Appeared in 1997-1998, Vol. XXIII, Nos. 3 & 4 Download PDF here

Editor’s Note: In the following essay, Professor Varacalli analyzes and comments upon a series of articles recently published in a volume entitled Catholic Universities In Church And Society: A Dialogue On Ex Corde Ecclesiae. Edited by John P. Langan, S.J. (Georgetown University Press, P.O. Box 4866, Hampden Station, Baltimore, MD 21211-4866, 1993).


In the January, 1998 issue of Instaurare, Christendom College President Timothy T. O’Donnell, S.T.D., K.C.H.S., declared that:

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.” Recently, the Bishops of the United States submitted to the Vatican a draft of their norms for the implementation of Ex corde Ecclesiae in our country. This draft was returned recently to the U.S. Bishops by the Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education, which deemed the document inadequate. I think this makes an examination of the Pope’s powerful document timely and appropriate (p. 2).

While Dr. O’Donnell and others have explored with great clarity the many theological and philosophical issues involvedwith the Apostolic Constitution, this essay concerns itself with some of the important sociological considerations relevant to thehistory, reception, and implementation in the United States of Ex corde Ecclesiae, first promulgated in 1990. One of these considerations involves the historical decision of American (and later, American Catholic) institutions of higher education to model themselves after the highly specialized German research university. Another would be the (unjustified) sense of inferiority that progressive Catholic scholars, epitomized in Monsignor John Tracy Ellis’ famous 1955 lament, felt vis-a-vis their Protestant and secular brethren of the American academy during the pre-conciliar period. Yet another would involve the widely successful revolt led by Jesuit educators and by Father Theodore Hesburgh in their 1967 Land O’Lakes statement calling for “institutional autonomy” and “academic freedom” for Catholic institutions of higher education. It was a revolt that not only distanced Catholic higher education from Magisterial inspiration and influence but also entangled it much further into governmental laws, foundation requirements, and professional bureaucratic regulations. The perceived, but grossly and perhaps purposely exaggerated, dependency of Catholic higher education upon the latter (and quite “external”) sources of authority was, in turn, an important cause in opening up the secular floodgates in terms of personnel, faculty, and ideas (many of the latter incompatible with the Catholic faith).

The story would also be incomplete without incorporating the secularizing effect of the dominant Cardinals DeardenBernardin wing of the post-Vatican II Church in America and of its co-dependent auxiliary, the rise of a “new Catholic knowledge (or gnostic) class” of progressivist intellectuals, bureaucrats, and social activists in conflict with Magisterial authority, a knowledge class including many Catholic college presidents and administrators intent on accepting no interference from Rome in their attempt to gain acceptance on the part of America’s cultural elite. Mention should also be made of broad changes in American culture (e.g. the rise of an “autonomous” individualism and moral relativism) that disproportionately have been embraced by American Catholic elites. Indeed the secularization of the so-called “Protestant principle” is inextricably intertwinedwith the contemporary calls for complete autonomy from Rome (but not from the State) and for a broad definition of academic freedom that appears to have no limits (outside of the always current “politically correct”).

While the history of Rome’s attempt to keep its universities and colleges Catholic (and, increasingly, to recapture them) started in 1968, of more immediate relevance is the “give and take” that took place in preparation for the actual Apostolic Constitution that was obviously intended to “soften” the Papal/Vatican message. Of specific interest is the series of the three drafts of the Apostolic Constitution initiated by the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education that received input from, among others, the U.S. Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities and an April, 1989 worldwide conference of delegates from Catholic colleges and universities that convened in Rome. A fifteen member commission from that April conference met in Rome the following September and included three Americans: Rev. Edward Molloy of Notre Dame, Rev. Joseph O’Hare of Fordham, and Sister Sally Furay of the University of San Diego. Among the recommendations that the fifteen member commission pushed from the April conference was the request that “whatever normative principles are included in the document should be few in number, general in nature, and interpreted and applied in accord with principles to be developed by regional bishops’ conferences” (cf. Origins [Vol. 20, No. 17, October 4, 1990, p. 267]). The Catholic educational establishment in the U.S. got at least a good deal of what it wanted; indeed, the ordinances published by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1993 are too vague, general, timid, and nonobligatory; do not provide sufficient procedures for implementation; and lack any effective mode of enforcement.