Universities must begin coming into the new era of Ex Corde Ecclesiae

The ultimate goal for all colleges and universities that truly wish to be Catholic institutions cannot be anything else but the full implementation of Pope John Paul II's 1990 apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church). Given the secularization that has taken place on so many Catholic campuses, however, as well as the spirit of resistance to any Church authority or oversight that still remains in many of them, proceeding one step at a time is the best way to go for any institution that wishes to return to a more authentic Catholic character and practice.

Second of two parts on Bringing Back the Catholic Colleges

In many cases it may not be realistic to attempt to re-Catholicize institutions by issuing such administrative edicts from on high; too many bad habits and practices are currently in place, and some of them are deeply entrenched and have even been institutionalized. Also, there are still too many people who have not yet been persuaded that re-Catholicization is necessary; dissent from Church teachings — indeed the spirit of dissent generally — have hardly disappeared from the campuses of many institutions that call themselves “Catholic.”

At the same time, though, there is an increasing number of people who do believe that it is necessary, or at least desirable, for American Catholic institutions to return to their Catholic roots. The previous article discussed the essential first step for any school that has come to believe this is to revise its mission statement and other institutional documents to bring them into conformity with Ex Corde Ecclesiae, and to incorporate into them the general norms found in the document. Once these revisions have been made, the institution can then begin to make its future decisions accordingly.

An important step that should then be taken immediately is: begin writing all new faculty contracts in accordance with the revised requirements in the institution's basic documents. The Pope's apostolic constitution, for example, requires teachers who are themselves Catholic “to be faithful to, and other teachers ... to respect Catholic doctrine and morals in their research and teaching” (Article 4 β 3). New contracts for teachers in the theological disciplines would have to require the famous “mandate from competent ecclesiastical authority” that canon 812 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, as well as Ex Corde Ecclesiae Article 4 β 3, requires.

All new hiring decisions across the board would henceforth have to take into account the religious commitment of new hirees in order that “non-Catholic teachers should not be allowed to constitute a majority within the institution,” in accordance with Article 4 β 4. In this regard, some “affirmative action” in favor of practicing and committed Catholics may become necessary in many cases. But why not? What is more “American” today than affirmative action?

Many of these steps could be taken without disturbing the situation of most of those already in place on the institution's faculty or in its administration, whatever the different basis on which they may originally have been hired. For the most part they can simply be left where they are. Dismissals or firings of dissenters long accustomed to the current situation of paying no attention at all to the requirements of the Church for Catholic colleges and universities may not be necessary for those institutions that now wish to return to the Catholic fold; the removal of these people from Catholic higher education can often be left to the normal attrition of resignations and retirements.

Once an institution's intentions about seriously restoring its Catholic character have been made clear in the manner set forth above, though, it may be that many current faculty and administrators will wish to look elsewhere. It may even be gently suggested to those objecting to the institution's decision to re-Catholicize that they might be much happier in looking elsewhere: they are not likely to be happy under the new scheme of things.

And there are yet other concrete steps that an institution wishing to reCatholicize can take. An important one is to begin a policy — publicly announced beforehand — of exercising greater vigilance over events or speakers sponsored on campus, and over the public figures to whom awards or honors are to be given by the institution. The purpose of this step would be to insure greater respect for Catholic teaching and practice generally. It is today's current ambivalent situation where it is not clear whether or not a Catholic college will take a Catholic stand in a given situation that breeds much of today's controversy. This kind of ambivalent situation, moreover, tends to encourage activists or ideologues of whatever stripe to exploit the institution's reluctance to take whole-hearted Catholic positions and defend them when they are decried in the media.

Moreover, once a college or university has reaffirmed its integral Catholic identity and made it clear that it intends to act strictly in accordance with that identity, future students too will be clear about what is, and what is not, to be permitted on a campus that is truly Catholic. This would mean setting definite “term limits” for the present ambiguous and anomalous situation whereby such groups as those promoting abortion or so-called “gay rights” regularly seek official “recognition” on soi-disant Catholic campuses — and too often obtain this recognition.

It would also mean eliminating the kinds of scandals of recent years that have arisen when a “Catholic” institution has decided to honor or award an honorary degree to a rabidly pro-abortion congressman or other public figure.

In addition to all the above steps, there is another very important step that should not be neglected. The college or university should insure that ample Masses, confessions, and other religious observances are available on campus in accordance with the Church's authentic liturgical discipline.

It should go without saying that, having insured these Masses and other religious observances, the institution should then actively encourage students, faculty, and administrators alike to take advantage of their availability. Nothing is more important in the face of today's culture of death than to strive to create a climate on campus that is authentically Catholic — to provide a contrast to today's world that despises Christ and the moral law.

Some Catholic institutions that continue to fall short of what Ex Corde Ecclesiae requires in other respects, nevertheless continue to maintain a real Catholic ambiance and atmosphere — sometimes owing to the presence of individual priests or religious on campus. This is clearly something that can and should be encouraged and built upon.

These are only a few examples of steps that could be taken by Catholic colleges that have unwisely secularized. To the extent that a local ordinary began to encourage or require such things, he would be reminding those in the institutions in his diocese of the necessity of getting their houses in order in the new era inaugurated by Ex Corde Ecclesiae. He would also be providing them with some real incentive to get on with the task.

By committing to begin a process of re-Catholicization, moreover, many schools might preclude the possible unhappy future eventuality of being declared publicly to be no longer, in fact, a Catholic institution. This would be a painful eventuality, both for the institutions in question and for the Church. Let us hope, therefore, that a commitment to implement Ex Corde Ecclesiae on many campuses can be made before the bishops feel obliged to take more drastic action than they have to date.

No current “politically correct” cause, court decision, secular law, or any American higher education “custom” should be allowed to supersede the basic right and responsibility a Catholic institution in the United States enjoys under the First Amendment to operate in accordance with its own religious and moral beliefs. Today, this means in accordance with Pope John Paul II's apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae.

Kenneth Whitehead, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education, is the author of Catholic Colleges and Federal Funding (Ignatius Press, 1988).