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Courageous Creativity, Rigorous Fidelity, and Ex Corde Ecclesiae: Reflections of a Student in An Age of Dissent | Brian Jones, with Marcus Toft | August 15, 2010 | Ignatius Insight
Notre Dame is now in the news
for all the wrong reasons. The current scandal [Pres. Obama's commencement
speech] draws attention to the fact that the university has adopted all the
assumptions of the secular research university (see the university web site,
for example); whatever lip service is paid to the special nature of a Catholic
university, the agenda actually being pursued by Notre Dame is intentionally
like those in places wistfully referred to as our "peer institutions." We are
emphatically part of the problem and totally unaware of the corrective role a
truly Catholic university could play on the current moonscape of higher
education. — Dr. Ralph McInerny, "Unity versus Diversity"
(InsideCatholic.com, May 10, 2009).
How would the mandate
compromise the academic integrity of the faculty and the university? By
introducing an external, non-academic agent in the internal, academic processes
governing not only the appointment, retention and promotion of faculty, but in
the designation of which courses faculty members may or may not teach and in
which departments. Only the academic administration of a university and
college, and the chair and faculty of a department are competent to determine
those matters. Otherwise, there is no academic freedom and no institutional
autonomy (the two hallmarks of a university, cited approvingly and consistently
by leading Catholic educators ever since the celebrated Land O'Lakes Statement
of 1967). The Catholic institution in question would no longer be a university
in the commonly accepted academic meaning of the word. ... Is there not a middle
course between the mandates and outright indifference? There is, and it is
being followed already in Catholic universities such as Notre Dame and Boston
College and in so many other Catholic institutions like them. Catholic higher
education in the United States has not been a failure, nor is it in danger of
becoming so. — Fr. Richard McBrien, "Why I Shall Not Seek a Mandate"
(America, Feb. 12, 2000).
A close friend of mine recently took me to dinner and a
jovial evening of family stories and new life endeavors. As the evening
progressed, my friend began to reveal where life had taken him the past year,
and the horrors that eventually shook him out of the faith he so loved. During
his junior year of college at a "Catholic" university, he began to have serious
doubts about his Catholic faith.
The certainty he once had seemed to be molding into a dark
form of skepticism that he was unable to shake. "In my classes, we were reading
a lot of Descartes and Nietzsche," he explained. He was losing sight of what
Pope Benedict XVI calls the "rationality of faith". Knowing that neither his
friends nor professors at this Catholic university cared too much about
Catholicism, his despair turned into a suicide attempt. Though his attempt was
a failure, the attempt alone is cause for a mountain of anguish.
A student so immersed into a life of skepticism from his
academic study and lack of spiritual nourishment is unfortunately the norm at
many of our Catholic institutions of higher learning. Professors embarrassed by
the Catholic identity of a university and the increasing number of students who
do not support the Church reveals the eminent failure of our beloved
There are three parts to this essay. First, there is a brief
analysis the four characteristics of a Catholic university as laid out in Pope
John Paul II's Apostolic Constitution, Ex Corde Ecclesiae twenty years ago. Second, considering the widespread
dissent of Catholic theologians, there is an examination of two arguments posed
by Richard McBrien in favor of rejecting Ex Corde Ecclesiae. Finally, it will conclude with some practical means
to help students stay Catholic in college, whether they are at a genuinely
Catholic institution or not.
"Born From the Heart of the Church"
In his Apostolic Constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Pope John Paul II described in detail the authentic
mission of a Catholic university. The university has a vocation not just to
serve itself, but the common good of all mankind. How does a specifically
Catholic university serve the good of humanity? John Paul answered this
question with the words of St. Augustine: gaudium de veritate. This is that "joy of searching for, discovering, and
communicating truth in every field of knowledge."  I imagine that many of
Catholic universities in the United States do not have anything in their
mission statement resembling this aspect of the university's vocation.
