Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Ex Corde Ecclesiae in America

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 21, 2011

This year each Catholic college and university president will meet with his local bishop to review institutional progress in implementing The Application of Ex Corde Ecclesiae in the United States, which the American bishops put into effect in 2001. This application grew out of Pope John Paul II’s promulgation in 1990 of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, an Apostolic Constitution on Catholic universities, which was the first shot in a slow but systematic effort to renew and reform Catholic higher education around the world.

“Ex corde ecclesiae” means “from the heart of the Church”. The title represents the traditional Catholic perception, and John Paul II’s firm conviction, that an authentic Catholic university can develop properly only in a filial relationship with the Church, accepting her doctrines and values, guided by her Magisterium, and fostering a deeply Catholic understanding of all of reality. As the opening paragraph of the Apostolic Constitution states: “A Catholic University's privileged task is ‘to unite existentially by intellectual effort two orders of reality that too frequently tend to be placed in opposition as though they were antithetical: the search for truth, and the certainty of already knowing the fount of truth’.” The quotation is from an address in 1980 by Pope John Paul II at the Catholic Institute of Paris.

Specific Norms

The entire document is well worth reading, but the most important juridical portion of it is contained in Article 2, “The Nature of a Catholic University”, which enumerates the following norms: 

  1. “A Catholic University, like every university, is a community of scholars representing various branches of human knowledge. It is dedicated to research, to teaching, and to various kinds of service in accordance with its cultural mission.”
  2. “A Catholic University, as Catholic, informs and carries out its research, teaching, and all other activities with Catholic ideals, principles and attitudes. It is linked with the Church either by a formal, constitutive and statutory bond or by reason of an institutional commitment made by those responsible for it.”
  3. “Every Catholic University is to make known its Catholic identity, either in a mission statement or in some other appropriate public document, unless authorized otherwise by the competent ecclesiastical Authority. The University, particularly through its structure and its regulations, is to provide means which will guarantee the expression and the preservation of this identity in a manner consistent with §2.”
  4. “Catholic teaching and discipline are to influence all university activities, while the freedom of conscience of each person is to be fully respected46. Any official action or commitment of the University is to be in accord with its Catholic identity.”
  5. “A Catholic University possesses the autonomy necessary to develop its distinctive identity and pursue its proper mission. Freedom in research and teaching is recognized and respected according to the principles and methods of each individual discipline, so long as the rights of the individual and of the community are preserved within the confines of the truth and the common good47.”

The U.S. bishops took nine years to develop a specific approach to the implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, and two more years to implement the norms. During this process there was considerable consultation with Catholic university administrators. This undoubtedly made the bishops more sensitive to some of the unique problems faced by American institutions, but it also gave them a preview of the excuses some universities are using to resist the process of regaining their Catholic identity. In any case, in addition to the broad outlines of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the bishops’ Application document emphasized a comprehensive list of specific points relating to the boards of trustees, administration, faculty and students, of which the following are a representative sample:

  • Each member of the board must be committed to the institution’s Catholic identity.
  • The university president should be Catholic and each member of the staff and faculty must be informed of the institution’s Catholic identity, mission, and practices, as well as encouraged to participate in the institution’s spiritual life as much as possible.
  • The university should strive to appoint Catholics to faculty positions and, wherever possible, the majority of faculty should be Catholic.
  • All professors must exhibit not only competence and good character but respect for Catholic doctrine.
  • Theology should be taught at each institution, and formal theological discussions and events should be planned to address key issues.
  • Both the university and the bishops have the right to expect theologians to present authentic Catholic teaching. Theology professors have a “duty to be faithful to the Church’s Magisterium as the authoritative interpreter of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition.”
  • Catholics who teach theology must have a mandatum (a license or approval to teach) from the competent ecclesiastical authority.
  • Students should have the opportunity, and Catholic students have the right, to be educated in the Church’s moral and religious principles and social teachings and to participate in the life of faith.


I mentioned that the bishops have had ample opportunity to become acquainted with the excuses various institutions would use to resist the process of Catholic reform and renewal. It may prove useful to review the four principal excuses here.

