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The Challenge of Ex Corde Ecclesiae

by Dr. Timothy T. O’Donnell
President, Christendom College

The most significant document affecting the Catholic university in this century is Pope John Paul II's Apostolic Constitution on Catholic Colleges and Universities, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, “Out of the Heart of the Church.”

The Holy Father’s Call

During the 1960s many Catholic colleges felt an acute sense of inferiority to their secular counterparts and began to follow secular models of education. The root of this problem was a crisis of faith which led many of the Catholic intellectual elite to become increasingly antagonistic to the tradition of Catholic higher education.

The title selected by the Holy Father, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, “Out of the Heart of the Church," presents to us a parent-child model, with the Church as parent and the university as progeny. When many college presidents in the 1960s took part in the Land O'Lakes declaration of independence from the Church and all external authority, the “child” turned truant, and, like the prodigal son, now risks perishing from lack of proper nourishment. Many a Catholic college and university today longs to fill itself with “the husks fed to the swine” after dismantling much of the traditional core curriculum.

A strong liberal arts core, with a special emphasis on philosophy and theology, characterized much of Catholic higher education prior to 1960; that core is now found in only a handful of Catholic colleges and universities. Ex Corde Ecclesiae is the call of a parent to her rebellious child. The Holy Father's ardent desire is that those in leadership positions should come to their senses and return to their Father's house lest they perish on the way.

The Quest for Truth

The Holy Father teaches that the Catholic university unites “two intellectual orders” which all too often are wrongly placed in opposition. The first is the search for truth, and second, “the certainty of already knowing the font of truth.” Of course, one can see flowing from these two central points that a certain obligation will be imposed by the truth once it is known. Often educators act as if an open mind is the highest perfection. In fact, an open mind lacks perfection, for it is still searching. As Christians we do not have open minds but rather discerning minds. Our minds are deeply committed to the truth of Jesus Christ. We judge, therefore, all proposed truth within the context of the truth which He has revealed to us.

Pope John Paul II writes in this document with a passion which reveals that he is speaking from his own personal experience within the Catholic university. He sees most clearly that one of the principal purposes of the Catholic university is first “the ardent search for truth” and second, its unselfish transmission to youth that they may learn to think so as to act rightly. The Holy Father sees with great clarity the importance of moral conduct. It is not enough only to know the truth-- one must love the truth and live the truth! He states in Ex Corde Ecclesiae, “It is the honor and responsibility of a Catholic university to consecrate itself without reserve to the cause of truth.” The Catholic university is distinguished from its secular counterpart by its “free search for the whole truth about nature, man, and God.” The Catholic university is open to the whole truth, and the whole truth cannot be dismissed outright or confined to “religious studies.” Religious Studies is a valid and helpful humanistic discipline, but it has as its object not God who reveals specific truth to man, but only what men have believed about the deity. Because the Catholic university is open to truth wherever it is found, it should embrace a “universal humanism” which always examines things in their “essential connection with the supreme truth who is God.”

The Pope particularly points out the important union provided by the Catholic vision of things which, rather than placing faith and reason in opposition, unites the two orders in a harmonious relationship. Any future hopes for Catholic higher education in this country will be achieved only if the Catholic university whole-heartedly seeks “courageous creativity and rigorous fidelity.” The Holy Father’s expression certainly does seem paradoxical; courageous creativity is necessary because there is always more which we can learn about the world in which we live, the entire created order, and God. At the same time we must hold fast to the teaching of the Church and the truth found therein. There can be no real opposition between the truths discovered by faith and the truths discovered by reason, as both ultimately have their source in God.
If this balance is achieved, then the Catholic university will fulfill its purpose as stated by the Second Vatican Council in its declaration on Christian education, “That the Christian mind may achieve as it were a public, persistent and universal presence in the whole enterprise of advancing higher culture, and that the students of these institutions become people outstanding in learning ready to shoulder society’s heavier burdens and to witness the faith to the world.”

The Pope teaches us that the Catholic university’s objective must be the maintenance of a Christian institutional presence in the world of higher education. This seems to indicate that the Pope will not be satisfied with a university in a particular “religious tradition” but only with one which has an explicit, Catholic identity.

The Catholic Identity

A Catholic university must have at least four of the following “essential characteristics.” First, the Holy Father says there must be a Christian inspiration which is found not only in the individuals who make up the college or university, but throughout the university community as such. Secondly, in the light of the truths of the Catholic Faith, there must be an ongoing reflection upon the growing body of human knowledge to which the university seeks to add its own unique contribution in the field of research and writing. Third, within the university there must be “fidelity to the Christian message as it comes to us through the Church.”

It is here, particularly within theological discourse, that the necessity of adherence to the teaching of the magisterium as an authoritative font of truth is emphasized by the Pope. Fourth, there must be a commitment on the part of the institution to serve the entire people of God and the entire human family of mankind “in their pilgrimage to the transcendent goal which gives meaning to life.” That transcendent goal is none other than God, who beckons all men to eternal happiness in the beatific vision. Here again, in all four points the importance of faith is seen. It is central and vital to the integrity to the Catholic university. In an authentic Catholic university, “Catholic ideals, attitudes, and principles penetrate and inform university activities in accordance to the proper nature and autonomy of these activities.”

Church and University

In all of this one can see that neither the magisterium of the Catholic Church, the Roman Pontiff in his solemn teaching office, nor the local bishop teaching in communion with the universal Church form a threat in any way to the integrity of an institution which has consecrated itself to the pursuit of truth.

To conclude from the document, “One consequence of its essential relationship to the Church is that institutional fidelity of the university to the Christian message includes a recognition and adherence to the teaching authority of the Church in the matter of faith and morals.” This is no threat to the legitimate autonomy of human culture and academic freedom. Scholars continue to enjoy the academic freedom which should characterize pursuit, acquisition, and communication of truth. This search takes place “within the confines of the truth and the common good”" All Catholics should be deeply grateful for the inspired guidance of the Holy Father in this document and for Rome's insistence that it be fully implemented in every institution of higher learning that bears the name “Catholic.”

This article is reprinted with permission from the Christendom College Web site.