Twenty years ago today, Pope John Paul II took a bold step toward reclaiming Catholic colleges for the Church, following decades of campus dissent and confusion, especially in the United States.
Much of the dissent and confusion continues on this 20th anniversary of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the apostolic constitution on Catholic higher education. But hope for the renewal of Catholic identity is found in a number of relatively small but influential colleges that are modeling fidelity and academic excellence.
The key requirement of Ex Corde Ecclesiae is this: "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."
It calls for the sort of unabashed fidelity that stands in stark contrast to the prevailing blandness and creeping secularization throughout much of Catholic higher education. It is Ex Corde Ecclesiae (from the heart of the Church) that students find Truth.
And that is what students find at the newest Catholic colleges in America. Every Catholic college established in the last few decades was founded by lay Catholics who fully embrace Ex Corde Ecclesiae. These include Thomas Aquinas College, the California "Great Books" program that regularly rises to the top of secular college rankings; Christendom College of Virginia, which says that Catholicism "is the air that we breathe"; and Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts in New Hampshire, which teaches about beauty and tradition and vocation — not aimless career training.
There are several other new and unique Catholic colleges that similarly embrace Catholic teaching and the vision of Pope John Paul II — and others that have restored or held onto a strong Catholic identity. These are profiled in the Register’s Catholic Identity College Guide and in The Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College.
It is the great irony that in 1990, when Ex Corde Ecclesiae was issued, the "spirit of Vatican II" crowd complained bitterly of clerical intrusion into higher education - and yet America’s most faithful institutions are often led by lay educators.
Moreover, Ex Corde itself was a significant empowerment of the laity. Although the 1983 Code of Canon Law established guidelines for Catholic colleges, college leaders claimed to be exempt since most American colleges had transferred legal control from their founding religious orders and dioceses to lay-dominated boards of trustees in the late 1960s and 1970s. These educators were practicing a sort of clericalism by insisting that only Church-owned institutions can be officially Catholic.
But Pope John Paul II was aware of the rapid growth of lay-controlled Catholic apostolates in education, health care, social services, evangelization and apologetics, and he rejected the notion that Catholic identity is equivalent to legal Church control. With Ex Corde Ecclesiae, he gave full Church recognition to any college with an "institutional commitment" to the faith. In doing so, he empowered faithful lay educators to build and renew colleges in full communion with the bishops and the Vatican — a communion that had been noticeably lacking since 1967, when Catholic college leaders declared independence from the Church in the infamous "Land O'Lakes Statement."
Much remains to be done if Ex Corde Ecclesiae is to be fully implemented in the United States. Not only are key provisions often ignored — such as the mandate that at least a majority of professors must be Catholic, or that theology professors must be faithful to Catholic teaching — but colleges also are not collecting and reporting the sort of information that would allow students, parents and bishops to know the strength of an institution’s Catholic identity.
Yet teaching by example can have a powerful effect, and about 10% of America's Catholic colleges are having a disproportionate influence in the Church. It is the graduates of the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Benedictine College, The Catholic University of America and similar colleges who are leading the Church into the future, while remaining faithful to tradition.
It is perhaps no coincidence that we celebrate this anniversary of Ex Corde Ecclesiae just prior to the beatifications of Pope John Paul II and Cardinal John Henry Newman, whose Idea of a University is echoed repeatedly in Ex Corde. By the intercession of these great scholars, may the renewal of Catholic higher education be completed in the United States, for the fulfillment of Vatican II and the good of the Church.
Patrick J. Reilly is president and founder of the Cardinal Newman Society, which works to renew and strengthen Catholic identity in Catholic higher education.