Heart of the Church

Bishop Kevin Rhoades is inheriting a diocese that was at the center of the Obama-Notre Dame controversy last May.

Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Harrisburg, Pa., is committed to Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the 1990 Apostolic Constitution whose Latin title translates “from the heart of the Church.”

He has been appointed bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., a diocese that was the scene of controversy last May, when the University of Notre Dame granted an honorary doctorate — and a podium — to President Obama.

Bishop Rhoades, 52, told reporters at a South Bend press conference he was not concerned about lingering tension with Notre Dame over the Obama controversy.

“Let’s move to the future. I love Notre Dame. I want to have a close personal and pastoral relationship. It’s such a strong place,” he said, according to a story in the South Bend Tribune daily newspaper.

Bishop Rhoades recently spoke with Register correspondent Joan Frawley Desmond.

Notre Dame, considered by many to be the Catholic Church’s flagship institution of higher education, is in your new diocese. Would you describe your own academic background and specific intellectual, theological and philosophical interests and how they might define your engagement with the Notre Dame community?

My own academic background includes a B.A. in philosophy from St. Charles Seminary, Philadelphia, and graduate degrees in dogmatic theology (S.T.L.) and canon law (J.C.L.) from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. My intellectual interests, besides philosophy, theology and languages, include history and humanities in general. 

I also served as a seminary professor and then rector at Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md. I enjoyed teaching courses on the Eucharist, holy orders, celibacy, Hispanic ministry and canon law. 

I am excited about serving in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, which has five Catholic colleges and universities, including the University of Notre Dame. I look forward to meeting the faculty, staff, administration and, of course, the students at these universities. I expect to have a close personal and pastoral relationship with the university communities. I am most interested in fostering and promoting their Catholic identity and mission. 

According to Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the bishop has the responsibility “to promote and assist in the preservation and strengthening of their Catholic identity.” I believe this is a serious responsibility. As Pope John Paul II stated: Bishops “should be seen not as external agents but as participants in the life of the Catholic university.” I am really looking forward to participating in the life of the University of Notre Dame and in the lives of the other Catholic colleges of my new diocese. 

During a closed-door session at the U.S. bishops’ Baltimore meeting last month, they reportedly discussed the mission of Catholic universities and colleges and considered how they might strengthen that mission. Can you offer any reflections on this discussion and what we might expect on this matter in the future?

I do not think it would be appropriate for me to discuss the private conversation during the executive session of the fall meeting of the USCCB. I will say, however, that the bishops are committed to the full implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, an important document which provides excellent guidance for the Church and Catholic universities and colleges for the future. It must not be a document consigned to a bookshelf, but one which inspires and challenges us to strengthen the Catholic identity and mission of our Catholic universities and colleges. Nearly 20 years since its promulgation, Ex Corde Ecclesiae continues to have great relevance. 

What has been the impact of Ex Corde Ecclesiae and the ongoing debate regarding academic freedom within Catholic universities?

In my opinion, the impact varies considerably, depending upon the individual university or college. While I served as vice president of Mount Saint Mary’s University (while rector of the seminary) in Emmitsburg, Md., I saw that it had a great impact. There were widespread discussions on campus about the document, and the faculty, administration, staff and students were very engaged in discussing the Mount’s Catholic identity and mission. That identity and mission strengthened considerably as a result of the serious assimilation of the teachings of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, as well as the full implementation of its norms. 

During the past few years, I have been a member of the board of trustees of Mount Saint Mary’s University. I am proud to say that the board last year explicitly reaffirmed the critical importance of Catholic identity in all operations of the university, asserting that a strong Catholic identity is central to the university’s mission. In this statement, the board asserted the university’s commitment to the Church and the Church’s teachings, as well as its full compliance with both the letter and spirit of Ex Corde Ecclesiae. In addition, it affirmed the university’s recognition of the authority of the Holy See and the authority vested in the archbishop of Baltimore regarding the Catholic nature and direction of Mount Saint Mary’s University. It was clear to me that Mount Saint Mary’s in no way considered the bishop to be a mere external agent, but as a true participant in the university’s life, particularly in terms of its Catholic identity.

How would you frame the issue of academic freedom for Catholic theologians?

I do not think I could frame the issue better than Pope Benedict XVI did in his speech last year at The Catholic University of America. He was talking not only to Catholic theologians. The Holy Father stated: “In regard to faculty members at Catholic colleges and universities, I wish to reaffirm the great value of academic freedom. In virtue of this freedom, you are called to search for the truth wherever careful analysis of evidence leads you. Yet, it is also the case that any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and the teaching of the Church would obstruct or even betray the university’s identity and mission, a mission at the heart of the Church’s ‘munus docendi’ and not somehow autonomous or independent of it.”

A Catholic university has the mission to serve the truth. The principle of academic freedom cannot be separated from the commitment to the service of the truth.  Therefore, academic freedom has its limits. 

Let me give an example: A Catholic university must be deeply committed to the truth about the dignity of every human person created in the image and likeness of God. To deny this truth or to dissent publicly from Church teaching concerning the innate dignity of the human person (from conception to natural death) in the name of academic freedom is not acceptable for a professor in a Catholic university.

The exercise of academic freedom must be in conformity with the university’s Catholic identity. One cannot forget that one of the four essential characteristics of Catholic universities is “fidelity to the Christian message as it comes to us through the Church” (Ex Corde Ecclesiae No. 13).

Recent studies have suggested that graduates of Catholic universities may actually be more likely to lose their faith. What is your reaction to this data?  What advice would you give college-bound students and their parents?

I have not seen these studies. If they are true, I find such data to be deeply troubling. I think that in those Catholic universities where such is the case, a serious examination of conscience would be needed and an assessment of what needed to be done to bring about needed reform. The full implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae would be an important place to start. 

In choosing a Catholic college or university, I would encourage prospective students and their parents to ask a lot of questions about the college’s commitment to its Catholic identity and mission and to the teaching and norms of Ex Corde Ecclesiae. I would also encourage them to visit the campuses and check out for themselves the college environment, the campus ministry program, the liturgies, as well as the curriculum and extracurricular activities. You can usually tell if a place is proud of its Catholic identity or if it tries to minimize its importance. 

Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.