Observations on “Ex Corde Ecclesiae” and Its Fitful Implementation

Ex Corde was promulgated in 1990, and its purpose was to lay out the general place and function of Catholic universities in the modern Church … {providing}  a useful starting point for dialogues on Catholic identity.

I suppose the first disclosure I should make is that I am not a theologian, although I am a Catholic historian, and have some experience in reading and interpreting historical documents. Moreover, I am a fully invested member of the laity—that exalted, yet ill-defined body to whom the management of Jesuit apostolates has for some decades now been transferred, by Jesuits, with great determination and almost reckless enthusiasm. So according to the emerging patterns of authority in the Society of Jesus in this country, I suppose I am as qualified as anybody to comment on Pope John Paul II’s  apostolic constitution, Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church).

Ex Corde was promulgated in 1990, and its purpose was to lay out the general place and function of Catholic universities in the modern Church. Thousands of pages have been written about this document, and I certainly would not presume to present anything like the final word on its significance to the Church, or to the academy, but it does provide a useful starting point for dialogues on Catholic identity. By these “dialogues,” I do not mean endless bickering about Ex Corde’s vague norms and hazy mandates, but rather serious conversations that focus on the all-important spiritual ideal envisioned by  John Paul II, which was the building up of Catholic scholarly communities, united in their love for the faith, their obedience to the Magisterium, their awareness of the Church’s primary mission of bringing souls to Christ, and their desire, not only to advance the causes of human dignity and social justice, but to protect the treasures of the Catholic cultural heritage as well.

This is what Ex Corde is really about even if this central message has been obscured by angry debates between liberal theologians who, for some reason, think that Ex Corde poses the greatest threat to academic freedom since the Third Reich; and conservative Catholics who, for some reason, think that implementing Ex Corde will magically reverse the tide of secular materialism that now floods the modern Catholic academy. I doubt that there has ever been a document that makes so few demands, and lays out so few rules about anything, and yet, holds such status as a “make or break” document.

It is certainly essential reading for anyone who has an interest in the Catholic academic life. Near the end of the summer of 2013, I wrote five short articles on Ex Corde, and the directors of the Gonzaga University’s 1887 Trust were kind enough to post them as a series on their website. 1 I would like to invite anyone who may be interested to peruse these at the 1887 Trust website, and contact me for a more personal in-depth conversation by email.

Given the limited scope of this article, I will not be able to go into many details about the document itself, but I would like to do two things:

  1. Give a very brief history of Ex Corde and its reception in the Catholic Academy, and
  2. Offer some insights into why mainstream Catholic universities may be well past the point of ever hoping to restore a robust or dynamic Catholic identity.


Ex Corde is a product of the convergence of two major developments in the post-World War II Church: one was the attempt to improve the academic quality of Catholic universities after a period of general decline in quality during the late 1950s and early 1960s; the other was the implementation of the modernizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Both of these movements took, as their standard for success, the modern, progressive, secular order of the postwar era.

From our current perspective in 2014, when that very order seems perched on the brink of catastrophe, we might say this was a bad idea. But, this was the height of the Cold War, and the world was divided into rival ideological camps, led by the Soviet Union and the United States. The Soviet Union, of course, was an openly totalitarian, and militantly atheist regime. The United States was a primarily Judeo-Christian country, whose economic and foreign policies were directed to the preservation of free markets, free elections, and the proliferation of 18th century Enlightenment ideals strategically filtered, of course, through the lens of 20th century American hegemony. The Church can probably be forgiven for hitching its fortunes to the “free world” democratic community, even if in doing so, it required that the Church willfully forget that long before Marx and Lenin came along, Enlightenment secularism itself was considered the greatest threat to the survival of the Church.

While neither Soviet-style communism, nor free world democracy, provided optimal structures for the proliferation of an expressly Christian worldview, in the mid-20th century, there were really no other paradigms to embrace. The Church might have taken this historic opportunity to forge an authentic “third way” between democratic capitalism, and soviet communism to provide, in fact, a way out of the trap of 20th century existential despair. But it did not. The Church essentially traded in a sacred, eschatological, worldview for the promises of progressive materialism. In Augustinian terms, we might say the Church voluntarily moved from being an icon of the City of God, to a mere law-abiding subject in the City of Man.