In order for the Catholic university, as Catholic, to
confront the problems facing our culture and be leaven in the world, it must
have four essential characteristics.
A Christian inspiration not only of individuals, but of
the university community as such. The
Catholic university can not just be a distant memory where only a limited few
attempt to live out the university's original identity. While it is imperative
that the students lead in being "future leaders and witnesses to Christ in
whatever profession they exercise,"  the example must come from the top.
John Paul II states that each member of the university community "contributes
towards decisions which affect the community, and also towards maintaining and
strengthening the distinctive Catholic character of the Institution."  He
later states that when professors or administrators are hired, they are to be
informed about the institutions Catholic identity in order to promote it, or at
least respect it. This applies even to those that are not Catholic, or have no
religious affiliation whatsoever. In his book, I Alone Have Escaped
to Tell You, the late Ralph McInerny
reminisced about the two main reasons (not the only reasons, of course) he was
hired at Notre Dame: he was a Thomist and a Catholic. Try to apply for a
teaching job at a Catholic university today with these credentials and see how
much interest you receive.
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. The
Catholic Church is the great guardian of all wisdom and truth because they flow
from Wisdom and Truth itself. John Paul II and Benedict XVI have continually
reaffirmed that knowledge of the natural order can never contradict knowledge of
the supernatural order. God is the author of all truth, both natural and
supernatural. The explosion of technology and the tendency toward
compartmentalization has led to dissolution of all knowledge. The Catholic
university seeks an integration or synthesis of all the branches of knowledge
and research, "in which alone lies the possibility of satisfying that thirst
for truth which is profoundly inscribed on the heart of the human person" .
The foray of human knowledge must be placed in the context of a genuine
anthropology which takes seriously the dignity of the human person and places
Jesus Christ at the center of creation and human history.
Fidelity to the Christian message as it comes to us
through the Church.
The title of this essay is the answer to the "how" of this
question. Richard McBrien, along with many other dissenting theologians, claims
that this fidelity to the Church inhibits "academic freedom and autonomy." John
Paul II states that "the Church, accepting the legitimate autonomy of human
culture and especially of the sciences, recognizes the academic freedom of
scholars in each discipline in accordance with its own principles and proper
methods."  However, this is to be carried out within the confines of the
"truth and the common good."  G.K.Chesterton said that Catholicism is
similar to children playing on a large play ground. There is so much room to
play and go about, but there are fences surrounding us. The fences are present
so as not to roam outside and get lost or hurt ourselves. This is exactly what
happens when our institutions stray from their Catholic identity. For what is
at stake is not only the very integrity and meaning of scientific and
technological research, of social life and culture, "but, on an even more profound
level, what is at stake is the very meaning of the human person" 
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. Imagine a
large, empty pitcher. You have the task of putting in two large rocks as well
as a bunch of little rocks, and they all must fit in the pitcher together. If
you put all the little rocks in and fill it to the top, you have no room for
the big rocks. The only way to accomplish this task is to put the large rocks
in first and then place the smaller rocks in. In an analogous manner, the
Catholic university can not effectively approach and answer society's problems
if it does not have the most important things first. If the theology or ethics
is incorrect, every other branch of knowledge will follow suit. If the Catholic
university is going to "have the courage to speak uncomfortable truths which do
not please public opinion, but which are necessary to safeguard the authentic
good of society"  then it must put "first things first." Otherwise, the
responsibility to try to communicate to society those "ethical and religious
principles which give full meaning to human life" will fall on deaf ears.  It is interesting to note
that John Paul states that there are "correct solutions to the problems of
life".  Some ideas or supposed solutions can actually be more harmful than
beneficial. This is not to impose one's view on another, but can be proven by
scientific evidence. When our Catholic institutions fail, it is not just
Catholics who experience confusion, but the human family as a whole.
The Father McBrien Fallacy
Anyone familiar with Catholic dissent in the United States
is familiar with Fr. Richard McBrien, professor of theology at the University
of Notre Dame and past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America.
