“Ex Corde Ecclesiae” and the Importance of a Catholic Education

Editorial for April 2014

Ex Corde … is not a document that stifles academic research or expression; it is a document that simply wants to allow Catholic schools to be, well, Catholic.

Was it not William F. Buckley who famously quipped that he would rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the Manhattan phone book than the entire faculty of Harvard?  When my buddies and I were in graduate school, we used to debate kiddingly whether the initials Ph.D. stood more accurately for “psychologically disturbed” or for “probably heavy debt.”  And there was always “post-hole digger” which, by the way, is how many of my friends made it through financially.  With a glut of graduate degrees in every conceivable field—from an M.A. in the “Department of Sexuality Studies” at (where else?) San Francisco State University, to the Ph.D. in “Decision Sciences” at Indiana University—the Master’s and Doctoral degree have replaced the Bachelor’s as today’s distinguishing academic mark.  In such a world we can often put too much trust in titles, and be intimidated by someone’s pedigree.  These days, let’s face it, if one has enough money and will-power (with a little docility thrown in), it’s possible to lumber on at most places to obtain a terminal degree.

Catholic colleges and universities have the special responsibility of ensuring that a young person is at least exposed to the great minds, texts, and art of the human community.  That is, Catholic centers of learning must constantly fight against the temptation to reduce undergraduate studies to merely the utilitarian, to rudimentary skills sufficient to land a job only.  Of course we want our students to be successful in the world, but if we are not even more desirous of turning out people thirsty for holiness, we have failed them.

If this sounds outlandish, remember that today’s university is the evolutionary result of western monastic houses and cathedral schools.  Like hospitals, orphanages, and soup kitchens, centers of higher learning have come out of a unique Catholic way of living in this world.  Intellectual and charitable pursuits have always gone together in this Christian worldview that understands the human person to be both body and soul, which understands God to be both human and divine.  In such a world, truth is thus pursued by both faith and reason, experienced as both the result of one’s own discoveries, as well as the trust that some truths simply transcend my own limited understanding.  Keeping all these contraries in a healthy tension demands wisdom, prayer, and daily discipline. Minus that healthy tension, you see such examples as fideists who all too easily reduce all reality to dogmatic statements (thereby ridiculing human experience or opinion); while rationalists won’t assent to anything they haven’t first figured out on their own (thus dismissing any external authority or tradition).  What we most certainly can’t do is reduce this precious time of college and university to simply landing a job and, along the way, learn how to eschew the higher things. (“I promise you, folks can make a lot more money, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree”—Barack Obama, January 30, 2014, in Wisconsin).

This past month, I was invited to participate in a colloquium with theologians and bishops from all around the United States.  We met on the campus of Catholic University of America to discuss “The Role of the Catholic University or College in the New Evangelization.” Such dialogue is heartening, and it is always good to have bishops and theologians discuss the various ways they come to see and express the life and ways of Christ. It was humbling to be surrounded by such bright lights, and only confirmed my belief that we have many good and thoughtful people looking out for the state of theological discourse on our college campuses.  Not all places are as robustly orthodox as one might want, not all places can account for every professor’s Catholic or even Christian orthodoxy, and there are some places—sadly enough—that relinquished the honor to be considered Catholic years ago.  As bleak as things may sometimes appear, the days of outright heresy and simply trying to “out-fad” the latest shocking theological headline seem to me to be are no longer very obvious.

Taking special care for our schools in this country began back in 1949 when members of the Vatican Congregation on Catholic Education met with the fledgling IFCU, the International Federation of Catholic Universities.  This discussion was partially captured in Vatican II’s Declaration on Christian Education (Gravissimum Educationis), §10-12, but came to its crescendo in 1990, with John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation, Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church).  I wonder what is being done about implementing Ex Corde, and am trying to exhort colleagues to take seriously the vision it lays out.  It is not a document that stifles academic research or expression; it is a document that simply wants to allow Catholic schools to be, well, Catholic.  It is a call toward greater freedom, not paralysis. In my opinion, the most important paragraphs in Ex Corde come in Section 2, article 4, where the Holy Father lays out the Church’s vision of “The University Community”.  In the 5 paragraphs that follow, we read that:

§ 1. The responsibility for maintaining and strengthening the Catholic identity of the University rests primarily with the University itself. While this responsibility is entrusted principally to university authorities (including, when the positions exist, the Chancellor and/or a Board of Trustees or equivalent body), it is shared in varying degrees by all members of the university community, and therefore calls for the recruitment of adequate university personnel, especially teachers and administrators, who are both willing and able to promote that identity…

§ 2. All teachers and all administrators, at the time of their appointment, are to be informed about the Catholic identity of the Institution and its implications, and about their responsibility to promote, or at least to respect, that identity.

