College Presidents: Embracing Ex corde Ecclesiae Strengthened our Catholic Colleges and Identity
For the past 25 years, the principles of the Catholic Church’s apostolic constitution on higher education, Ex corde Ecclesiae, have been implemented with mixed success in the U.S., as evidenced by the many abuses of Catholic identity reported by The Cardinal Newman Society, but recent interviews with presidents of Newman Guide-recommended colleges confirm that those principles can be successfully implanted and reap tremendous benefits for the colleges and students when administrators embrace the document’s norms.
“Ex corde Ecclesiae continues to have a central importance in the world of Catholic higher education for it was issued by St. John Paul II who himself was a professor and educator deeply committed to an authentic vision of Christian education,” Dr. Timothy O’Donnell, president of Christendom College in Front Royal, Va., told the Newman Society.
This was no ordinary document, according to O’Donnell. The Holy Father had a specific vision for countering the Catholic identity abuses and scandals.
“It is a clear and timely response to the secularization of so many Catholic colleges and universities who, in seeking to imitate their secular counterparts, impoverished the Church’s contribution to higher education,” he said.
In 1967, several Catholic colleges, including the University of Notre Dame, Boston College, Georgetown University, Fordham University and Saint Louis University, joined in the “Land O’Lakes Statement” which declared the institutions independent from Church authority. Under the guise of “academic freedom,” the statement attempted to distance the colleges from any bishop or Church oversight and seek acceptance from their peers in mainstream higher education. Consequently, many Catholic colleges followed suit and witnessed dramatic decreases in Catholic faculty, orthodox teaching, student attendance and further compromises in Catholic identity.
But Catholic colleges are meant for more than secular acceptance, they are meant for something greater: to be “places where students encounter the living God, who manifests Himself in Jesus Christ and that faith must affect every facet of university life,” said O’Donnell.
Ex corde Ecclesiae a Miracle for Catholic Identity
One college that has experienced a dramatic turnaround due to Ex corde Ecclesiae is Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan. In the fall of 1991, the College had an enrollment of 570 students. After incorporating the vision and guidelines of Ex corde Ecclesiae and recommitting to its Catholic identity, Benedictine witnessed a 225 percent increase in attendance and now offers one of the most vibrant Catholic liberal arts educations in the country to more than 1,851 students.
“Benedictine College can trace its turnaround to Ex corde Ecclesiae,” College president Steve Minnis told the Newman Society. “We renewed our Catholic identity along the lines laid out by Pope John Paul II — and a miracle happened.”
Within ten years, Benedictine College opened ten new residence halls, a new student recreation center, and two new chapels; expanded the engineering department and added a nursing department; incorporated principles from Theology of the Body into its residence life and policies; welcomed dynamic young Benedictine monks as chaplains; and consecrated the College to the Virgin Mary.
“None of this success would have been possible without the guiding light of Ex corde Ecclesiae,” Minnis said.
A Vision for Catholic Colleges
The vision of St. John Paul II has also inspired new Catholic colleges to emerge, such as Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyo., which was founded in 2007.
“Wyoming Catholic College embraces Ex corde Ecclesiae because of the comprehensive vision of beauty, truth and goodness that is articulated in the document,” said president Dr. Kevin Roberts. “Moreover, our pioneering spirit has motivated us to reject and work actively against the nonsense and treachery of the Land O’Lakes Statement.”
The degree to which the College has embraced this vision is apparent on its website, which features an entire section dedicated to how the College is faithfully Catholic. The page details the College’s commitment to implementing Ex corde Ecclesiae, how the document is built into mission and vision statements, that all theology professors have obtained the mandatum — a recognition from the local bishop that they pledge to teach in fidelity to Catholic doctrine — and that all professors have taken the Oath of Fidelity and made the Profession of Faith.
“Our disposition to the wholeness of truth, as represented by Holy Mother Church, imbues every aspect of our college,” said Roberts, noting that Catholic identity means more than policies and documents and is ultimately seen in the great students it produces.
“Catholic identity is the external sign of an institution’s internal disposition toward the totality of the Church’s teaching and beliefs,” he said. “The fruit of an institution’s authentic Catholic identity are its students, whose seriousness of purpose while students, and commitment to noble missions as graduates, are fused with their daily joy in living out the Gospel.”
A Crest Above the Rest
Ave Maria University, founded in 2003, has found a unique way to show its dedication to the Church’s vision for Catholic higher education: it features the words Ex corde Ecclesiae on its crest.
Highlighting Ex corde Ecclesiae was an intentional choice to show that a Catholic university must be both born and continue to live from the heart of the Church, Dr. Michael Dauphinais, associate professor and chair of theology, told the Newman Society.