His many criticisms of papal teaching includes a rejection of Pope John Paul
II's understanding and vision of the mission of a Catholic university. I want
to briefly examine two points that McBrien mentions in his essay "Why I Shall
Not Seek a Mandate," published in America magazine in 2000.
The mandate that McBrien discusses in his article is the mandatum
described in the United States Conference
of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) document, Application of Ex Corde
Ecclesiae for the United States. The mandatum is fundamentally an
acknowledgment by church authority that a Catholic professor of a theological
discipline is teaching within the full communion of the Catholic Church (Application: Article 4, 4, e, i). The mandatum recognizes both the professor's "lawful freedom
of inquiry" (Application:
Article 2, 2) and the professor's commitment and responsibility to teach
authentic Catholic doctrine and to refrain from putting forth as Catholic
teaching anything contrary to the Church's magisterium (cf. Application: Article 4, 4, e, iii).
So the mandate is a declaration on the part of the
professor—who is a Catholic and teaches at a Catholic
university—that he or she will teach authentic Catholic doctrine and not
put forth something contrary to Catholic teaching. Sounds simple enough.
McBrien, however, does not think it so. He laments that the mandate imposes an
"external, non-academic agent in the internal, academic processes governing not
only the appointment, retention and promotion of faculty, but in the
designation of which courses faculty members may or may not teach and in which
departments." The Catholic university that buys into this "would no longer be a
university in the commonly accepted academic meaning of the word."
Are our Catholic institutions meant to imitate what McInery
calls "peer institutions?" The Catholic university has an essential
relationship to the Universal Church and it must participate in and contribute
to the life and mission of the Church. Otherwise, it is a university like every
other. Christopher Kaczor, a philosophy professor who teaches at Loyola Marymount
in California, when speaking of Catholic universities said "if we truly care
about diversity, let's not become like everyone else."  The Catholic
university has a distinct mission to shape and form the hearts and minds of men
and women so that the salvific action of the Church may be achieved. We are
losing what Fr. James Schall calls "the mind that is Catholic," not because our
institutions are becoming more Catholic but because they have become homogenous
imitations of secular institutions.
McBrien also bemoans that only theologians are required to
take the mandatum. He states that "if
there is an erosion of Catholic identity in our universities today, it is more
likely to occur outside of departments of theology, not
inside." For McBrien, the scope of a Catholic university must include
biologists, lawyers, philosophers, engineers, as well as the whole
administration and entire faculty. This is an important point, and one that the
Church supports and encourages. A Catholic university must encompass the
entirety of human wisdom. McBrien's premise, although correct to a degree,
rests on a false premise. The Cardinal Newman Society recently conducted a
study that revealed some rather troubling statistics. In a survey given to
Catholic university students, it was revealed that "54% of respondents said
that their experience of attending a Catholic college or university had no
effect on their support for the teachings of the Catholic Church."  Can we
deduce from these findings that our biology and engineering departments have
been a cause of this erosion in support of Catholic teaching?
When speaking of the importance of theology in a university,
John Paul teaches, "Theology plays a
particularly important role in the search for a synthesis of knowledge as well
as in the dialogue between faith and reason."  He also notes that the study
of theology "brings a perspective and an orientation not contained within their
own methodologies." Theology opens man's reason to the hidden depths of reality
and to the realization that the complete answers he searches for come through
the light faith. The ultimate questions of our existence are truly beyond the
scope and methodologies of law, biology, or chemistry. Catholic theology, when
faithful to Scripture, Tradition, and the teaching Magisterium, "provides
an awareness of the Gospel principles which will enrich the meaning of human
life and give it a new dignity."  This
is why the Theology (not Religious Studies) Department is foundational to the
mission and identity of a Catholic university, and must be recognized as first
in the degrees of knowledge.
