In his apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Blessed John Paul II expressed his great love and respect for the unique and increasingly critical mission of Catholic universities.
Their “privileged task,” he stated, 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.”
The Holy Father re-energized the Church’s vision of Catholic higher education by outlining general principles and canonical requirements for securing and evaluating the religious identity of universities and colleges that call themselves Catholic.
In the United States, Ex Corde Ecclesiae provided a framework for the long overdue reform of Catholic universities that had lost their way, and there have been triumphs and failures since its release.
Vibrant new institutions have opened, providing an unapologetically Catholic environment for the pursuit of truth. Meanwhile, venerable institutions that had drifted away from their founders’ missions began to recruit committed faculty and renew core academic departments.
Unfortunately, many “Catholic” colleges and universities still await the kind of courageous leadership that is needed to reverse the forces of secularization and institutional decay. In theology departments, and throughout the liberal arts, many faculty members and administrators passively and actively repudiate authoritative Catholic teaching as the enemy of academic freedom.
In recent years, the sponsorship of the exploitative play The Vagina Monologues and theological conferences that misrepresent or reject Catholic moral teaching have sparked protests.
Meanwhile, reformers working within these institutions know that the momentary crises are symptoms of a deeper malaise.
Thus, Pope Benedict XVI returned to the theme of Catholic higher education during his 2011-2012 ad limina meetings with U.S. bishops. He told a group of them: “Young people have a right to hear clearly the Church’s teaching and, most importantly, to be inspired by the coherence and beauty of the Christian message, so that they in turn can instill in their peers a deep love of Christ and his Church.”
Pope Benedict and his predecessor affirm that an authentic Catholic institution of higher education sees no contradiction between a vibrant witness of the faith and the demanding pursuit of truth across all academic disciplines.
Indeed, both John Paul II and Benedict XVI have noted the compatibility of faith and reason, assuring the world that the Church is no enemy of academic freedom, properly understood.
In the academy, some embrace moral relativism as a form of liberation, but both Popes warn that this kind of liberation marks a downward spiral in which the very existence of truth is doubted, leading the entire institution to question the value of its mission.
Ultimately, a deeply rooted creed of relativism will crowd out competing systems of thought.
In 2009, the news that President Barack Obama would speak at the University of Notre Dame’s commencement exercises and receive an honorary doctorate there prompted national protests from bishops, the university’s alumni and the faithful.
Despite a petition campaign that drew more than 360,000 signatures, the university did not rescind its offer. Yet Catholic faculty and reform groups say that Notre Dame has made discernable progress in closing the gap between its institutional mandate as a Catholic university and its once lagging effort to recruit committed Catholics to the faculty.
Recently, controversy erupted again following the announcement that Georgetown University had invited Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, to speak at a graduation event.
Critics of the university say the action was more egregious because Sebelius, a self-professed Catholic, approved the federal rule mandating that virtually all private employers provide contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs in their health plans — including institutions that oppose these services on moral and religious grounds.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has opposed the federal rule as a direct threat to the free exercise of Catholic universities, social agencies and hospitals.
Further, they are repudiating the HHS mandate because it attempts to define what is or is not “Catholic” — Church-affiliated educational and charitable institutions are excluded from an extremely narrow religious exemption.
In these pages, we report that a small group of faculty members at Georgetown has initiated a letter campaign asking the university president, John DeGioia, to rescind the invitation to Sebelius.
At press time, DeGioia had not spoken publicly, while an administration spokesman sought to downplay the significance of Sebelius’ role at the graduation event. However, the letter by protesting faculty members concluded that Sebelius’ presence at a graduation awards event was “a grave and serious mistake — indeed, a scandalous one.”
In truth, it is impossible to assume Georgetown’s ignorance about the high stakes involved. Rather, committed Catholics may be forced to conclude that the oldest Catholic university in the United States no longer cares to defend the hard-earned legacy of its Jesuit founders.