“The religious impulse is not simply something belonging to the founding period of universities but must be lived at each new present moment in the life of the university,” he said, noting that Ave Maria is proud to show that faith and reason can work together in search of the truth.
“When enlightened by the Catholic Faith, each discipline works together to see more deeply into the whole of reality and to lead the whole person to encounter truth,” Dauphinais said. “The dynamism of a Catholic university is that students are invited to seek the truth through study while also being assured that the ultimate truth is seeking them out in the person of Jesus Christ.”
“Catholic identity is the gift of Christ Himself that needs to be received by the people involved with the university from the board, to the faculty, to the students,” he concluded.
Catholic Professors Key to Strong Identity
When Ex corde Ecclesiae was first issued, much of the conversation about the document centered around the mandatum, explained John Garvey, president of The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
“I can understand why the conversation focused on that, but I think the most important sentence in the document is the one that talks about having a majority Catholic faculty who are committed to the faith,” he told the Newman Society. “That’s true not just in theology but also in history, economics, literature, languages, biology, law, architecture and so on. We won’t have a compelling Catholic vision of the intellectual life unless it’s Catholics who are carrying the ball.”
This is a particular point that Catholic University has paid attention to over the years, Garvey said, and one that it will continue to emphasize.
“The most important thing for the future of Catholic higher education is who the faculty are. We can’t expect other faiths to do that,” he said, adding that people of other faiths are welcome and important, but Catholics must bear the brunt of the responsibility in providing authentic Catholic education.
“If the intellectual life is to be distinctly Catholic, we can’t expect that to be the responsibility of people who are not,” he said. “If we hire people like that, then we’re going to have schools that are robustly Catholic and that view the intellectual life as something that goes hand in hand with our own faith.”
Strong Curriculum, Strong Identity
Hiring faithfully Catholic professors is critical because they will be the ones to pass on the philosophical and theological truths of the faith, Christendom’s O’Donnell echoed.
“The document affirms the timeless wisdom of the Church particularly with the central unifying role played by philosophy and theology in the curriculum,” he said. “Man has an immortal soul and was made in the image and likeness of God and therefore has an eternal destiny.”
However, communicating that truth is a tall task and requires faithful teachers and a dedicated curriculum, O’Donnell continued. As such, the core curriculum at Christendom College requires its students to complete eight courses in both philosophy and theology in order to educate the whole person, body and soul, mind and spirit.
More Than Numbers
Whether in the curriculum, mission statements, college policies, advertising or the witness of faculty, the importance of Catholic identity cannot be underestimated, Father Sean Sheridan, T.O.R., president of the Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio told the Newman Society.
Even before Ex corde Ecclesiae was issued, the theology faculty at Steubenville became the first to make a public Profession of Faith and take the Oath of Fidelity. “These public acts of fidelity express the heart of who we are and lead to the ability of our students to discover the fullness of truth in every academic discipline and in their daily lives,” said Fr. Sheridan.
Fr. Sheridan pointed to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s 2008 address to educators at The Catholic University of America in which the Holy Father elaborated on Pope John Paul II’s vision and the meaning of Catholic identity.
Pope Benedict stated:
A university or school’s Catholic identity is not simply a question of the number of Catholic students. It is a question of conviction — do we really believe that only in the mystery of the Word made flesh does the mystery of man truly become clear? Are we ready to commit our entire self – intellect and will, mind and heart — to God? Do we accept the truth Christ reveals? Is the faith tangible in our universities and schools? Is it given fervent expression liturgically, sacramentally, through prayer, acts of charity, a concern for justice and respect for God’s creation? Only in this way do we really bear witness to the meaning of who we are and what we uphold.
“Clearly, then, Catholic identity is not dependent upon statistics,” Pope Benedict continued. “Neither can it be equated simply with orthodoxy of course content. It demands and inspires much more: namely that each and every aspect of your learning communities reverberates within the ecclesial life of faith.”
“It should be evident to a visitor to a Catholic university that the university is Catholic,” Fr. Sheridan said.
“A Catholic university presents itself as separate and distinct from other universities, primarily due to its Catholic identity, which should pervade every aspect of the University’s operations,” he concluded. And Ex corde Ecclesiae provides the model.
Catholic educators will gather in Rome this November to discuss the challenges to providing faithful Catholic education as the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education hosts a World Congress on “Educating Today and Tomorrow: A Renewing Passion” in recognition of the 25th anniversary of Ex corde Ecclesiae and the 50th anniversary of Gravissimum Educationis. Representatives from the Newman Society will participate in the Congress and will report and reflect upon the events from Rome.