Over the course of 2011, the U.S. bishops were in dialogue with the presidents of Catholic universities about U.S. implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Blessed John Paul II’s 1990 apostolic constitution for Catholic higher education.
Now that this collaborative discussion has been largely completed, what has been learned?
“There seems to be a sense that Ex Corde has had a very positive influence in bringing about a consciousness of focusing on the Catholic identity of colleges and universities,” said Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Curry of Los Angeles, who until November was chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Catholic Education. “It has led to a lot of progress over the last 10 years, and there’s a long way still to go.”
Blessed John Paul II issued Ex Corde Ecclesiae in 1990 to clarify the mission of Catholic colleges and universities around the world.
In 2001, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops instituted norms for the U.S. implementation of Ex Corde. This past year’s review was a 10-year follow-up of this implementation.
The process for the review involved discussions between bishops and presidents of Catholic colleges located in their dioceses. The bishops shared what they had learned from their discussions with the presidents in regional meetings conducted during the USCCB’s fall conference in Baltimore.
Commenting about the collective feedback expressed at the regional meetings, Bishop Curry said, “I would think the continuing challenge is to focus on the Catholic identity of universities and to involve not just people who teach theology or religion in that, but all of the faculty in the sense of what the Catholicity of the university means.”
The 10-year review process will conclude within the next month with the presentation of a report summarizing the comments at the regional meetings to the USCCB’s president, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, and to Bishop Joseph McFadden of Harrisburg, Pa., the new chairman of the education committee.
After reviewing the report, Archbishop Dolan will decide, in consultation with the Committee on Catholic Education, whether any further actions are warranted.
Michael Galligan-Stierle, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, said that 70% of its members’ presidents have reported participating in review discussions with local bishops.
Of those, 80% described their discussions as “productive” or “very productive.”
“So I think we would say that, in most cases, it seems to me that stronger relationships appear to be emerging,” Galligan-Stierle said.
Ten years ago, many Catholic administrators and faculty expressed concern that Ex Corde’s implementation might compromise their academic freedom. Galligan-Stierle said these worries have mostly abated, courtesy of a renewed pastoral connection between Catholic campuses and local bishops.
“Bishops can be found on campuses talking with students or delivering an address or speaking with trustees or meeting with the board chair and the president,” Galligan-Stierle said. “And all of these things, when they happen, as they’ve been happening for the last 10 years, what that does is it improves communion and understanding.”
Cardinal Newman Society president Patrick Reilly says there’s no doubt a far better relationship exists today between the U.S. bishops and Catholic universities. “I’m very optimistic,” he said. “There’s widespread interest in strengthening Catholic identity.”
Reilly said the challenge moving forward will be developing concrete processes to implement Ex Corde more effectively with respect to key matters such as whether the majority of trustees and faculty are Catholic and whether what is being taught in theology programs is consistent with Catholic teachings.
One issue that’s no longer generating much controversy is the requirement in canon law that theology professors obtain a mandatum from their local bishops, confirming their intention to teach authentic Church doctrine.
At the time of Ex Corde’s implementation some in academia worried that theologians might be called out publicly for refusing to obtain a mandatum. This hasn’t happened, with most American bishops and colleges choosing to keep the granting of the mandatum a private matter.
University of Notre Dame alumnus Bill Dempsey is president of the Sycamore Trust, an organization dedicated to strengthening his alma mater’s Catholic identity. Notre Dame became a flashpoint of Catholic-identity controversy in 2009, when dozens of American bishops joined with the university’s local bishop in criticizing Notre Dame for inviting President Obama to be its commencement speaker and receive an honorary degree despite the president’s pro-abortion stance.
Dempsey believes the crucial issue that must be addressed in order to strengthen Catholic identity is finding ways to reverse the dwindling percentages of committed Catholics among faculty members at many Catholic universities.
Said Dempsey, “Unless they tackle that, they’re not going to solve the problem that besets all of Catholic higher education now.”
For his part, Galligan-Stierle agreed that it’s very important to have ways by which “prospective students and families can judge a Catholic university’s living out of the Gospel message.” But, he added, there will be a range of “particular methodologies” by which different universities work to accomplish this goal.
What Worked at CUA
Many observers hold up The Catholic University of America as the shining American example of a college that revitalized its Catholic identity over the last decade by a dynamic implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae.
Bishop David O’Connell of Trenton, N.J., was CUA’s president for most of this period, until his episcopal ordination in July 2010.
According to Bishop O’Connell, leadership “is critically important” to implementing Ex Corde successfully. “The president must be absolutely convinced about the value of ECE for the university,” he told the Register via email during his December ad limina visit to Rome. “And those who share responsibility for leadership in their respective areas must have that same conviction.”
Bishop O’Connell cited “Catholic faculty hiring, promotion of authentic Catholic teaching, prominent campus ministry and fostering Catholic values in campus life” as the most significant policies that CUA instituted during his tenure to augment its Catholic identity.
But he doesn’t think that it’s critical that the U.S. bishops specify concrete guideposts for such areas as they work to further strengthen the Catholic character of their universities and colleges.
“I don’t know that more episcopal guidelines would make much difference,” the bishop said. “We have beautiful guidelines already in ECE and Pope Benedict’s address to U.S. Catholic educators at CUA in 2008.”
“Parents and students must demand that Catholic institutions be what they say they are: Catholic,” Bishop O’Connell added. “Bishops need to offer their support and presence to Catholic campuses. And university staff should welcome their involvement and collaboration, each respecting the other’s distinct role. Trust, confidence, patience and charity should characterize the relationship.”
Concluded Bishop O’Connell, “Publishing statistics can be instructive and helpful, but, as Pope Benedict has stated, statistics alone are not the answer. Catholic universities need to be places where Christ can be encountered and where the Catholic mind and heart are nourished and can grow. The proof of our Catholicity occurs after graduation.”
Tom McFeely writes from Victoria, British Columbia.