As the University of St. Francis in Fort Wayne, Ind., seeks to strengthen its Catholic identity, administrators have turned for guidance to Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church), Pope John Paul II’s apostolic constitution on Catholic higher education.
All faculty members have read and studied the 1990 document, along with members of the university’s board of trustees. Any candidate for a teaching position is likewise given a copy and asked to incorporate the document’s principles into his or her teaching role.
Unlike some other Catholic educators who see a conflict between academic freedom and oversight by Church authorities, Sister M. Elise Kriss, president of St. Francis, has sought the counsel and blessing of Bishop John D’Arcy, head of the Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese.
A member of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, which has run the university for more than 100 years, Sister Elise is directing efforts to better integrate Catholic teaching and values into the curriculum. Ex Corde Ecclesiae “does not violate academic freedom,” she says. “It’s not telling each discipline in the university what to study or not. The document itself says that is not its purpose; it defers to the expertise of the various disciplines on a campus. Bishop D’Arcy has spoken about that aspect very well.
“But it is clear that teaching contrary to the magisterium goes beyond academic freedom at a university that wants to call itself Catholic,” she adds. “If you claim to represent the faith, you must be authentic in that mission.”
Sister Elise also says that, while she believes the school has always been in conformity with Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the time has come to “grab hold of” the document’s intent in a more formal way.
So it is that every teacher of Catholic theology has a mandatum from the bishop. A mandatum is a bishop’s recognition of a Catholic theologian’s pledge to teach in communion with the Church. (It is not a license or like a license.)
And so it is that the administration is in the process of reevaluating and strengthening the school’s Catholic identity and mission statement, developing a core curriculum that recognizes the primacy of the Franciscan tradition, establishing a new school of liberal arts, and working on a strategic plan based on values of respect for the individual, service to the Church and community, and the tenets of Catholic social teaching.
The University of St. Francis (online at sf.edu) has 2,000 students in graduate and undergraduate programs, with about 350 of them living on campus. Drawing largely on the population of the surrounding area, the student body is about half Catholic. The other half is mostly Protestant, including many evangelical Christians.
Professor John Bequette, chairman of the theology and philosophy department, came to the university last September. He says these are exciting days at St. Francis. “The commitment to the Church’s magisterium is real,” he points out, “and there is a dynamic spirit of fidelity among the faculty.”
Dominic Aquila, academic dean, explains: “I’m focusing on the intellectual weight of what we do. We’ve been retrieving the Franciscan intellectual tradition in a very big way, starting with St. Bonaventure and the life of St. Francis. We want to make this not just a paste-in to academic life, but to incorporate it deeply into the very heart of intellectual life on campus.”
“The project is complex and ongoing,” adds Aquila. “We continue to offer high-quality academic programs while integrating the Franciscan and Catholic traditions across the disciplines. We hope in this way to allow students a chance to understand the philosophical tenets underlying what they are studying.”
Bridget Becker, a 20-year-old sophomore majoring in communications and religious studies, says that the university has “an incredibly welcoming environment. It is a great atmosphere for personal growth and leadership opportunities.” She is editor of the campus newspaper and involved in campus ministry, peer ministry and the school’s pro-life group.
The classroom atmosphere is also conducive to learning, says Becker. “There’s definitely a good combination of our Franciscan charism and our Catholic faith,” she adds. “The theology professors are Catholic. They support the faith, and the fact that we are a Catholic university first. But everyone really respects every other religion.”
Bequette, who holds a doctorate in historical theology from the University of St. Louis, outlined a number of areas in which St. Francis University is working to make Ex Corde “manifest in the life of the university.”
“We should be laying the groundwork for a new Christendom,” says the professor. “That’s a lofty mission worthy of our best efforts. We seek to reinvigorate our culture through reinvigoration of intellectual life. Since the Catholic faith is the fullness of the truth, only the Catholic faith can bring this renewal about.”
Stephen Vincent writes from