The Catholic University of America

Dec. 18, 2015

'Ex Corde Ecclesiae' after 25 years

WASHINGTON (CNS) – I recently attended a conference to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council's declaration "Gravissimum Educationis" and the 25th anniversary of the apostolic constitution "Ex Corde Ecclesiae." These are two important documents governing the business of Catholic education.

I was particularly interested in the second document, which St. John Paul II wrote about Catholic universities.

In our public debates about Catholic higher education, we devote a lot of attention to issues of censorship – policies about speakers and student activities and free-thinking faculty. It's as if what makes a Catholic university distinctive is what can't be said.

It's surprising how little "Ex Corde Ecclesiae" has to say about this. It's more concerned with what we have to offer – what a student would find at a Catholic university that he or she could not find somewhere else. We often talk about the Catholic intellectual tradition. What exactly is that?

Michael Polanyi, a Hungarian chemist, compared the process of collective inquiry to a group of people working on a jigsaw puzzle: Each time someone fits a piece in, others look to see what steps this advance has made possible.

Polanyi added that this kind of collaboration would not be possible if each person had a different understanding of the task at hand (if, for example, one person thought that puzzle pieces ought to be stacked rather than fitted together). A governing perspective or worldview does not stunt creativity. It provides the environment that cultivates discovery.

I thought of Polanyi at our conference, which was held at Castel Gandolfo in Italy. There is a church there, designed by the Italian artist Bernini and dedicated to St. Thomas of Villanova. It has a pretty, coffered dome with ribs radiating from the top, an idea Bernini took from Pietro da Cortona's renovation of the church Santa Maria della Pace.

It's not the only example of Bernini borrowing ideas. His sculpture "Aeneas and Anchises with Ascanius" drew on Raphael's fresco "The Fire in the Borgo" at the Vatican.

This sort of thing went on all the time in the Catholic artistic culture of 17th-century Rome. There was a shared conception of the beautiful, a shared vocabulary of types, there were shared solutions to engineering and architectural problems. It subtracts nothing from the beauty and the genius of Bernini that he worked within this culture.

When "Ex Corde Ecclesiae" was published in 1990, there was some consternation in academic circles over its direction that, where possible, Catholics should comprise a majority of the faculty at a Catholic university (and all teachers should embrace the mission of the university).

This was taken as meddling by the church in matters properly academic. It seemed to pose an impediment to the universities' desire for academic excellence, because it would limit the pool of candidates available for faculty positions.

No doubt it does. So does a requirement that teachers have doctorates. The objection treats the Catholic faith as if it were an arbitrary handicap imposed on the search, rather than a valuable trait to be looked for in a candidate.

This does not mean that Catholic faith is a sine qua non for every hire. Non-Catholics are equal and important members of a Catholic university community. But if it's part of the university's business to carry on the Catholic intellectual tradition, we should expect Catholics to carry the ball.

What I love about John Paul's approach in "Ex Corde Ecclesiae" is its intrinsic modesty. It says to Catholic universities, in effect, that building a Catholic intellectual culture is not the business of the hierarchy – it's for the academics to do. The only thing the Church asks is that Catholics, working together, do the work of creating it.