Academic Freedom: The first and most common is the claim that academic freedom necessitates the complete independence of professors in all universities from any prior intellectual commitment to truth, let alone submission to the Magisterium of the Church. This excuse misunderstands not only the nature of intellectual inquiry but the liberating effect that the proper understanding of some truths has on the effective exploration of others. Not even secular scholars start from a position of complete ignorance or agnosticism in examining each new academic question. If they did, they would be starting over with each new question—or with each new day and even each new moment—and they would never make any progress at all.

Moreover, once one grasps any given truth, that understanding becomes an important step in investigating and understanding other truths, which must always fit together in describing one seamless reality. In addition, Catholics recognize, as John Paul II put it, “the fount of truth”. There can be no more certain source of truth than Divine Revelation as authentically interpreted by the Magisterium of the Church. The truths brought to our understanding through Revelation shed a magnificent light on reality, and so ought to enable Catholics, all other things being equal, to make greater progress in exploring other aspects of reality than anyone else. Finally, it is naturally the defining note of a Catholic university that its professors generally start from a position of accepting and understanding Catholic doctrine, viewing this as an important foundation for a fruitful intellectual life. Thus academic freedom can never be properly cited either as a reason to avoid prior truth commitments or, in a Catholic institution, as a way of “protecting” oneself from the influence of truths known and taught by the Catholic Church.

American Peculiarities: The excuse most likely to be encountered in the second place arises from the so-called peculiarity of the American situation. The argument is that US law restricts something, or Federal policy requires something, or American custom demands something that prevents American universities from maintaining a Catholic identity. In general, however, these requirements relate either to the type of institutional governance required to grant degrees or the ideological disposition of programs which operate under governmental grants. (But in the latter instance academic freedom might well be threatened, and we have a right to expect a resistance which is only too often erroneously directed against the Church.)

The requirements of institutional governance to grant degrees in the United States typically relate to keeping ultimate institutional control in a board of trustees rather than in the employees of the institution; this has nothing to do with what is necessary to maintain a Catholic identity. And any Catholic institution, if it is to maintain its integrity, must refuse grants which require it to compromise its institutional identity. This is true even if it means the sacrifice of an important program or of leadership in some particular area. It will undoubtedly be true that authentically Catholic institutions, in an increasingly militantly secular society, will operate at a disadvantage in one respect or another. But it can hardly help a Catholic institution to become less Catholic to gain a material advantage. The result would be to make society as a whole more militantly secular.

Elite Status: The third excuse is the need to maintain an institution’s “elite status”. Many allegedly Catholic universities (Notre Dame is a well-documented case) have made a point in recent decades of hiring a broad range of professors with non-Catholic (or even anti-Catholic) commitments, whether secular or alternatively religious, on the grounds that, first, the university is getting the very best people for each position and, second, the university thereby presents a truly diverse academic image to the world, which somehow makes it a better representative of what a university should be. Unfortunately, both of these reasons rely heavily on understandings of “excellence” borrowed from secular culture.

Clearly someone might have reached the status of a leader in his or her field as much for fitting in well with the prevailing secular cultural atmosphere as for truly being the one clear “best” practitioner of an art or science. And when it comes to seeking truth, there can be no intrinsic superiority in populating a faculty with people who hold as many different ideas and beliefs as possible rather than with those, primarily, who accept the Catholic Faith. To be sure, intellectual diversity can help in avoiding those academic pitfalls which arise from complacency or narrowness, but it can also set people back a good distance on the path of understanding reality, and this very frequently has enormous negative consequences for fruitful scholarship. Catholic universities should not allow “excellence” to be defined for them by secular approbation, which so often takes its cues from fads or the support of favorite causes; they should seek the best faculty to fulfill their own internal purposes; if they do so, their faculties will almost always be predominantly—though at times not exclusively—Catholic.

Theological Autonomy: The fourth and final major excuse is the demand for theological autonomy. Here it is argued that theologians have a vital role to play in the development of Christian understanding, and that this role will suffer enormously if the decisions of those outside the theological fraternity (that is, popes and bishops) have a controlling voice in the ongoing discussion. Theologians who think this way, and university administrators who agree with them, frequently talk about the absolute necessity that review and criticism be restricted to their theological peers. Of course by “theological peers” they mean other mostly Modernist academic theologians like themselves, not a group of theologians which professes complete obedience to the Magisterium of the Church.

