Catholic Colleges 20 Years After 'Ex Corde'
David B. House: Twenty years ago, Pope John Paul II issued Ex corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church), an Apostolic Constitution that defined Roman Catholic colleges and created guidelines to assist them in fulfilling their missions...
Many advocates maintain that the bishops have never fully enforced its guidelines. Catholic colleges still remain highly autonomous and do more or less what they want. When I talk to American Catholics outside academe, most draw a blank when Ex corde is mentioned. When Pope Benedict XVI addressed Catholic educators during his visit to the United States in April 2008, he made no direct reference to the Apostolic Constitution.
As a consequence, it is understandable that many today might regard Ex corde as "clinically dead." But they would be wrong. In fact it has had a steady and profound impact on Catholic higher education in the United States, albeit more subtle than critics feared and reformers hoped. Moreover, there are several reasons why it will continue to shape, guide, and inspire us in the future.
Ex corde significantly increased awareness of Catholic higher education as a unique segment of postsecondary education in the United States. The Land O'Lakes Statement, issued in 1967 mostly by priest presidents of major Catholic colleges, has often been described as a sort of Declaration of Independence from the church, and its influence was felt for the next quarter century. It was peculiarly devoid of what makes a Catholic college distinctively Catholic. Instead it proffered the notion of a Catholic college as the "critical reflective intelligence of the Church," standing in judgment of—instead of adherence to—the Catholic faith. Its blueprint for attaining a vaguely defined "academic excellence" emulated the practices of secular universities.
The collective inferiority complex embedded in the statement set the stage for a meager view of Catholic higher education by consciously dismissing small Catholic liberal-arts colleges and assiduously avoiding any direct reference to church teaching or doctrine, magisterium (the teaching authority of the church), the pursuit of truth, or indeed even to Jesus Christ.
In contrast, Ex corde, with its rich discussion of truth, the integration of knowledge, faith, and reason—all within the broader context of a Christ-centered vision of a Catholic college—immediately inaugurated a genuine dialogue among educators about the true relevance of Catholic higher education. Suddenly terms like "Catholic identity" and "faith and reason" were circulating, bolstered by Pope John Paul II's 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason), which was widely discussed on Catholic campuses...
A new generation of leaders is emerging in American Catholic higher education. The postwar baby boomers are rapidly approaching retirement. They began their careers about the time of the Land O'Lakes Statement. Later they generally represented a distinctive viewpoint, strongly imprinted with the "spirit of Vatican II" and imbued with a general disdain for tradition and orthodoxy.
The emerging generation of academic and religious leaders, however, has experienced a different face of the church than their forebears. Often referred to as the "Pope John Paul II generation," or now the "Benedict XVI generation," the younger leaders are often far more receptive to the principles articulated in Ex corde. Consider that José H. Gomez, who is to become Archbishop of Los Angeles—the largest archdiocese in the United States, with nearly five million Catholics—was in his mid-20s when John Paul II was elevated to the Papacy; or that the Rev. James P. Shea of the University of Mary, in Bismarck, N.D., one of the youngest Catholic-college presidents in the United States, had not yet started kindergarten...
This generation is bolstered by the remarkable number of converts to Catholicism in the past 20 years, including academics and intellectuals like the political scientist Hadley P. Arkes and the theologian Scott Hahn. Moreover, students are helping to alter vividly the landscape of Catholic higher education. New student groups like the University of Notre Dame's Identity Project are growing in strength and influence as they promote stronger Catholic identity. Such students may well become one of the most vigorous and unanticipated change agents in Catholic higher education in the coming years, and they share one distinguishing characteristic: They have read Ex corde and are animated and inspired by its principles.
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Note: How I hope so. Still laypeople need to monitor.