By Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller - OSV Newsweekly, 4/22/2012
Patrick Reilly graduated from Fordham University in New York City in 1991, the year after Pope John Paul II issued his apostolic constitution, Ex Corde Ecclesiae (“From the Heart of the Church”), in response to the crisis in Catholic higher education.
Two years later, at 24, Reilly founded the Cardinal Newman Society, which is dedicated to the renewal of Catholic identity on the campuses of Catholic colleges and universities in the United States.
“I was hoping to make the Catholic bishops and Catholic families aware of the state of Catholic higher education,” he told Our Sunday Visitor.
Shift in direction
Although he was in an honors program at a Jesuit university, he said, he had very little philosophy and minimal theology.
“It is only through our efforts to shed light on what’s going on that Catholics are only now starting to realize how much things had changed,” he said.
Before the Second Vatican Council, Catholic colleges were primarily staffed by Catholics, run by religious orders or dioceses, and the majority of students were Catholic. In 1967, several presidents of leading Catholic colleges and universities declared independence from all authority outside of the institution itself, including the Vatican and Catholic bishops.
One of the reasons was to compete with secular institutions. Another was the rapid expansion of federal funding that brought an influx of students under the GI bill who wanted a good education, but not necessarily a Catholic one.
As a result of those and other factors, Catholic education changed.
“The Vatican had been clearly concerned since at least the early 1980s,” Reilly said. “Pope John Paul II made it very clear that he wanted to see changes, beginning with his address at The Catholic University of America.”
The document makes a number of points in defining what a Catholic college or university should be.
Whether it is established by the Holy See, a bishop, religious community or laypeople, it is linked with the Church and shares the same respect for Church authority over Catholic doctrine, practice and identity. It is to carry out its research, teaching and all other activities with Catholic ideals, principles and attitudes.
However, while Catholic teaching and discipline are to influence all college or university activities, an individual’s freedom of conscience is fully respected. Furthermore, a professor’s academic freedom is guaranteed “within their specific specialized branch of knowledge, and according to the methods proper to that specific area.”
At the time of their appointment, all teachers and administrators 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. Catholic theologians “are to be faithful to the Magisterium of the Church as the authentic interpreter of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition.” Every professor of Catholic theology must have a mandate from the local bishop, as required in the 1983 Code of Canon Law.
The document also directs that the majority of teachers must be Catholic.
There was initial opposition to Ex Corde Ecclesiae, but, Reilly said, “There is a clear improvement in Catholic higher education since 1993, when I founded the society. The biggest shift is in the conversation. When I first got involved with this, it was difficult to find many Catholic leaders who were willing to publicly acknowledge that Catholic higher education was suffering from an identity crisis. The real shift is the acknowledgement of the problem and a real desire to try to get beyond that.”
There’s still work to do. Some of the most visible recent scandals involved commencement speakers and recipients of honorary degrees (the most high profile was President Barack Obama at the University of Notre Dame in 2009) who publicly oppose Catholic teachings on such matters of abortion, same-sex marriage and embryonic stem cell research.
But the future is hopeful.
“We are increasingly seeing Catholic colleges getting back to the strong focus on the core elements that build the great institutions,” Reilly said. “Many of them have fully embraced Ex Corde Ecclesiae.”
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania. To read Ex Corde Ecclesiae, visit http://osv.cm/pgWfXb.
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