Accordingly, the reform of American Catholic universities took place in an exclusively modern, progressive context. When a group of Catholic university presidents met at Land O’ Lakes, Wisconsin, in 1967, to determine how the Catholic academy might participate in “Church renewal,” their practical goal was the very modern pursuit of “academic excellence.” Their yardstick for excellence was not the Christian gospel, nor Neo-Thomistic theology, nor the Jesuit Ratio Studiorum, but rather the economically prosperous, socially integrated, and politically enfranchised public university. In their idealization of academic excellence, these administrators decided that:

In a Catholic university, all recognized university areas of study are frankly and fully accepted, and their internal autonomy affirmed and guaranteed. There must be no theological or philosophical imperialism; all scientific and disciplinary methods, and methodologies, must be given due honor and respect. 2

Historian Philip Gleason characterized the Land O’ Lakes Statement as the Catholic academy’s “declaration of independence from the hierarchy.” 3 And, while it was never a universal policy statement, it has undeniably shaped the ethos of Catholic university administration for the last four decades.

When John Paul II issued Ex Corde in 1990, it was with a view to closing the rupture that had opened between the academy and the Magisterium in the ensuing 20 years. The Vatican saw this as a necessary corrective; the academy saw it as an act of “theological imperialism,” an unwelcome intrusion of the pope into the free and happy domain of modern academic life. To the emancipated theologian, it was not even the content of the text that mattered; the gesture itself was insulting. Although, in reading Ex Corde, it is very difficult to detect the heavy-handed power grab of the theologians’ darkest fears. As a statement of authority and dominion, Ex Corde is vanilla ice cream, covered with marshmallow sauce. A relatively short and very readable text, Ex Corde identifies four “essential characteristics” of a Catholic university. They are:

  1. A Christian inspiration not only of individuals, but of the university community as such.
  2. A continuing reflection in the light of the Catholic faith upon the growing treasury of human knowledge, to which it seeks to contribute by its own research.
  3. Fidelity to the Christian message as it comes to us through the Church.
  4. An institutional commitment to the service of the people of God, and of the human family, in their pilgrimage to the transcendent goal which gives meaning to life.

These are the intolerable, oppressive, academic-freedom-crushing constraints that had American theologians reaching for their guns.

I have not mentioned the infamous “mandatum,” which was not a part of Ex Corde, but was actually promulgated as Canon Law in 1983. Ex Corde merely provided an opportunity for the pope to remind the bishops of their duty to enforce the mandatum, which, according to the U.S. Bishops’ guidelines was, essentially, this: “…an acknowledgment by Church authority that a Catholic professor of a theological discipline is teaching within the full communion of the Catholic Church.” 4

Bishops were supposed to ensure that every Catholic, who taught Catholic theology in their diocese, was teaching it faithfully—that is, according to Church doctrine, and making sure to distinguish between their opinions and Church doctrine so the two would not be confused. That was pretty much it—no threats of hellfire or stake-burnings, no excommunication, no threats of termination of employment, no threats of removal from the classroom, no penalties, no sanctions of any kind. Yet, many bishops—probably most bishops (nobody really knows because all of these conversations were confidential)—either ignored their obligation to enforce the mandatum, or they gave blanket approval to the faculties under their jurisdiction because they did not want the headache of dealing with riled-up academics. With so many bishops mired in sex-abuse litigation during these years, one can see why they might have thought that enforcing the mandatum was not worth their time or trouble—if they even cared about what the colleges were doing.

In 1996, the American bishops, after consulting with universities under their jurisdiction, sent back a modified version of Ex Corde that they were willing to sign. The Vatican sent it back to the bishops, saying that they needed to be more accountable for what the colleges were doing. By 1998, after more give-and-take, a fourth version was finally approved by the U.S. bishops, and in 2001, it became effective in the universities.