There is a supposed middle road between outright rejection
of the mandate and support of the mandate itself. This road is the one, McBrien
states, has been taken by Notre Dame and Boston College which, he says,
"displays the best educated laity in the history of the church and the most
spiritually vibrant men and women." Anyone familiar with Catholic higher
education in this country and the statistics concerning faith at our Catholic
institutions recognizes the ambiguity in McBrien's thesis. His Notre Dame
colleagues such as the late Ralph McInerny, Charles Rice, Alasdair MacIntyre,
and Alfred Freddoso have written extensively on the inimical position of our Catholic
universities and the failure of these institutions to purport authentic
Catholic doctrine. 
Staying Catholic in College
Catholic higher education in this country has been bleak and
depressing for some time. The social scientific evidence provided by the
Cardinal Newman Society paints a telling portrait:
1 in 5 respondents knew another student who had or paid for an abortion.
There are cultivated fields of educational renewal that are
bringing forth abundant seeds and fruit. I want to mention a few points that
can help students to stay Catholic in college, whether they are at an
institution faithful to the teaching magisterium of the Church or not. There is
nothing unique or startling in these guidelines. Rather these are helpful
insights from a former student that might be beneficial.
of current and recent students—and 50% of females—said they engaged
in sex outside of marriage.
said they had friends who engaged in premarital sex.
agreed strongly or somewhat that abortion should be legal.
agreed strongly or somewhat that premarital sex is not a sin.
disagreed strongly or somewhat that using a condom to prevent pregnancy was a
57% agreed strongly or
somewhat that same-sex "marriage" should be legal.
Find a spiritual director. LeBron James, Michael Phelps, and Michael Jordan could not have become
the greatest athletes in their respective sport without the assistance of a
coach. Someone who pointed out to them what works and what does not work. They
needed an expert to open them up to what they are doing well and what they must
work on in order to progress. The spiritual life is just the same. There has to
be someone to whom we can go that can give us a perspective that is not our
own. It is too easy to think we are spotless and miss something that could be a
hindrance towards allowing God to love us and transform us.
Frequent the Sacraments. This is much easier at a Franciscan University of Steubenville or a
Thomas Aquinas College then say a secular university that might not provide the
sacraments frequently. However, don't let this aspect fool you. We can get very
complacent and comfortable in an atmosphere that is very Catholic, and begin to
frequent the Sacraments less. As food is converted into chemical energy for the
body, the sacraments are converted to spiritual energy for the soul. As St.
John of the Cross tells us, the sacraments will fuel the flame of charity
within our hearts.
Friendship. In his Nicomachean
Ethics, Aristotle has an entire treatise on friendship that every
person should read. Going away to college is the first time that most people
really experience loneliness and homesickness, some with a greater intensity
than others. You will not understand the importance of having like-minded
friends until after you leave the university setting. I don't mean like-minded
in a homogenous form where you and your friends are robots in terms of
personality. Rather, we need solid friendships, particularly of the same sex,
who share our beliefs, values, and worldview. This was the predicament my
friend encountered that I mentioned at the beginning of this essay. We can
imagine the end result of a Catholic in crises seeking the consolation of an
if philosophy or theology is not your major, taking courses in these areas is
vital. If no good courses are offered in this area, be sure to consult good
Catholic resources such as Ignatius Press, First Things,
CatholicThing, and many others. It is also imperative to read good books. Fr.
Schall once quipped that the state of the soul can be seen through the books
one reads. It is important to have a solid foundation first before one begins
to read works that contradict or question the faith, or reason for that matter.
Starting with Descartes, Nietzsche, or Freud is not recommended. Begin with
certainty. Try St. Thomas first. Fulton Sheen once stated that he wanted to
know their errors of the modern world, and then answer those errors in light of
the philosophy of St. Thomas (see the encyclical Fides et Ratio).