Be that as it may, such theologians misunderstand the very nature of their craft. It is certainly true that a new theological idea or development can sometimes be misunderstood or unfairly mistrusted by those in ecclesiastical authority, who might in consequence wish to put the brakes on certain lines of thought. This has happened and it will happen again. But it is not nearly so damaging as the fundamental refusal of Catholic theologians to recognize that their very discipline depends on the existence of a deposit of Faith, in Scripture and Tradition, which can be authentically interpreted only by the authority of the Catholic Church. Lacking this, there is no basis for theology to be anything but idle speculation—or what Modernists would perhaps prefer to call the articulation of the religious consciousness of each particular age. This is an argument requiring no intelligence to resist. Courage to oppose the Lollipop Guild is all that is necessary.


A number of Catholic colleges and universities which had somewhat gleefully downgraded their Catholic identity during the heyday of secularist euphoria in the 1960’s and 1970’s have since begun to take seriously their need to restore that identity, especially since the promulgation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae. The Cardinal Newman Society monitors these developments, reports on them, and maintains a slowly growing list of institutions it thinks have gotten their identities back. The process is taking a very long time, of course, and that is probably mostly because the rest of the Church has not been healthy or strong enough to apply the necessary pressure.

But it is also true that Catholic universities, in the United States and elsewhere, tend to be tough nuts to crack. Most of them are now independent of direct ecclesiastical control, so it takes a long process of rebuilding relationships with university leaders and trustees to effect change. Some of them are in the hands of religious orders which themselves have deep, perhaps insurmountable, problems with fidelity to the Church; Jesuit schools are the leading example. Moreover, this year’s initiative of having each president meet with his local bishop will inevitably have spotty results, because the American episcopate is still so varied in its own degrees of fidelity and courage. Add to this that there is only so much that even the best bishops can do without the good will of the institutional leaders in question.

For all those reasons, the 2011 round of meetings will likely be simply one more small, incremental step. That may not be ideal, but it is still a good thing. It can only hasten the day when most Catholic universities will again derive their missions from and seek their successes within the living and infinitely fruitful fount of truth, which pours forth from the heart of the Church.


Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: - Jan. 26, 2011 1:02 PM ET USA

    Good point Lucius49, and while episcopal and even Vatican feet have been dragging, souls have been lost and/or greater burdens of purgation incurred.

  • Posted by: Lucius49 - Jan. 25, 2011 4:58 PM ET USA

    It took the Holy See twenty-three years to deal with the American Land O' Lakes declaration (1967) secularizing Catholic universities with many using mumbo jumbo about being in the tradition of some community/religious order It has taken the American bishops twenty + years to deal with implementing this decree of the Holy See: 1990 to 2011. Meanwhile the horse has been out of the barn for quite some time.All of this foot dragging in an age of instantaneous communication. Why the foot dragging?

  • Posted by: Defender - Jan. 24, 2011 2:14 AM ET USA

    With the exception of theological autonomy, primary and secondary schools could all have "excuses." Is it only because Ex Corde Ecclesiae pertains to universities and colleges that teaching Catholic values and truths is somehow different? While it is true that some primary and secondary schools have teachers who aren't Catholic and some administrators who seem "bothered" to be Catholic, the problem in both instances seems to be that the bishop doesn't know (or care) what is really happening.

  • Posted by: John Holecek - Jan. 23, 2011 8:26 PM ET USA

    Please check out Thomas Aquinas College in California for the education of your remaining children. The website is Everything the college claims to, they do do. I know this from my six years as director of public information there. It's an extraordinary place. [A bit of an ad, perhaps, but quite true. -- Jeff Mirus]

  • Posted by: EiLL - Jan. 22, 2011 10:07 PM ET USA

    Our first daughter received a full scholarship to Rutgers; 0ur second child attended the USAFA. They both made it with their faith intact, but we were not happy with the moral standards at either school. We are committed to sending our other children to a Catholic College that is faithful to the Magisterium. The Newman Guide has been our text book. "What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and lose his soul?" This time around, we're shooting for the best Catholic education available