This has been a landmark year for both bishops and presidents of Catholic colleges, as they work to comply with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ “Application of Ex Corde Ecclesiae for the United States” regarding Catholic identity at Catholic colleges and universities, which was put in place 10 years ago. Presidents of Catholic universities and their bishops are meeting for a 10-year review of the application.

Several Catholic institutions of higher learning, such as Ave Maria University and Benedictine College, recently reached significant milestones in their efforts to secure and solidify their Catholic identity. 

And, on Oct. 14, A. Gabriel Esteban, the new president of Seton Hall University in New Jersey, asked that the university commit to strengthen its Catholic identity.

Ex Corde Ecclesiae set down the norms by which a Catholic university should be judged. The apostolic constitution on Catholic universities, issued by Pope John Paul II in 1990, is based on the fact that faith and reason are not mutually exclusive or opposed to each other. The introduction to Ex Corde states: “A Catholic university’s privileged task is ‘to unite existentially by intellectual effort two orders of reality that too frequently tend to be placed in opposition as though they were antithetical: the search for truth and the certainty of already knowing the fount of truth.”

While Ex Corde Ecclesiae does not list specific criteria for Catholic universities, it does contain guidelines American bishops used to prepare their “Application of Ex Corde Ecclesiae.”

The areas bishops focus on Catholic identity and mission, communion with the Church, service to the wider Church and society, continued cooperation between the bishop and the college president, and the incorporation of the norms set forth in the “Application of Ex Corde Ecclesiae.”

While there is no specific list that bishops use in judging a college’s Catholic identity, there are several factors that bishops are going to be attentive to, said Billy Atwell, communications director of the Diocese of Venice, Fla. “Bishops are going to look at religious education, student activities and fidelity to the Church and her teachings,” Atwell said.

Building a Relationship

Venice Bishop Frank Dewane recognized Ave Maria University as a Catholic university in early October. The announcement came eight years after Ave Maria University’s founding and is the result of years-long dialogue between university officials and Bishop Dewane and his predecessor, Bishop John Nevins, Atwell said.

“I think Ex Corde Ecclesiae lays out the criteria that needs to be met,” he said. “The local ordinary guides in that process and decides when the criteria is met.”

Atwell said the process was “mostly about building a relationship — and that relationship began with Bishop Nevins. Communication had to be established. The bishop’s principal concern is going to be regarding spiritual life and the university’s establishing a history of fidelity to the Church.”

For Ave Maria, “nothing has changed, but it is a sign of commitment by the college and from the bishop to meet all the spiritual and pastoral needs of the university and its community,” Atwell said.

Since its move to Florida, the university has experienced rapid growth in enrollment. 

At another Catholic college, Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., the school’s president, Stephen Minnis, recently presented Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kan., a document produced by the college related to Ex Corde. “Catholic Identity at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas: A 10-Year Review of Ex Corde Ecclesiae notes the school’s efforts and successes in adhering to the norms of the apostolic constitution.

While Ex Corde did not provide the initial impetus of the college’s reinvigorated Catholic identity, it did offer support and guidance for the school’s efforts. “There was a combination of things,” Minnis said. “We had a strong philosophy department, centered on Thomas Aquinas.  We had a strong theology department. And then, with Ex Corde Ecclesiae in place, they embraced the mandatum right away. We also had a student-led renewal on campus that later became Focus (Fellowship of Catholic University Students).”

Since 1983, canon law has required that theologians teaching in colleges receive a mandatum from the local bishop showing the theologian’s intention to teach with the Church. Canon 812 says: “It is necessary that those who teach theological disciplines in any institute of higher studies have a mandatum from the competent ecclesiastical authority.”

The requirement was highlighted in a footnote in Ex Corde Ecclesiae, setting off a small firestorm of controversy, with theologians claiming it was a matter only between them and their bishop and some professors charging that the requirement was an incursion on academic freedom.

Great Blessing

But some Catholic colleges and universities proudly announce that all their theology teachers have a mandatum and even hold public ceremonies in which all faculty members take an oath of fidelity to Church teaching.

For Ave Maria and Benedictine, among other Catholic institutions that have embraced their Catholic identity, including submission to the magisterium, Ex Corde has been a great blessing. Adhering to the norms outlined in Ex Corde becomes not a burden, but a mechanism that encourages academic freedom, school officials say.

Benedictine’s Minnis attributes the college’s record enrollment to its strong Catholic identity.  “Our embrace of our Catholic identity propelled us to unprecedented success,” he said. “Our enrollment has tripled since Ex Corde Ecclesiae was promulgated in 1990. We just broke ground on our ninth new dorm since the bishops implemented it.”

Deacon Forrest Wallace, director of marketing for Ave Maria University, acknowledged that the growth of Ave Maria is also due to its solid Catholic identity: “We’re growing in large part because we’ve created an identity as a place where young Catholics can come to school with other like-minded young people. We have a Catholic culture here within the student body that’s really refreshing.”

Said Dan Dentino, vice president for student affairs at Ave Maria, noting that the school was founded on the norms outlined in Ex Corde, “Embracing and reinvigorating our Catholic identity is why colleges like Benedictine College and Belmont Abbey College are seeing increased enrollment and why Ave Maria University exists.”

Ex Corde also allows schools embracing their Catholic identity to embrace their own unique personalities.

“The challenge is to develop a deep understanding of Ex Corde Ecclesiae and how to incarnate that on a college campus,” Dentino said. “It takes honest dialogue and respect between the bishop and the president of the college.”

“If you build it, they will come” doesn’t just apply to baseball diamonds. Students are flocking to faithful Catholic colleges, driving up enrollment, and providing the evidence that parents and students are recognizing the value of attending a college with a strong Catholic identity.

Register correspondent Laurie Ghigliotti writes from Atchison, Kansas.

The Register publishes an annual Catholic Identity College Guide.