Courageous Creativity, Rigorous Fidelity, and "Ex Corde Ecclesiae" | Brian Jones, with Marcus Toft | August 15, 2010 | Ignatius InsightCourageous 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" (, 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 institutions.

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." [1] 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," [2] 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." [3] 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" [4]. 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." [5] However, this is to be carried out within the confines of the "truth and the common good." [6] 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" [7]

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" [8] 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. [9] It is interesting to note that John Paul states that there are "correct solutions to the problems of life". [10] 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." [11] 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." [12] 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." [13] 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." [14] 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. [15]

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:
• Nearly 1 in 5 respondents knew another student who had or paid for an abortion.
• 46% of current and recent students—and 50% of females—said they engaged in sex outside of marriage.
• 84% said they had friends who engaged in premarital sex.
• 60% agreed strongly or somewhat that abortion should be legal.
• 60% agreed strongly or somewhat that premarital sex is not a sin.
• 78% disagreed strongly or somewhat that using a condom to prevent pregnancy was a serious sin.
• 57% agreed strongly or somewhat that same-sex "marriage" should be legal.
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.

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 atheist.

Philosophy/Theology. Even 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. [16]

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 university."


[1] Ex Corde Ecclesiae, 1.
[2] ECE, 23.
[3] ECE, 21.
[4] ECE, 16.
[5] ECE, 29.
[6] ibid.
[7] ECE, 6.
[8] ECE, 32.
[9] ECE, 33.
[10] Ibid.
[11] "LMU's distinctly Catholic mission?", by Christopher Kaczor, Associate Professor of Philosophy (Los Angeles Loyolan, April 28, 2009).
[12] "New Study Confirms Crisis in Catholic Higher Education" (February 2, 2010).
[13] ECE, 19.
[14] ECE, 20.
[15] 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."
[16] 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.

If you'd like to receive the FREE e-letter (about every 1 to 2 weeks), which includes regular updates about articles, reviews, excerpts, and author appearances, please click here to sign-up today!