In 2006, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) carried out a five-year review of the implementation process. Apparently, no data was published on this review as it was meant to foster “conversation, not a report.” 5 Five years later, though, a 10-year review was conducted by the USCCB, which did produce a final report. This report came out in January, 2013, and it managed to consolidate all of the discussions of 100 bishops, and the college presidents in their regions, in a one-page blurb posted on the USCCB website. Their conclusion, in a nutshell, was that much work had been done, much more needed to be done, and they all looked forward to more fruitful conversations in the future. 6

I do not remember any discussion taking place on my campus in 2006, or 2011, about Ex Corde. But in 2012, we wasted little time in complying with the Department of Health and Human Services mandate that requires employers to provide coverage for contraception and abortifacent birth control procedures. We complied, despite a “safe harbor” provision for religious employers that could have given us a year to think about this—and maybe follow the example of Catholic schools like Notre Dame, which filed suit against the government. Or we could have sought the counsel of American cardinals, who correctly identified the mandate as an assault upon the religious freedom of faith-based employers.

If only the college administration had called this a “mandatum” instead of a “mandate,” we could have just ignored it!

In January 2013, the same month the one-page bishops’ report came out, the college administration came out with the “road map” of our Climate Action Plan. This was a 35-page report in which we pledge to attain “climate neutrality” by 2050 through a series of graduated carbon emission reductions—20 percent by 2020, and 50 percent by 2035. It seemed to me, when this came out, that it might be entirely possible to implement a similar plan to be in compliance with Ex Corde by 2050, with subordinate target dates for increasing our percentage of Catholic faculty, beefing up our theology offerings, adding some catechesis to our curriculum and, perhaps, hiring a Catholic Studies professor or two.


As someone who has often questioned why contemporary Catholic theologians are generally less successful in explaining the Catholic faith than they are in explaining it away, I am certainly among those who wish that Catholic schools were serious about living the ideals of Ex Corde.  I do not hold out much hope that these schools ever will be, however, because at this point—as even a cursory perusal of the data collected by such groups as the Cardinal Newman Society will confirm—the majority of students and faculty at our schools are not Catholic. Those who are Catholic have been conditioned by the evolved Land O’ Lakes culture in thinking of the Church hierarchy as a hostile agent. Our colleges and universities have, indeed, declared themselves independent of “Roman imperialism”—a fact that will serve to explain, in future years, why the mainstream American Catholic academy simply disappeared. We made some decisions, and decisions have consequences.

I do not believe that anybody in the Catholic academic power structure is allowing this to happen out  a sense of malice—we have very good people, people who are committed to service, sustainability, outreach, diversity, and social justice, even if they never clearly define these things. But, to paraphrase William James, “your reality is what you attend to.” We are where we are today—boldly claiming “Catholic identity” while repudiating the Church’s rightful claims to our obedience—because about 40 years ago, Catholic university administrators, and theologians, began to form an intellectual culture in which the assumptions of the modern secular world, and its critical academic project, were assumed to be normative. Administrators and theologians withdrew their obedience from the Church, giving it to their own intellectual preferences. Mistaking the City of Man for the City of God, they confused the distinction between the two loves associated with these cities. That is, they allowed an earthly love of worldly success to stand in for the heavenly love of the transcendent God. In their earnest attempt to find God in all things, they concluded—as did the pantheists of old—that God is all things.

The tragedy in this mistake was not that their love grew cold, but that it was redirected, from the Creator to the creationa creation which they believed they could transform through social and political action. But, it would be a creation detached from the sanctifying graces that flow from heaven when—through the humility of obedience—we make our work a sacrifice of divine praise, instead of an endless pursuit of political satisfaction. In short, we are going to the place where we’ve been heading for quite a while.

The final question for the more doctrinal Catholic is: “Can this state of affairs be changed?” I do not know if there are enough people left in positions of authority (or in faculties of Religious Studies) who want it to change. But, of course, it can change; although not without a radical reconfiguring of priorities. If anybody really did want to restore or reinvigorate Catholic academic culture, a good place to start, at least for a Jesuit institution like mine, would be here:

PRINCIPLE AND FOUNDATION of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola
Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God, our Lord, and by this means to save his soul. All other things on the face of the earth are created for man to help him fulfill the end for which he is created. From this, it follows that man is to use these things to the extent that they help him to attain his end. Likewise, he must rid himself of them, in so far as they prevent him from attaining it.

