Ex Corde Ecclesiae and American Catholic Higher Education

Discussions over the extent to which Roman Catholic colleges and universities can maintain their religious identities in a secular world have been ongoing for well over half a century. The more than 200 Catholic colleges and universities that are spread throughout the United States, many of which trace their origins back to the 19th century, represent the single largest single block of religiously affiliated institutions of higher learning in the United States. As these institutions seek to preserve their religious identities, the Vatican entered the debate on August 15, 1990, when Pope John Paul II promulgated Ex Corde Ecclesiae (Ex Corde), literally, “from the heart of the Church.” In writing Ex Corde, Pope John Paul II sought to reinvigorate the debate over how Catholic colleges and universities can remain true to their religious missions while being viable institutions of higher learning, wherein faculty members are free to work as researchers and teachers who meet the same criteria as their professional colleagues in other institutions of higher learning.

This entry examines how Ex Corde and its accompanying documents focus on the obligation of Roman Catholic theologians at Catholic colleges and universities to obtain a mandatum, or statement from their local bishops, attesting to their fidelity to Roman Catholic teachings. At the same time, the entry reviews Ex Corde’s application to faculty members who are non-Catholics who are expected to demonstrate respect for these teachings. The entry also considers Ex Corde’s impact on the academic freedom rights of academicians, acknowledging by its own terms its centrality in higher education and making clear that it is not so much intended to limit academic freedom as it is to ensure that Catholic theologians are faithful to Roman Catholic Church teachings.

At the heart of Ex Corde, which is to be implemented by local bishops, is its requirement that all Catholic theologians obtain a mandate or, more properly, a mandatum, a statement from their local bishops acknowledging that the Catholic theologians are in full communion with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. This requirement does not apply to faculty in other disciplines or to administrators. This entry examines the content of Roman Catholic Church documents, focusing particularly on the mandatum requirement. The firestorm of controversy in the academic community that accompanied the adoption by U.S. bishops of The Application of Ex Corde Ecclesiae for the United States (The Application) in 1999 and their acceptance of The Guidelines Concerning the Academic Mandatum in Catholic Universities (The Guidelines) (2001) two years later is beyond the scope of this descriptive entry. 

Ex Corde Ecclesiae

Ex Corde consists of an introduction, two major parts, and a brief conclusion. Part 1 discusses the identity and mission of Catholic universities, typically referring only to universities, because outside of the United States, many nations use the term college to refer to what are either secondary or postsecondary institutions that are not on the same level as universities. Part 2 discusses general norms associated with implementing Ex Corde. 

At the outset of Part 1, Ex Corde notes that it is not a tool to convert academicians to the Catholic faith (or drive them from campus) or an instrument designed to return Catholic colleges and universities to a pre–Vatican II intellectual ghetto, wherein academic inquiry was often viewed as suspect. Instead, Ex Corde Ecclesiae expresses the requirement that all faculty members who work in Catholic environments, regardless of their personal value or faith systems, respect the Church’s teachings and traditions. In other words, while all faculty members must respect the Church’s teachings, only those teaching theology must obtain a mandatum. The Application echoed this stance in asserting that academic freedom is an essential component of a Catholic university. 

After discussing the role of theology in the search for a synthesis of knowledge along with the dialogue between faith and reason, Ex Corde reflects on the roles of the various members of the university community, namely teachers, students, directors and administrators, and lay people. As to the place of Catholic universities in the Church, Ex Corde declares that members of the Catholic Church are called to a personal fidelity to the Church with all that this implies. Further, non-Catholics are required to respect the Catholic character of the universities while institutions respect their religious liberty. 

In Part 2, General Norms, Ex Corde returns to the role of faculty and administrators at Catholic institutions, requiring that at the time of their appointment they are to be informed of the Catholic identity of the institution and its implications. Further, Ex Corde states that Catholic theologians, who should be aware that they mandate that they received from the Church, are to be faithful to the magisterium, or teaching authority, of the Church as the authentic interpreter of sacred scripture and sacred tradition. This language is largely consistent with the Roman Catholic Church’s code of canon law, which requires those who teach theological disciplines to have a mandate from the competent ecclesiastical authority. 

Ex Corde is not designed to stifle legitimate dissent in the Catholic Church or to limit academic freedom. Rather, Ex Corde is designed to ensure that even if, or when, theologians, who occupy special places in Catholic universities, disagree with Church teaching, they must do their best to explain the Roman Catholic Church’s official magisterial position accurately, making it clear that they speak in their own names. As to non-Catholics, Ex Corde maintains that they must recognize and respect the distinct Catholic identity of the university. This part adds that in order not to endanger the Catholic identity of institutions, the number of non-Catholic faculty members should not be permitted to achieve majority status. 

Ex Corde’s approach is consistent with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (2008) which recognizes the right of religious institutions to grant preferences to members of their own faiths. Moreover, courts have relied on Title VII in upholding the actions of Catholic universities that preserved positions in a philosophy department for Jesuit priests (Pime v. Loyola University, 1986), the denial of a nun’s tenure application in a department of canon law by relying on the law’s ministerial exceptions clause (EEOC v. Catholic University of America, 1996), and the dismissal of a faculty member in a Catholic seminary who signed a petition supporting the ordination of women, because her doing so violated canon law (McEnroy v. St. Meinrad School of Theology, 1999). 

Insofar as the Vatican left the implementation of Ex Corde up to local bishops, acting in concert with their national conferences and learned societies, the implementation process in the United States spawned significant controversy when the bishops set about the task of developing and implementing norms to effectuate its terms. 

The American Catholic Bishops and Ex Corde Ecclesiae

The Application

Following years of contentious debate and a variety of drafts, on November 17, 1999, the bishops adopted the proposed set of norms, The Application, by the overwhelming margin of 233 to 31. 