§ 3. In ways appropriate to the different academic disciplines, all Catholic teachers are to be faithful to, and all other teachers are to respect, Catholic doctrine and morals in their research and teaching. In particular, Catholic theologians, aware that they fulfill a mandate received from the Church, are to be faithful to the Magisterium of the Church as the authentic interpreter of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition.

§ 4. Those university teachers and administrators who belong to other Churches, ecclesial communities, or religions, as well as those who profess no religious belief, and also all students, are to recognize and respect the distinctive Catholic identity of the University. In order not to endanger the Catholic identity of the University or Institute of Higher Studies, the number of non-Catholic teachers should not be allowed to constitute a majority within the Institution, which is and must remain Catholic.

§ 5. The education of students is to combine academic and professional development with formation in moral and religious principles and the social teachings of the Church; the program of studies for each of the various professions is to include an appropriate ethical formation in that profession. Courses in Catholic doctrine are to be made available to all students.

John Paul II thus insists that a place be, if not completely in line with Catholic faith and morals, at least, all who are employed there are “respectful” in allowing those truths to unfold and, hopefully, take root in the lives of students.  For a wonderful analysis of this, see Dr. Cunningham’s piece in February, 2014’s HPR: http://www.hprweb.com/2014/02/observations-on-ex-corde-ecclesiae-and-its-fitful-implementation/).

St. Paul exhorts each of us not to be conformed “to this age but to be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Rom 12:2).  As the sounds of summer and the end of the school year are beginning to be heard; and, as our bishops are gathering to think about ways to improve Catholic higher education; and again, as each of us asks God to renew our minds so we do not become children of our age, we should pray and work for the best state of Catholic schools and colleges in this country.  Jesus Christ is the greatest Gift we could ever receive or give, and he deserves the brightest and most beautiful expression of love in return.  This can be done only when minds and hearts, hands and heads, work together to manifest the Lord to all who seek him.

Be assured of my prayers for you during Holy Week and a Joyful Easter when Christ is finally resurrected in each of us!

Fr. David Vincent Meconi, SJ About Fr. David Vincent Meconi, SJ

Fr. David Meconi, SJ is professor of patristic theology at St. Louis University and editor of the Homiletic and Pastoral Review (HPR). Fr. Meconi would like you to know that he offers Mass each month for readers of HPR; please be assured of his prayers for you.


  1. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    I was suprised that you did not mention the importance of dialogue on both issues of faith and science in Catholic institutions of higher learning. To not be involved in dialogue with other faith traditions and non faith ideologies means to be on the side line of where the global culture is moving.

    This is what Francis, Bishop of Rome, says in Joy of the Gospel about the dialogue with science.
    #242. “Dialogue between science and faith also belongs to the work of evangelization at the service of peace.[189] Whereas positivism and scientism “refuse to admit the validity of forms of knowledge other than those of the positive sciences”,[190] the Church proposes another path, which calls for a synthesis between the responsible use of methods proper to the empirical sciences and other areas of knowledge such as philosophy, theology, as well as faith itself, which elevates us to the mystery transcending nature and human intelligence. Faith is not fearful of reason; on the contrary, it seeks and trusts reason, since “the light of reason and the light of faith both come from God”[191] and cannot contradict each other. Evangelization is attentive to scientific advances and wishes to shed on them the light of faith and the natural law so that they will remain respectful of the centrality and supreme value of the human person at every stage of life. All of society can be enriched thanks to this dialogue, which opens up new horizons for thought and expands the possibilities of reason. This too is a path of harmony and peace.”

    #243. “The Church has no wish to hold back the marvellous progress of science. On the contrary, she rejoices and even delights in acknowledging the enormous potential that God has given to the human mind. Whenever the sciences – rigorously focused on their specific field of inquiry – arrive at a conclusion which reason cannot refute, faith does not contradict it. Neither can believers claim that a scientific opinion which is attractive but not sufficiently verified has the same weight as a dogma of faith. At times some scientists have exceeded the limits of their scientific competence by making certain statements or claims. But here the problem is not with reason itself, but with the promotion of a particular ideology which blocks the path to authentic, serene and productive dialogue.”

    I did not understand why you quoted President Obama. What he said is true. I got the impression you disagree with the truth of his statement.

    • Fr. Meconi Fr. Meconi says:

      Mr. McGuire,
      Blessed Holy Week! You are right, as usual: we need more dialogue b/t faith and science and that is happening,but perhaps not at the pace it needs to, as science is rapidly developing daily. As far as the president’s statement, it is true but at the cost of the beauty of the arts and the higher things that make humans truly human and human living ultimately joyful. What I am against, as should all people of faith be, is the utilization of all education–making our undergraduate institutions into places where the only thing that matters is getting a job and making money. Isn’t this the critique against the “Common Core” from our more integrated educators? They critique the Common Core for reducing literature to manuals and skills to output. More could be said about this by people who know more than I. Anyone?

