Holy Cross Home Skip the Navigation
Search | Site Index | Directions | Web Services | Calendar
 About HC    |   Admissions   |   Academics   |   Administration   |   Alumni & Friends   |   Athletics   |   Library
Holy Cross Magazine
  Book Notes
  Class Notes
  In Memoriam
  Search the Magazine
  All Issues
  About the Magazine


















  Road Signs

Understanding Ex Corde Ecclesiae

By David O'Brien, Loyola Professor of Roman Catholic Studies

David O’BrienOn Nov. 17, 1999, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, by a substantial majority, adopted a set of regulations to implement the Apostolic Constitution on Catholic Higher Education, Ex Corde Ecclesiae ("From the Heart of the Church"). The vote came after almost a decade of intensive debate involving Vatican officials, American bishops, theologians and college and university presidents. 

The November vote brought to a climax two important debates in the Catholic Church, one dealing with the relationship between Catholic colleges and universities and the hierarchy, the second with the relationship between theologians and the teaching authority of the church's pastoral leaders, Pope and bishops.

The higher education debate began when, between 1967 and 1972, the majority of American Catholic colleges and universities transferred ownership and responsibility from their sponsoring religious orders, like the Jesuits, to independent boards of trustees with a majority of lay members. In the years since, the colleges and universities have prospered but Rome has always been wary. The problem was simple but very hard to resolve. American academics believe that an institution cannot be an authentic university if it does not enjoy "institutional autonomy" (control over its internal decisions) and academic freedom. As the Vatican sees it, however, no institution can be Catholic that is not accountable in some way to the hierarchy and ultimately to the Holy See, under the laws of the church.

For 30 years this difference has persisted, but no crisis arose because the American bishops treasured these centers of Catholic scholarship and trusted their leaders. The bishops and the college and university presidents, many still members of religious orders, relied on mutual respect and structured dialogue to work out problems that developed. 

After publication of Ex Corde in 1989, some bishops wanted to tighten control by specifying legal relationships in canon law, but the majority preferred the more pastoral approach. In November 1996, after five years of heated debate, the bishops by near unanimous vote sent to Rome a text of implementation based on shared responsibility and continuing dialogue. University officials were pleased, but the Vatican rejected this text and demanded one that clarified canon law relationships. 

This forced attention to the most difficult canonical issue, the requirement that Catholics teaching theological disciplines acquire a mandate, or license, from the bishops. For years the Vatican has attempted to rein in Catholic theologians who appear to challenge what Vatican congregations, and sometimes the Pope, regard as essential Catholic teaching. But theology was changing, moving from seminaries to university campuses, adopting new methods of research and interpretation, seeking out dialogue with other religions and other academic disciplines. Theologians, often lay women and men, believe that they play an important part in the life of the church, working with the church's ordained pastoral leaders. The Vatican, concerned with issues of orthodoxy and authority, never accepted the idea of partnership and disciplined some outstanding scholars, with what seemed inadequate due process. 

When the bishops decided to take on the task set by Rome in 1997, they had to deal with the canonical requirement that Catholics teaching Catholic theological disciplines must obtain a formal mandatum clarifying their relationship to the teaching authority of the Catholic Church. In the 1996 text the bishops relegated the issue to a footnote "for further study" but Rome insisted that the mandate should be required. The issue of the theologians had intersected the problem of the universities.

The text adopted in November contains many of the good points of the 1996 message. It affirms institutional autonomy and academic freedom. It suggests that the majority of trustees and faculty should be Catholic but leaves room for adaptation with phrases like "to the extent possible." Still, the overall tone suggests a submission to canon law that will be hard for trustees to accept. And the document requires that "Catholics teaching theological disciplines" obtain the mandatum. 

Anxieties center on three aspects of the mandatum. First, it seems to place an academic question: Who is qualified to teach Catholic theology? in the hands of non-academics, a move which damages the standing of theology as an academic discipline and might weaken the church's public articulation of the faith by limiting its voice solely to the hierarchy. Second, it requires acceptance of an understanding of theology that is less a partnership and more a matter of professing truths defined by the hierarchy. For many theological scholars deeply committed to the church this requires a surrender of professional integrity. And third, and from the point of view of many administrators, most important, it opens the door to continued wrangling. Ideologically-driven groups claiming orthodoxy and loyalty to the Pope are many and vigilant, and they have been after the theologians and the universities for years. They now have a legal foundation to challenge theologians and harass administrators whenever they hear of remarks that seem to depart from papal teaching (as on the role of women, or birth control). 

Still, the future is not entirely bleak. There is a large dose of common sense among the bishops. They have indicated there will be time now to engage in extended dialogue with the theologians, trying to find a method to handle the mandatum which will be fair and unobtrusive. Among the questions to be worked out are

  • Who grants, and withdraws, the mandate (most bishops probably will not want to exercise that role alone)?
  • How does the presence or absence of a mandate affect the status of individual theologians in the university? 
  • What are the limits of dissent, and how will disputes be worked out? 

Despite the mandate adopted under Vatican pressure, theologians, academic officials and bishops hopefully will continue the hard won spirit of the 1996 text. These schools are filled with students, staff and professors who think hard about issues of meaning and value in human life. They provide tremendous assets for the American church. We can be sure bishops do not want to harm them. And we can be equally sure that the vast majority of faculty and staff want to contribute to fostering an intelligent Catholic community as a public as well as a spiritual good. In that spirit even the mandate issue can be handled. Without it we are headed into treacherous waters.

Statement of Acting President Frank Vellaccio on Ex Corde Ecclesiae 
We at Holy Cross have welcomed the continuing dialogue regarding Catholic mission and identity sparked by Ex Corde Ecclesiae. With other representatives of Catholic higher education we have participated in numerous conversations with the bishops in a spirit of mutual respect and shared responsibility. Invariably these conversations have deepened our appreciation of the hierarchy's pastoral leadership and our commitment to the church and its mission.

Today's vote is disappointing.  It focuses attention on a small number of issues of canon law at the expense of the overall spirit of cooperation that has always marked the relationship between the American bishops and Catholic colleges and universities. We at Holy Cross have worked hard to insure a vital and creative Catholic life on our campus. We have enjoyed the generous support of our local bishops. We will be working closely with Bishop Daniel P. Reilly to see how we can move forward. 

The mandate is a complicated issue of canon law. We anticipate continuing dialogue between the bishops and the Catholic theological community aimed at finding a set of procedures which will be broadly acceptable, which will protect academic freedom and acknowledge the pastoral responsibilities of the bishops.  For our part we have complete confidence in the ability, fidelity and integrity of all members of our department of religious studies. We will continue to do all we can to enrich Catholic intellectual life, on campus and in the wider church. 


   College of the Holy Cross   |   1 College Street, Worcester, MA 01610   |   (508) 793 2011   |   Copyright 2004   |                  email   |   webmaster@holycross.edu