The Application is divided into two major parts, an introduction, and a conclusion. Part 1, Theological and Pastoral Principles, examines issues surrounding the nature and role of American Catholic colleges and universities. Part 2, Particular Norms, is designed to assist Catholic institutions of higher learning in their internal processes of reviewing their identities while clarifying their missions and goals. Part 2 also highlights the role of the various aspects of the university community, including boards of trustees; administration and staff; faculty, who must exhibit academic competence, good character, and respect for Catholic doctrine; and students (Part 2, Art. 4.5). Insofar as The Guidelines expanded on requirements in The Application, the next section focuses on the details of Ex Corde’s requirements with regard to the mandatum. 

When the bishops adopted the norms, the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops recognized The Application on May 3, 2000; the norms took effect a year later. After The Application was approved, the bishops conferred with learned academic societies, most notably the Catholic Theological Society of America, to protect academic freedom in adopting The Guidelines that were issued on June 15, 2001. 

The Guidelines

The Guidelines consist of nine sections, not including a brief preface and introductory remarks, the most important of which address the nature of a mandatum, who should have one, who grants one, how one is granted, grounds for denying a mandatum, and appeals and dispute resolution. Beginning with the nature of a mandatum, The Guidelines explain that it designed to serve as an acknowledgment by church officials that Catholic faculty members in theological disciplines are teaching in accord with the position of the Catholic Church. It is important to note that The Guidelines recognize faculty members’ lawful freedom of inquiry as well as their commitment and responsibility to teach Catholic doctrine while refraining from putting forth as Catholic teaching anything contrary to the Church’s position. 

In order to obtain a mandatum, which is an obligation of individual faculty members, not their universities, those who teach full- or part-time (Section 2.3) in the theological disciplines must make requests in writing to their local bishops including declarations that they will teach in full communion with the Catholic Church. Church officials are expected to respond to these requests in writing and may offer a mandatum on their own initiative. Once granted, a mandatum remains in effect for as long as an individual teaches unless or until it is removed by church officials. The Guidelines stipulate that if individuals do not obtain a mandatum, local church authorities should notify the appropriate officials in their colleges or universities. 

Bishops who consider denying requests for or withdrawal of an already granted mandatum must discuss the cases informally with the theologian concerned, setting forth the reason they are contemplating such an action. Bishops who withhold or withdraw a mandatum must specify reasons for doing so in writing and afford theologians who think that their rights were violated opportunities for redress. In rendering negative judgments about the objectionable publications of theologians, The Guidelines require bishops to assess the theologians’ efforts on three levels: their significance within the context of theologians’ overall theological contribution; their relationship to the larger Catholic tradition; and their implications for the life of the Church.

The portion of The Guidelines addressing appeals stipulates that because the withdrawal of a previously issued mandatum or the denial of a request for a mandatum impacts the rights of theologians, the resolution process must comply with all of the relevant norms of canon law. In suggesting that both parties have competent canonical and theological counsel, The Guidelines acknowledge that canon law requires contact between a bishop and a theologian and that the rights of all parties to a good reputation must always be honored. Consistent with canon law, The Guidelines permit the parties to employ other means of conflict resolution, whether on the diocesan, regional, or provincial level, and they do not preclude the use of local mediation. Finally, while expressing a preference for the use of informal dispute resolution procedures, The Guidelines recognize that a theologian always has the right to formal recourse to the procedures contained in canon law. However, the best intentions of The Guidelines and canon law aside, the latter falls far short of the due process requirements that American academicians have come to expect. Insofar as the American Catholic bishops have been largely reluctant to enforce Ex Corde’s requirements, its status in the United States is unclear. 

Charles J. Russo

Further Readings

  • Burtchaell, J. T. (1999). Out of the heartburn of the church. Journal of College & University Law, 25(4), 653–695. 
  • Code of Canon Law. (1983). London: Collins Liturgical. 
  • Gregory, D. L., & Russo, C. J. (2000). Proposals to counter continuing resistance to the implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae. St. John’s Law Review, 74(3), 629–654. 
  • McMurtrie, B. (2000, June 16). Vatican backs Catholic colleges rules that spur fears over academic freedom. Chronicle of Higher Education, p. A18. 
  • Reese, T. J. (1999, December 4). The bishops’ mandatum. America, p. 3. 
  • Russo, C. J. (1989). Academic freedom and theology at the Catholic University of America: An oxymoron? Education Law Reporter, 55(1), 1–6. 
  • Russo, C. J., & Gregory, D. L. (1997). Some reflections on the Catholic university’s tenure prerogatives. Loyola Law Review, 43, 181–213. 
  • Tokasz, J., & Rey, J. (2006, October 29). Can colleges stay Catholic? Area’s seven institutions confront future with fewer clergy, members of religious orders. Buffalo News, p. A1. 
  • U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops. (1999). The application of Ex Corde Ecclesiae for the United States. Retrieved May 27, 2009, from http://www.nccbuscc.org/bishops/application_of_excordeecclesiae.shtml 
  • U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops. (2001). Guidelines concerning the academic mandatum in Catholic universities. Retrieved May 27, 2009, from http://www.nccbuscc.org/bishops/mandatumguidelines.shtml 

Legal Citations

  • Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-1 (2008). 
  • EEOC v. Catholic University of America, 83 F.3d 455 (D.C. Cir. 1996). 
  • McEnroy v. St. Meinrad School of Theology, 713 N.E.2d 334 (Ind. Ct. App. 1999), transfer denied, 726 N.E.2d 313 (Ind. 1999), cert. denied, 529 U.S. 1068 (2000). 
  • Pime v. Loyola University, 803 F.2d 351 (7th Cir. 1986).