      • It appears that many who do not like common core are mainly against any federal government involvement in education. Ironically, common core is not from the federal government.

  2. Dear Father Meconi- excellent piece on Ex Corde. Thank you also for thinking of those of us tilling the fields of K-12 education as well. The K-12 world is in significant flux due to the ubiquitous Common Core Standards you reference. These secular national standards trumpet themselves as solely focused on “college and career” readiness. Education is crassly reduced to utilitarian and economic ends (hence the appropriateness of your quoting the President who has championed these standards as he mocks art history.) This shallow and dehumanized approach to education leads one to ask what then is the good of education is after we have a job? Has it served its purpose? If my job does not involve music, art, poetry, or literature (and almost nobody’s job does) then these items need not be emphasized or valued. However, we all know that a fully-alive, curious, integrated, well-rounded, deep-thinking, beauty-loving, and truth-seeking intellect which is eager to encounter all facets of the world and human experience with wonder and humility is the best bet for ensuring a flourishing and humane culture. It is this well-formed citizen who will be most valuable to our democratic republic and best able to protect the freedoms such pursuits require. This includes the fruitful dialog between faith and reason, especially in the sciences, that Tom McGuire references. Groups like the Cardinal Newman Society (http://www.cardinalnewmansociety.org/CatholicIsOurCore.aspx )and NAPCIS (NAPCIS.org) are working hard to champion such a positive approach to learning and to caution Catholic schools in particular from blindly implementing secular and shallow Common Core Standards which miss the whole point of education.

    • Hello Dan, thank you for your comments and concerns for K-12 Catholic education. It is an important concern. My experience in Catholic education is limited to only a few years teaching, but I observe a major problem: many Catholic parents do not recognize the value of a Catholic education, nor of a Catholic home, nor of Catholic formation in the Faith for themselves or their children. Many Catholic parents are more concerned with advancement for their children in the secular world, and hence are very susceptible to a “trade-school” utilitarian-economic philosophy rather than a school of truth and wisdom, of authentic human living which includes (but clearly not solely) skills for fruitful participation in the secular society.

      We need a renewal of Catholic consciousness among the laity from the ground up – and this calls for a renewal of right teaching and preaching from the top down.

      BTW – your link in your name, above, must have a typo. I’m sure you meant “napcis.org”, and not the present “nacpis.org” that leads nowhere.

  3. Avatar Deacon John M. Edgerton says:

    Dear Father Meconi,

    Thank you for your article. However, I think “Ex Corde Ecclesiae was not an “Apostolic Exhortation” (or Pleading For…) but a Promulgation with the force of Canon Law. The distinction being that there was a Mandate included that each Theology Professor of the Christian Faith called to be Catholic had to signed an agreement with the Local Ordinary, the Bishop of the Diocese which includes those colleges and universties within his diocese to insure that only orthodox Catholoc teachings in Faith and Morals would be taught in their respectvie classes. This responsbility belonged to the universities and colleges and to the diocesan Bishop whose role is to teach, sanctify and govern. To place the sole responsibility on the Catholic Educational insititutions is to relinguish the reality that the Bishop is the pirmary teacher of the Faith to the people in his diocese.

    Sadly, as in the case of Seton Hall University, owned by the Archdiocese of Newark, N. J. they allowed a gay professor to offer a course on Homosexuality as an alternate lifestyle to a heterosexual lifestyle as taught by the Catholic Faith. It took two years for that course to be dropped. There are several other cases which are known but not treated seriously in the light of Ex Corde Ecclesiae. The primary responsibility is, and must be, with the Ordinary of the Diocese in overseeing that Ex Corde Ecclesiae is implemented, and that the Joy of the Gospel becomes the center of the spiritual formation of all students from a faculty who are walking the talk.

    With all respect

  4. Tom Mead Tom Mead says:

    (Elenor K. Schoen, HPR Managing Editor, posted this comment from Tom Mead, Cardinal Newman Society)
    Father Meconi,
    I read with interest your recent editorial in HPR on Ex corde. I thought that you might be interested in a publication that The Cardinal Newman Society’s Center for the Advancement of Catholic Higher Education published a few years ago, Assessing Catholic Identity: A Handbook for Catholic College and University Leaders. The book organizes the norms from Ex corde into categories and suggests questions for self-assessment. The handbook is available online here:
    I would also be happy to send you a hard copy if you are interested.
    In Christ,
    Tom Mead

    Tom Mead
    Executive Vice President
    Cardinal Newman Society
    9720 Capital Court
    Suite 201
    Manassas, VA 20110


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