Once an institution decided that this was, in fact, its principle and foundation, it could get on to bigger and better things than fighting about who gets to be in charge. To those holdouts against obedience, who are curious to know where their pet-politically-correct-but-ultimately-irreligious-project would fit into this radical “mission statement,” I would offer the words of Marshall McLuhan as both instructive and encouraging: “One of the advantages of being a Catholic,” McLuhan wrote to an admirer in 1971, “is that it confers a complete intellectual freedom to examine any and all phenomena with the absolute assurance of their intelligibility.” 7

We can think about anything, and we can talk about anything, but that does not mean that we can ignore our duties to the Magisterium. And,  it does not mean that everybody’s truth is True. Our only hope now, short of a miracle, is that Catholic university presidents will wake up and  realize that when we trade our Catholic mission for political correctness, we are not just making the world a less faithful place, but a less intelligent one  as well.

  1. http://www.1887trust.org/index.cfm?load=news&newsarticle=1. Accessed November 9, 2013.
  2. “Land O’ Lakes Statement on the Nature of the Contemporary Catholic University” http://consortium.villanova.edu/excorde/landlake.htm. Accessed November 9, 2013.
  3. Philip Gleason, Contending With Modernity: Catholic Education in the Twentieth Century (London: Oxford University Press, 1995), 316.
  4. See “Guidelines Concerning the Academic Mandatum in Catholic Universities (Canon 812)” http://old.usccb.org/bishops/mandatumguidelines.shtml. Accessed November 9, 2013.
  5.  “Guiding Questions for the Ex Corde Ecclesiae Five Year Review.” http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/how-we-teach/catholic-education/higher-education/guiding-questions-for-the-ex-corde-ecclesiae-five-year-review.cfm. Accessed November 9, 2013.
  6. Final Report for the Ten-Year Review of  The Application of Ex Corde Ecclesiae for the United States” http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/how-we-teach/catholic-education/higher-education/. Accessed November  9, 2013.
  7. Marshall McLuhan in a letter to an admirer, quoted by Jeet Heer in “Divine Inspiration: How Catholicism made Marshall McLuhan one of the twentieth century’s freest and finest thinkers.” In The Walrus, July/August 2011. http://walrusmagazine.com/article.php?ref=2011.07-media-divine-inspiration&page=2&galleryPage=. Accessed November 9, 2013.
Dr. Eric Cunningham, PhD About Dr. Eric Cunningham, PhD

Eric Cunningham is an associate professor of history at Gonzaga University. A specialist in modern Japanese intellectual history, he received an MA in modern Japanese literature from the University of Oregon in 1999, and a Ph.D. in history from the same institution in 2004. Cunningham's research interests include Japanese intellectual history, Zen Buddhism, Anthroposophy, Catholicism, psychedelia, and postmodernism. He is the author of Hallucinating the End of History: Nishida, Zen, and the Psychedelic Eschaton (Academica Press, 2007), and Zen Past and Present (Association for American Studies, 2011). Cunningham lectures and writes on a wide range of topics, including Japanese history, film, and contemporary Catholic culture.


  1. Thank you, Dr. Cunningham, for this troubling reflection on this one very important facet of Catholic life in America. I appreciate your analysis of the history and the present situation in terms of the ancient conflict between the City of Man and the City of God. I think you are being too “permissive” (this may not the best word) in applying it. One sentence you wrote, speaking of those in authority in Catholic universities, is:
    “Mistaking the City of Man for the City of God, they confused the distinction between the two loves associated with these cities.”

    I doubt that “mistake” and “confused” are factors as important as actual love of this world and the things of this world, under the threat of what would have happened had they chosen to give actual obedience to love of God and the things of God. Academia seems highly invested in peer approval, praise, recognition, applause. “The praise of men,” as Jesus named it. This passage came to mind:

    Jn 12:42 Nevertheless many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, lest they should be put out of the synagogue:
    Jn 12:43 for they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.

    The “synagogue” of the academic world has rules of acceptance at least as tight as those, I suspect.

    Augustine had it right about so many things! In City of God 28, he wrote, “Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self.” Jesus called us to take up the cross, and follow Him. We need such men and women in positions of leadership in the Church! We need men and women who love God! This is not rocket science, but it is a path of suffering in this world, in hope and anticipation of the Kingdom where truth – not current opinion, not the fashions of this age, not the shallow applause of men – prevails.