Missing the Message of Ex Corde Ecclesiae
The heated debate about the Pope's apostolic constitution on Catholic universities
has led many to forget about its inspired idea of a community of 
scholars, learners and staff united in the pursuit of truth
Alfred Freddoso
National Catholic Register, March 15-21, 1998

     Each fall I teach an undergraduate course at Notre Dame called Faith and Reason in which the students read the first chapter of Veritatis Splendor. Pope John Paul's aim in this encyclical is to affirm the existence of absolute moral norms such as "Thou shalt not commit adultery." But he makes clear in the first chapter that every Christian has a vocation to holiness that involves much more than mere obedience to negative moral absolutes. To obey such commandments is a great good, but it is not by itself enough to satisfy either God or the deepest longings of the human heart. 

     This first chapter consists of a meditation on the poignant story of the rich young man who asks Jesus what he must do to gain eternal life. The young man is not asking, "What is the bare minimum I must do in order to avoid divine punishment?" Rather, he comes forward as one who is already morally upright but aspires to a loftier goal. Similarly, the Pope tells us, each of us must approach Jesus with the same aspiration for perfection. 

     If there is a more compelling text for evoking the generosity latent in the hearts of college students who are on the verge of making definitive life-decisions, I don't know what it might be. 

     Sadly, though, the first chapter of Veritatis Splendor was largely ignored in the public debate that began immediately after the encyclical was published. Dissenting moral theologians complained that their positions had been misrepresented in chapter two, where the Pope presents his main arguments for moral absolutes. In response, orthodox defenders of the Pope chided his critics for adapting their moral theories to worldly standards. But both sides focused exclusively on chapter two--and lost in the heat of the debate was the more basic challenge, laid down for each of us individually in chapter one, to put ourselves into the shoes of the rich young man. 

     Why do I raise this issue on the Register's Education Page? Because of the exact parallel between the reception of Veritatis Splendor and that of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the Pope's apostolic constitution on Catholic universities. 

     The typical big university today is a knowledge factory shattered into many fragmentary units, each motivated almost exclusively by narrow self-interest. And university administrators, try as hard as they may, can no longer articulate a coherent vision of the whole that is capable of uniting their disparate constituencies under the flag of a common project. 

     In Part I of Ex Corde Ecclesiae the Pope describes an inspiring alternative: a genuine community of scholars, learners, and support staff united by their "consecration to the cause of truth" and their "dedication to protecting and advancing," in an intellectually rigorous manner, the dignity of the human person and their own cultural heritage. A university should dedicate itself, first of all, to seeking an integrated understanding of the human person and of human society that draws upon all the scientific and humanistic disciplines; second, it should strive to serve the human community so conceived. As the Pope puts it, the Catholic university's intellectual mission is characterized by "a commitment to the integration of various types of knowledge, a dialogue between faith and reason, an ethical concern, and a theological perspective." 

     Implicit in this description of a university is the bold claim that the Catholic university can serve as a light to the contemporary academic world by its combination of "rigorous fidelity" to the Word of God and "courageous creativity" in its intellectual endeavors. 

     If there is a more compelling text for evoking the deep desire of self-consciously Catholic scholars, as well as sympathetic non-Catholic scholars, to integrate their intellectual work with their spiritual aspirations, I don't know what it might be. 

     Sadly, though, the ideal set forth in Part I of Ex Corde Ecclesiae has been largely ignored in the public debate that began even before the document was published. 

     Catholic university presidents have concentrated exclusively on the requirement, implicit in Part II of Ex Corde Ecclesiae and explicitly enunciated in canon 812 of the Code of Canon Law, that "those who teach theological subjects in any institute of higher studies must have a mandate from the competent ecclesiastical authority." To put it mildly, they don't like this requirement. Seemingly intent on adapting their institutions to secular standards rather than being a light to the secular academic world, they have resisted the call to "rigorous fidelity." They have asked, in effect, "What is the bare minimum our institutions must do in order to avoid ecclesiastical punishment?" (They realize that any change in the now comfortable status quo would provoke angry protests from their theologians and from the rest of their largely secularized faculties.) 

    In response, orthodox scholars have urged the American bishops and key Vatican officials not to buckle under to pressure and to insist on orthodoxy in theological teaching and research. 

     But notice, sadly, both sides have focused exclusively on Part II of Ex Corde Ecclesiae and have simply ignored the broader vision proposed in Part I. Rigorous fidelity is indeed necessary if colleges and universities are to flourish as Catholic institutions of higher learning. The tragedy of many of today's Catholic colleges and universities is that they are so strongly motivated by the fear that such fidelity will endanger their prospects for worldly success. But in order for a Catholic college or university to accomplish its distinctively intellectual mission, rigorous fidelity is not enough. This is why Pope John Paul calls for "courageous creativity" as well. This courageous creativity has many dimensions, and I will mention just two of them. 

     First, according to the Catholic vision, a life devoted to intellectual excellence and creativity is itself a great human good and at the same time a possible path to sanctity. All graduates of Catholic universities should come away appreciating this fact, even those who are not themselves called to the intellectual life. For this reason, the Catholic university's spiritual mission cannot be confined--as it often is nowadays--to what goes on outside the classroom; it must instead be fully integrated with the university's intellectual mission. Nor can the full burden of this integration be placed upon professors of theology. Rather, students must come into contact with a large number of faculty members, across a wide range of academic disciplines, in whose own personal lives there is no bifurcation of the intellectual from the spiritual. 

    Second--and ironically--many non-Catholic (and even anti-Catholic) intellectuals welcome distinctively Catholic contributions to current academic debates. Why? Because such contributions, if well articulated, provide much more intellectual stimulation than second-rate imitations of what's already available from the best secular universities. We all want our Catholic universities to gain respect from their secular counterparts. But in our present situation what we should be aiming for is grudging respect--the kind that the New York Times itself gave to Veritatis Splendor. This is what the Pope had in mind in calling for creativity that is "courageous." And in this regard there is no better role model for us than the Holy Father himself.