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Wiggle room, common sense will save church from Ex Corde


There’s been so much blather about the apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae that I finally decided to do the unthinkable: I read the damn thing. No one reads apostolic constitutions unless suffering from insomnia. It’s like moving wet cement with one’s eyelashes.

The local chancery kindly faxed me a copy, and I plowed through its lengthy filigreed sentences while struggling with the curly fax parchment. It was a test of faith.

An apostolic constitution is always solemn in form and legal in content. It deals with faith, doctrine and discipline and is usually issued in the form of a bull because it is closed with a bulla (Latin for seal.) Constitutions are generally signed by the pope and often contain postscripts written by lesser prelates who translate the pope’s urgings into marching orders. Apostolic constitutions are considered the highest form of legislative documents. Ignore one and you run the risk of not passing “Go” or collecting $200.

Ex Corde Ecclesiae appeared in 1990. Basically, it was intended to define the relationship between the church and Catholic institutions of higher learning throughout the world. The Vatican seemed particularly concerned about what had already happened in Europe -- namely that the universities would drift away from their Catholic moorings. The Vatican feared that this would happen elsewhere in the world, particularly in the United States.

The U.S. church boasts 240 colleges and universities (five of them in Puerto Rico). In 1998, they educated 692,951 students, just a little more than 1 percent of the U.S. Catholic population.

However, degreed Catholics count a little more than the nearly 99 percent without blessed sheepskins.

Only six states have no Catholic institution of higher learning -- none of them particularly Catholic states. Six others have 107 colleges or universities or 45 percent of the total. There are 30 in New York alone and 26 in neighboring Pennsylvania, many of them outgrowths of religious novitiates. The schools average just under 3,000 students per campus, but 20 percent of the total are studying at just 10 large universities. In spite of increasingly higher tuition, business is good. Total enrollment has increased by 129,000 in the past decade.

Higher education institutions love to parse and expand upon even a low-level interoffice memo. It was almost six years before the National Conference of Catholic Bishops submitted its implementation document on Ex Corde to the Vatican, which is still parsing Inquisition documents.

In 1996, the Vatican rejected as insufficient the revised document that had been overwhelmingly accepted by the American bishops. By 1998, the 284 voting bishops were asked to vote on a revised response. The vote was delayed pending more dialogue with the top administrators of the colleges. Now, the document comes up for its second vote at the November gathering of the bishops. The poor bishops are caught in a species of Hobson’s choice -- an apparently free choice that offers no alternative. (Thomas Hobson, keeper of a livery stable, required that customers either take the horse nearest the door or none at all.) In addition, the bishops must face the fact that their conference has virtually no power.

“Don’t fight this [document],” one high-ranking bishop is said to have urged the presidents. “It’s coming in. Let’s try to make the best of it.”

But the institutional presidents are still objecting to the specifics of the document that they feel may be attempting to turn colleges and universities into grammar schools. In the implementation that was drawn from the document, there is talk of all-Catholic boards of trustees, mostly Catholic professors, course loads that require old-fashioned doses of theology and philosophy, theology courses that are carefully vetted for content, and the bishop as chief monitor of theological curricula.

In an article that appeared in the Jan. 30 issue of America, Holy Cross Fr. Edward A. Malloy, president of the University of Notre Dame, and Jesuit Fr. J. Donald Monan, chancellor of Boston College, (combined enrollment over 25,000) termed the document “profoundly detrimental to Catholic higher education.”

The bishops are reluctant to cross crosiers with mortarboards. For the most part, they have enjoyed friendly relationships with their local colleges, most of which have bestowed honorary degrees on them.

If the Catholic character of these institutions has been diluted, it might only be a matter of perception. Years ago, many of them were Catholic ghettos with limited curricula and faculties at least half of whom were dressed in habits that carried more weight than their academic credentials. If a non-Catholic student enrolled, the student newspaper would likely carry an article that headlined: “Jewish student says he likes Thomistic philosophy.”

