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Anne Hendershott | author
Sep 01, 2010
Filed under Columns
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Ex Corde Ecclesiae’s rough ride

Although many colleges have rejected Ex Corde, faithful colleges are growing . . .

Anne Hendershott

The Feast of the Assumption marked Ex Corde Ecclesiae’s 20th anniversary. Pope John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation for Catholic colleges and universities has had a rough ride over the past two decades. Some colleges have embraced it. Others have not.

Dr. David House, director of the Center for the Advancement of Catholic Higher Education (click here for a related story), maintains that much has been accomplished. Others like Notre Dame law professor Gerard Bradley, an advocate for restoring the Catholic identity of colleges using Ex Corde Ecclesiae (ECE), wrote that “the people in charge — the faculty, college administrators, trustees, other intellectual elites and the bishops — do not believe what they need to believe to restore Catholic education to the colleges.”

Once describing ECE as a “sick patient,” Bradley concluded that “the patient is now dead” in a 2002 Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly column. For Bradley, the real crisis on Catholic campuses is a crisis of faith. Bradley says many faculty members and administrators have rejected ECE’s assertion that the “distinguishing task of the Catholic university 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.”

Until recently, many of us have reluctantly agreed with Bradley’s conclusions. But there have been some recent signs of faithful life on campus. There are glimmers of hope that we may once again recapture the mission that drove the founders of the earliest Catholic colleges. Much of this hope emerges from what the Wall Street Journal’s Naomi Schaefer Riley calls “the missionary generation” of students. A growing number of faithful students have joined forces with supportive faculty, trustees and administrators who are gaining the courage to view their own Catholic colleges and universities as what John Paul called the “living institutional witness to Christ and His message.”

They’re beginning to see that the activities on their own campuses are connected with the Church’s evangelical mission. They’re recognizing that “research carried out in the light of the Christian message … puts new human discoveries at the service of individuals and society.” And they’re beginning to acknowledge that “education offered in a faith context forms men and women capable of rational and critical judgment and conscious of the transcendent dignity of the human person” (ECE, #49).

This is not to say that those on Catholic campuses are “imposing” their faith on others. “When Christians insist that human laws line up with moral truth, they are not imposing religion,” Princeton professor Robert George wrote in his 2001 book Clash of Orthodoxies. “Instead they are making the entirely reasonable demand that reason be given its due in human affairs.” This joining of faith and reason is especially true for life issues as a growing number of Catholic colleges are finally confronting the pro-choice culture that had been allowed to flourish on too many campuses.

Indeed, it’s in the pro-life arena that the greatest opportunity emerges to reclaim a commitment to authentic Catholic teaching. The Cardinal Newman Society has documented a drop in pro-choice commencement speakers and honorees on Catholic campuses. Student affairs initiatives including pro-life clubs, speakers and activities are beginning to strengthen the pro-life culture. Yet if pro-life advocacy remains on the fringes of campuses, restricted to student affairs, it will remain marginalized.

To create a culture of life on campus, faculty must once again be willing to confront the culture of death in the classroom by making a commitment to teach the truth through education on natural law and authentic Church teachings. If a college is to maintain its Catholic moral identity, teachers must be unambiguous about what clearly agrees with and what clearly conflicts with the faith.

While pro-choice faculty on Catholic campuses continue to publish pro-abortion books with titles like Sacred Choices by Marquette theologian Daniel Maguire or A Brief Catholic Defense of Abortion by two Seattle University philosophy professors, a growing number of bishops are responding. The bishops’ Committee on Doctrine recently declared that Maguire’s works “do not present authentic Catholic teachings.”

Earlier this year, Marquette president Fr. Robert Wild withdrew an offer of employment to a candidate for dean of the College of Arts and Sciences because her published writings denigrated Catholic teachings on marriage and the family. He said his decision “was made in the context of Marquette’s commitment to its mission and identity.”

It’s likely that the specific nature of the job at issue — as dean, the candidate would have been charged with helping implement ECE — may have driven Marquette to step back from that appointment. On all Catholic campuses, the Arts dean helps to hire theologians mandated to teach in communio with the Church.

The news from Marquette is just one small sign that ECE may still be a quiet presence on Catholic campuses. And the emerging success of new faithful colleges like Ave Maria, John Paul the Great and others give us hope that some of our long-standing Catholic colleges and universities can be revitalized.

Anne Hendershott is the John Paul II Fellow in Student Development at the Center for the Study of Catholic Higher Education.

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