Prayer. Last but
definitely not least. This is the key that unlocks all understanding and
reveals to us why were made and what we were made for. Prayer must be a daily
activity. Prayer enraptures the whole of our being, our minds, hearts,
emotions, and feelings. While we will always encounter the temptation to
abandon prayer, we must beware of the temptation to reduce prayer to only one
aspect of our humanity. If too focused on the intellect, prayer and faith lack
warmth and fall into a dreary and isolated coldness. If the heart or emotions
are overly emphasized, our feelings can lack a theological foreground or
context in which to appropriately understand them. The great spiritual writer
Henri Nouwen said that prayer is not so much our attempt to love God, but the
letting go of ourselves so that God may love us more.
During his Apostolic visit to the United States, Pope
Benedict XVI addressed Catholic educators at the Catholic University of
America. He lamented the rise and influence of individualism and relativism,
and asked, "How might Christian educators respond?":
These harmful developments point to
the particular urgency of what we might call "intellectual charity".
This aspect of charity calls the educator to recognize that the profound
responsibility to lead the young to truth is nothing less than an act of love.
Indeed, the dignity of education lies in fostering the true perfection and
happiness of those to be educated. In practice "intellectual charity"
upholds the essential unity of knowledge against the fragmentation which ensues
when reason is detached from the pursuit of truth. It guides the young towards
the deep satisfaction of exercising freedom in relation to truth, and it
strives to articulate the relationship between faith and all aspects of family
and civic life. Once their passion for the fullness and unity of truth has been
awakened, young people will surely relish the discovery that the question of
what they can know opens up the vast adventure of what they ought to do. Here
they will experience "in what" and "in whom" it is possible
to hope, and be inspired to contribute to society in a way that engenders hope
in others. 
This aspect of charity calls the educator to recognize that
the profound responsibility to lead the young to truth is nothing less than an
act of love. Indeed, the dignity of education lies in fostering the true
perfection and happiness of those to be educated. For Benedict, the passing on
of the reality of truth, of what ultimately is, lays at the essence of an authentically human education.
Intellectual charity is at the heart of the mission of a
Catholic university. This virtue orders and upholds the proper synthesis
between faith and reason, the two wings of the human soul. It also clarifies
the integration between faith and all aspects of life. We cannot have right
praxis (action) without right thinking. Benedict reminds us that divergence
from this vision of a truly Catholic university weakens Catholic identity, and
far from advancing freedom, inevitably leads to confusion, whether, moral,
intellectual, or spiritual. When the ecclesial life of faith does not penetrate
every level of a Catholic university, we lose sight of the unique role that our
beloved institutions play in forming Catholic minds and hearts. The common good
then becomes replaced with social justice pursuits detached from an authentic
anthropology of man. McInerny was right: "we are emphatically part of the
problem and totally unaware to the truly corrective role of a Catholic
 Ex Corde Ecclesiae, 1.
 ECE, 23.
 ECE, 21.
 ECE, 16.
 ECE, 29.
 ECE, 6.
 ECE, 32.
 ECE, 33.
 "LMU's distinctly Catholic mission?", by
Christopher Kaczor, Associate Professor of Philosophy (Los Angeles Loyolan, April 28, 2009).
 "New Study Confirms Crisis in Catholic Higher
Education" (February 2, 2010).
 ECE, 19.
 ECE, 20.
 See Charles Rice's book, What Happened to Notre
Dame (St. Augustine Press); Alasdair
MacIntyre's God, Philosophy, Universities: A Selective History of the
Catholic Philosophical Tradition (Rowman
& Littlefield Publishers, Inc.); Alfred Freddoso's two essays, "Missing the
Message of Ex Corde Ecclesiae," and
"On Being a Catholic University: Some Thoughts on our Present Predicament."
 Remarks by Pope Benedict XVI at the Catholic University
of America (April 17, 2008).
A deeply saddened Cleveland sports fan, Brian Jones graduated in May 2009 with an M.A. in Theology from
the Franciscan University of Steubenville. Currently teaching 7th grade science
at a charter school in Cleveland, Ohio, he hopes to pursue a doctorate in
philosophy within the next few years.
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