'From the Heart of the Church'

A look at Blessed John Paul II’s legacy in U.S. Catholic higher education.

CHICAGO — Blessed Pope John Paul II, the once beloved university philosophy professor, continues to influence students.

That’s certainly the case in the United States, on campuses from the mountains of Wyoming to the streets of the nation’s capital.

The newly beatified Pope’s example and the teachings he promulgated during his papacy continue to reverberate throughout Catholic academia. New schools have been established, Catholic studies programs and majors have been started, campus-ministry programs have been reinvigorated, and long-standing Catholic universities have re-examined their mission in light of the Pope’s teachings.

Given the large numbers of young people enrolled on Catholic campuses, Pope John Paul’s concern and his vision for their future were well-placed. According to a recent article, “Trends in Catholic Higher Education” by Melanie Morey and Jesuit Father John Piderit, Catholic higher education enrollment increased by more than 60% between 1980 and 2005, and 10 new Catholic colleges and universities were founded in the United States in the same time period.

Catholic college presidents and professors point to Pope John Paul’s 1990 apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church) as having the most profound and lasting influence on the way Catholic colleges understand their role in the Church and in the academic world. The Pope issued the document in order to clarify the mission of Catholic colleges and universities around the world and to inspire the creation of new institutes of higher education.

Catholic schools should be places where Catholicism is vibrantly lived and taught in the search and dissemination of truth, especially as revealed through Jesus Christ, the document declares. “Catholic teaching and discipline are to influence all university activities, while the freedom of conscience of each person is to be fully respected. Any official action or commitment of the university is to be in accord with its Catholic identity.”

The constitution was issued to provide universal norms that Catholic colleges should maintain so that their identity and mission will be clear to all those inside and outside of the schools. The Pope wrote, “Born from the heart of the Church, a Catholic university is located in that course of tradition which may be traced back to the very origin of the university as an institution. It has always been recognized as an incomparable center of creativity.”

In a talk to mark the 20th anniversary of the promulgation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education, reported that more than 250 Catholic universities were created worldwide during Pope John Paul II’s pontificate. He also stated that many existing universities, “also based on this document … have strengthened their identities, which is very important.”

Calling Ex Corde the “Magna Carta for those involved in Catholic higher education,” Trenton, N.J., Bishop David O’Connell said the document challenged Catholic schools to regain their identity and purpose after the social, cultural and educational revolutions of the 1960s. “Not only was the document a clear presentation of what a Catholic school should be, it was a challenge; it offered us an examination of conscience on the transparency and accountability of U.S. Catholic higher education,” said Bishop O’Connell, who was president of The Catholic University of America from 1998 to 2010.

Bishop O’Connell thinks the legacy of Ex Corde and Pope John Paul will continue to be felt in Catholic campuses well into the future. “When history looks back at the papacy of John Paul II, it will see that Ex Corde Ecclesiae and the discussions it started were really watershed moments for the changes that were so necessary at Catholic colleges,” he said.

Magnanimous Vision

The U.S. bishops and Catholic college presidents will be reviewing their implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae throughout 2011. The review will seek to establish how well the guidelines the bishops put in place 10 years ago have been implemented on Catholic campuses. Thorny issues such as academic freedom, the need for Catholic theology professors to have a mandatum, or “mandate,” from their bishop and the autonomy of the university from the hierarchical Church continue to be discussed among the bishops and university administrators. But there is a greater sense of collaboration and cooperation, according to many involved in the discussions.

“The Church and the larger society are served well when the leadership of both the Church and higher education institutions work closely together,” said Vincentian Father Dennis Holtschneider, president of DePaul University who helped to shape the agenda for the discussions between bishops and presidents.

Father Charles Currie, the president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, which represents the 28 Jesuit-sponsored schools throughout the U.S., called Ex Corde a landmark document.

Ex Corde Ecclesiae presents a magnanimous vision of what a Catholic university should be and what it should do in relating the Gospel and the Church to the surrounding culture and in interpreting that culture to the Church,” Father Currie said. “That same vision drove the Pope to travel the world, to break many barriers, to go where no pope had gone before.”

Michael Galligan-Stierle, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, reports that there are 220 Catholic colleges and universities in the U.S. and that Ex Corde has been “a very strong and helpful constitution.”

Galligan-Stierle believes the personal example and witness of the Pope will perhaps have the greatest lasting effect on college-aged students. “John Paul II related to the young in ways to which few popes, few religious officials, few adults can compare,” Galligan-Stierle said. “Ex Corde Ecclesiae is a compelling and instructive document though its influence was initially muted with an overemphasis on the mandatum, which is a very important issue.”

The Mandatum

Indeed, there has been a great deal of controversy over requiring Catholic theologians at Catholic universities to have a mandatum from their bishop to teach theology. The mandatum, which is part of canon law, is mentioned in Ex Corde.

Patrick Reilly is president of the Cardinal Newman Society, which was formed in 1993, after Ex Corde Ecclesiae was promulgated, to help in the renewal of Catholic higher education in the United States. The organization promotes Catholic education as envisioned by Pope John Paul II through its website, conferences, publications and other programs.

“We wanted the response to Ex Corde Ecclesiae to be renewal, not retrenchment. The Cardinal Newman Society was founded as a direct response to the negative reaction that Ex Corde Ecclesiae received in the U.S.A.,” Reilly said. “It has been exciting to see Catholic educators warming up to the great vision that was proposed by our modern professor Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.”

Reilly cites Ave Maria University in Florida, The College of St. Thomas More in Texas, John Paul the Great Catholic University in California and Holy Spirit College in Georgia as schools that have been founded since Ex Corde was issued and fully support John Paul’s vision for Catholic higher education in all their programs, especially in the hiring of professors who teach in accord with the truths of Catholicism.

Another school that Reilly notes as having the Ex Corde vision is one of the newest Catholic school in the U.S., Wyoming Catholic College.

Father Robert Cook, president of Wyoming Catholic, which is graduating its first class this spring, considers John Paul’s call for a “New Evangelization” as important as Ex Corde in the life of his school.

“The Pope talked about the new springtime of the Church. Well, spring has its ups and downs, but I think John Paul’s influence will truly be vital in the future,” he said. “His call for a New Evangelization was something we felt was critical, and we saw that young Catholics must be fully educated in their faith if it was to come about,” Father Cook said.

Father Cook said the school’s extensive outdoor wilderness program combined with a Great Books curriculum taught in the spirit of Catholicism provides the challenge to young people that John Paul II treasured. “John Paul realized that one of the great mistakes being taught was that being Catholic is easy. But to be a Catholic requires sacrifice and demands everything that we are.”

“The young people want to have everything asked of them,” Father Cook said. They are offered that opportunity at Wyoming Catholic.

Jesuit Father Matthew Gamber writes from Chicago.