I recall one Catholic college that banned National Geographic from its library (something to do with those native women), and I knew a girl who was fed saltpeter in her oatmeal to calm her urges. There was a time when one could get a Catholic degree without ever visiting the college library, which had lots of books in locked cases.

Today, on balance, Catholic colleges and universities are stronger -- and thus more Catholic -- than ever.

Surely, the loss of religious has had an effect on the Catholic image associated with these institutions. A school with only five religious on its over 1,600-member faculty can hardly proclaim a congregation’s philosophy, although lay teachers can transmit a good portion of it.

I have been impressed by the efforts at most universities to transmit both faith and practice on Catholic campuses.

Georgetown University has recently added a Muslim chaplain. It caused so much noise that observers might have neglected to note that the school has 20 chaplains. A few years ago, when the late former bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., home to Notre Dame, visited the pope, John Paul II asked him: “Do the boys go to Mass?” (He seemed unaware that the school had gone coed.)

When informed that the university had at least 18 Masses each weekend and that at least 80 percent of the students attended, the pope faced a crisis of belief. The Vatican is lucky to get 80 percent of its cardinals to Mass.

Sociology professor, Robert N. Bellah, co-author of Habits of the Heart, spoke at Jesuit-run Regis University in Denver not long ago. His powerful talk was digested in America (July 31 issue). Bellah reminded his audience of G.K. Chesterton’s dictum that, in America, all Catholics are Protestants.

There’s much more to Bellah’s statement than that, but essentially he teaches that we must not overlook the culture in which American Catholics live. Our faith is tinged with a Puritan streak that got off the boat well before European Catholics arrived.

It has tinged the beliefs of Baptist John Winthrop and Quaker Roger Williams. It embraces the philosophy of Thomas Jefferson and the deism of George Washington.

American Catholicism is as much Protestant as it is Italian, Latino, Irish, German, Polish or Middle European. We can’t legislate it back to the lower decks of the boats that brought us here.

But back to Ex Corde Ecclesiae. The 20-page letter has much that is pastoral. John Paul calls the university “an incomparable center of creativity and dissemination of knowledge.”

A former professor himself with two earned doctorates, it’s clear that the pope values the life of the mind. He is quick to praise those involved in both research and education. But there is an undercurrent of fear that the theological packaging isn’t wrapped carefully enough.

Yet, there is room. Part II of the document takes back much of Part I by the use of qualifying phrases that supply lots of wiggle room. Dennis O’Brien, president emeritus of the University of Rochester in New York, calls them “loopholes.” Writing in the July 31 issue of America, O’Brien cites phrases such as “as much as possible” and “to the extent possible.” There is a sprinkling of “shoulds” such as “the president should be a faithful Catholic.” The answer is clear: The president need not be a Catholic. Even in Part I, the pope writes that “Bishops should encourage the creative work of theologians” and that bishops “should not be seen as external agents.”

There remains lots of room for bishops. The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago assigned theological responsibility to the presidents of the six colleges and universities in his archdiocese.

When glitches occurred, Bernardin would simply contact the local president and talk it over. No oath taking; no theological vetting.

It all had something to do with trust.

God knows how this next vote will go. But if the bishops decide to face Rome rather than their people, it may not be all that bad. Trustees, administrators, faculty and students can find some wiggle room until the document moves slowly to a back shelf and a new pope writes something that rescinds it.

A few wacky bishops will try to implement the specifics.

Most will hope that it just sits on the shelf in the president’s office, gathering dust.

Somewhere in California, there is a dear old lady named Rose Lucey, who used to be on the board of this distinguished newspaper. She is the mother of 10 children and the author of a small book on child rearing titled Roots and Wings. “Give them roots,” her book said. “Then, give them wings.”

Perhaps we simply need Rose’s formula rather than slipping into deceptive legalism.

Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago. You can reach him at unsworth@megsinet.net

National Catholic Reporter, November 5, 1999