US bishops implement papal teaching on Catholic universities

US bishops implement papal teaching on Catholic universities

Charles E. Rice

The constitution on Catholic higher education, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, issued by John Paul II in 1990, went into effect in the United States in May. The Vatican and the American Catholic bishops have worked out an Application of Ex Corde to the United States which emphasises dialogue rather than confrontation.

The requirements of Ex Corde as spelled out in the bishops' Application are hardly oppressive. The controversy has focused on the rights of faculty and of the universities themselves. But Ex Corde and the Application are really a students' bill of rights. The local bishop has a duty to "watch over the ... Catholic character of the university." The bishops do not run the place but "they should be ... participants in the life of the Catholic university."

Students' rights

The bishop is concerned with the rights of all involved, including students: "Catholic students have a right to ... instruction in authentic Catholic doctrine and practice [and] to be provided with opportunities to practise the faith." Students' rights are given weight also in the requirement that "the university should strive to ... appoint Catholics as professors so that, to the extent possible, those committed to the witness of the faith will constitute a majority of the faculty. All professors are expected to be ... committed to the Catholic mission and identity of their institutions."

The most controversial point in the Application is that "Catholics who teach the theological disciplines in a Catholic university are required to have a mandatum granted by competent ecclesiastical authority." The mandatum is not an appointment. It acknowledges merely that a Catholic theology professor "is a teacher within the full communion of the Catholic Church."

All these requirements protect students' rights through the principle of truth in labelling. A university that claims to be "Catholic" ought to be such as that term is defined by the Pope, the only person on earth with the authority to define it conclusively.

But what will be the effect of Ex Corde Ecclesiae? It is fair to speculate that, in addition to the emerging technologies of "distance education," potential students will have four main alternatives:

* Some major Catholic colleges and universities will reject Ex Corde formally or in practice. Some will be committed to the model of the secular research university, especially in faculty and student recruitment.

They may have a Catholic presence and student groups and individual faculty with Catholic interests. They will profess their "Catholic" character, especially to potential Catholic donors. But the evidence of that character will become anecdotal and marginal because the institution will be cut off from active communion with the Church. Those "Catholic Lite" universities will be pretentious and expensive. They will retain an upscale constituency. But for those who want the real Catholic thing, they will not be worth the money. As secular, they will never be among the best. As "Catholic", they will become irrelevant.

* Some Catholic colleges and universities, including some major research universities, will accept Ex Corde and will seriously try to implement it.

* Institutions such as Franciscan University of Steubenville, Christendom College, Ave Maria University (near Detroit), Thomas Aquinas College in California and others enthusiastically accept Ex Corde. They offer on a smaller scale an excellent Catholic liberal arts education at a much lower cost than the major institutions.

* Catholic centres at secular institutions may be a window on the future, enabling students to integrate their studies into a Catholic intellectual and spiritual life. For in-state students at state universities, this may be a way to achieve a sound Catholic formation without heavy debt.

Catholic character

One example is the Newman Foundation at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, where 12,000 of the 35,000 students are Catholic. The Foundation includes St John's Catholic Chapel, the Newman Library for research and study, residence halls for men and women, with a dining hall, computer lab and 350 students in residence, and four religion courses which students may take for university credit. The chapel seats 800, with six Masses on Sunday and three each weekday, including a Spanish Mass.

Such centres fill a need, especially for non-wealthy Catholic students.

"It is certainly easier," said Father Hesburgh two decades ago, "just to be a great university, and not to worry about being a Catholic university as well." But the great universities were Catholic in their origin. Only a Catholic university can really be great, because, as Ex Corde put it, "by its Catholic character a university is made more capable of conducting an impartial search for truth, a search that is neither subordinated to nor conditioned by particular interests of any kind."

This is a time for choosing, for truth in labelling, requiring every college or university that claims to be "Catholic" to put up or shut up.

Professor Charles E. Rice is a member of the Notre Dame University Law School faculty. He writes a column in the Notre Dame newspaper, 'The Observer'. This article appeared in the 1 May 2001 issue.

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