the time the Code of Canon Law was promulgated in 1983.

No such indult was granted then; nor should any such indult be requested or granted now. Instead, the efforts to implement Ex corde ecclesiae should be continued and redoubled. There is no bar or obstacle to the full implementation of this papal document in America except the unwillingness and wrongheadedness of the current Catholic higher education establishment. Pressure on them needs to be continued and intensified. If they want to continue to see their institutions designated as “Catholic,” they need to be brought to see that there are conditions they must now begin to fulfill.

Perhaps most schools will come back, once they clearly understand that they have to come back. In any case, acquiescence in their present refusal to move anywhere gives no encouragement to those elements on many campuses—faculty, trustees, donors, as well as administrators—who in the end will also want to go with the Church, not against her, when they understand what the stakes are. The present

Catholic higher education establishment should not be providing the only interlocutors effectively talking with the bishops, thereby allowing them to continue blocking any progress toward a settlement. A broader representation of Catholics urgently needs to be brought into the higher education debate.

The discussion of the ECE question at the 1995 November bishops’ meeting seems to have been inconclusive. It is not entirely clear what further action the bishops’ ECE Implementation Committee will now be taking, or what the timetable for any further discussion by the whole body of bishops might be. Bishop Leibrecht did not in any case ask for any vote at this particular meeting; the committee’s paper was presented as a “draft for discussion.”

Judging from the tenor of the remarks that were made on the floor of the bishops’ meeting, however, it does not seem likely that the committee will be able to continue with its “non-juridical application” strategy.

A modest proposal is therefore surely in order here: the bishops’ ECE Implementation Committee should immediately broaden the scope of the dialogue it has been conducting. The committee seems to have been talking mainly—almost exclusively—with members of the current Catholic higher education establishment; its paper actually speaks of continuing its “dialogue with the American Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.”

The committee seems to have been dealing, in other words, precisely with the very people responsible for the current deplorable situation that Ex corde ecclesiae was designed, among other things, to remedy. The ACCU, for example, clearly has a vested interest in the current, untenable status quo and should not be granted the status of sole “collective bargaining” representative of Catholic higher education in this country.

Why could the ECE Implementation Committee not invite to the dialogue, for example, the presidents of Christendom College, the University of Dallas, the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Thomas Aquinas College, and other schools that appear willing and able to implement Ex corde ecclesiae—if, indeed, they have not already mostly done so, on their respective campuses. Why should the heads of schools who know and understand that Ex corde ecclesiae indeed can be implemented in this country not be included in any further consultations? Continuing the dialogue only with establishment educational leaders who believe the document cannot or should not be implemented here is fruitless.

Among other things, the presidents of these four schools could explain to some of their doubtful and recalcitrant fellow Catholic college presidents how it is possible to operate a Catholic college or university in America today in full accord with Pope John Paul II’s epochal apostolic constitution Ex corde ecclesiae.


  • Kenneth D. Whitehead

    Kenneth D. Whitehead is a former career diplomat who served in Rome and the Middle East and as the chief of the Arabic Service of the Voice of America. For eight years he served as executive vice president of Catholics United for the Faith. He also served as a United States Assistant Secretary of Education during the Reagan Administration. He is the author of The Renewed Church: The Second Vatican Council’s Enduring Teaching about the Church (Sapientia Press, 2009) and, most recently, Affirming Religious Freedom: How Vatican Council II Developed the Church’s Teaching to Meet Today’s Needs (St. Paul’s, 2010).

tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...