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Sabrina Arena Ferrisi | author
Sep 01, 2010
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Ex Corde Ecclesiae: 20 years later

House reflects on the impact of John Paul II’s charge to Catholic colleges and universities . . .

Dr. David House

Dr. David House

When Pope John Paul II issued Ex Corde Ecclesiae in 1990, Dr. David House made a conscious career move to Catholic higher education. A member of Legatus’ Orange County Chapter, House served as president of St. Joseph’s College of Maine from 1995-2007.

With more than 30 years’ experience in higher education, he is the new executive director of the Cardinal Newman Society’s Center for the Advancement of Catholic Higher Education. He spoke with Legatus Magazine staff writer Sabrina Arena Ferrisi.

Tell me about the Center.

We advise academic and religious leaders in efforts to strengthen the Catholic identity and academic quality of Catholic colleges and universities. We do this by facilitating communication between Church leaders and faculty — and sharing information about the most critical issues. We also do this through our blog Renovo, conferences and The Bulletin of Catholic Higher Education. We share “best practices” in student life, curriculum, extra-curricular activities, campus ministry and leadership.

Right now we’re analyzing environments that foster the “hook-up” culture on Catholic campuses. We’re also conducting an analysis of the data available on Catholic higher education — including core curricula. Finally, we’re reviewing the impact of Ex Corde Ecclesiae in this 20th anniversary year.

How is the landscape changing in Catholic colleges?

Things aren’t as good as they should be, but they’re a lot better than they were 20 years ago. Positive change is developing slowly like a glacier moving across the landscape. In the past 20 years we’ve seen the creation of new colleges and universities and the revitalization of some on the brink of closing. Faithful schools have thrived overall. There is more receptivity among educators to approaching Catholic identity than two decades ago, and we are seeing the fruits of a 26-year papacy regarded as a major strengthening of the Church — followed by Pope Benedict, one of the great intellects of our time.

What about leadership at these colleges?

We have a changing of the guard. There is a new generation of leaders as the baby-boom generation retires. The new generation’s faith is shaped by John Paul II and Benedict. Just think: Archbishop José Gómez, coadjutor archbishop of Los Angeles, was in his mid-20s when John Paul became Pope. Father James Shea, president of the University of Mary, hadn’t even started kindergarten yet. The outgoing generation of academic leaders who fought Ex Corde Ecclesiae has not really produced an ideological second generation. This is going to make an enormous difference.

Are things better or worse regarding fidelity to Ex Corde?

Both. There is much to be optimistic about, but I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture.We are all aware of the lack of faithfulness at many Catholic colleges, and student activities at odds with Church teaching. However, these activities are often exaggerated in the media — getting more attention than they deserve.

I think that academic and Church leaders need to work closely to help create what sociologists call “moral communities” on our Catholic campuses or else the situation will get worse. There is actually a great deal of good will among many leaders of Catholic colleges and universities, but we need to find ways to help them confront those who would turn these schools away from the faith. This is no time to be intimidated by angry, unfaithful faculty or students, but rather to support faithful Catholics who care deeply about their college or university.

What are the most pressing issues?

First, for Church and academic leaders to develop strong relationships based on fidelity to Church teaching and a commitment to furthering Catholic higher education. Second, to use Ex Corde Ecclesiae’s 20th anniversary as a springboard. Third, to help people become well-formed in the faith. Fourth, for leaders to stand up in public and challenge those attacking the Church, individuals, and institutions faithful to Church teaching.

What about emerging issues?

We’re facing growing threats from government intrusion. Belmont Abbey College was told by the feds that it was guilty of discrimination by refusing to cover contraception in employee health plans. This is a brazen violation of religious liberty, and not likely to be the last such case. The government is slowly marginalizing faith-based institutions and requiring them to behave like secular, public institutions.

Any exciting developments?

One of the most exciting developments today is the role of students in the resurgence of faithful Catholicism. Through alternative student newspapers, student organizations, and faithful student activists, there is emerging a student-based vitality, the likes of which we haven’t seen in higher education for more than 40 years. I think we’ll see this develop even more over the next several years. It’s already making some academic leaders nervous, and faithful student organizations are increasingly difficult to ignore as they grow and begin to recognize their power. The alternative commencement ceremony at Notre Dame last year is evidence of this emerging student power. Young people in any society represent the future, so we should all be very encouraged by this.

Sabrina Arena Ferrisi is a Legatus Magazine staff writer.

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From the heart of the Church

Ex Corde Ecclesiae (ECE) is an apostolic constitution issued by Pope John Paul II in 1990. It literally means “From the heart of the Church,” recognizing that the first major European universities were established by the Catholic Church. ECE defines a Catholic university or college under Canon Law. It’s considered a rebuttal to the “Land O’ Lakes Statement” issued by a group of Catholic educators in 1967, which basically declared that Catholic universities were independent from the hierarchy.

“Because of the American situation — in which most Catholic colleges and universities have been legally independent of the bishops since the 1970s and many have been centers of dissent from Catholic teaching — it was necessary for the Vatican to clarify whether such institutions are truly Catholic,” said Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society.

ECE clarified that an institution could be considered Catholic by its institutional commitment to the Catholic faith in fidelity to the Magisterium. This fidelity must be evident in all policies, programs and commitments.

Many Catholic colleges and universities, however, have simply ignored the document’s teaching.

“At its root, the hesitancy to embrace Ex Corde Ecclesiae is a hesitancy to accept the teaching authority of the bishops in matters of faith and morals — and a rejection of the Catholic faith as truth,” said Reilly.

“The on-going issue is over autonomy,” said Monsignor Stuart Swetland of Mount St. Mary’s University and advisor to the Cardinal Newman Society. “Some believe that universities must have a ‘total’ or ‘complete’ autonomy from all ecclesial relationships to be truly free and adhere to the rigors of academic freedom. The solution to this tension is best grasped by the proper understanding of ecclesial communion where each person and institution has a specific role or vocation inside the communion of the Church.”

—Sabrina Arena Ferrisi

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