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Curious. Why should the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Boston Globe all see fit to carry the story of the promulgation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the papal declaration on the mission of Catholic universities? On the face of it, Vatican norms for higher education hardly seem to have national “news value,” especially from the perspective of those papers that have frequently strained the bounds of responsible journalism to the breaking point in order to reinforce the notion that the Vatican view of anything is hopelessly inapplicable to our contemporary situation. Could it be that they protest just a little too much, that this is yet another instance in which the power brokers of a militant secularism see more clearly than Christians themselves bow the teaching Church cuts too close to the bone for anyone's comfort?

Earlier drafts of this document had caused consternation among the Catholic educational elite, who interpreted Vatican insistence on the integrity of Catholic truth as a threat to the autonomy deemed necessary to an American university. The party line was: The Congregation for Education (then headed by William Cardinal Baum) doesn't understand our unique responsibilities in a pluralist democratic society. This reasoning prompted a Jesuit scholar of my acquaintance to murmur, “If the 109 U.S. Catholic college presidents are such poor communicators that they are unable to convey to an American cardinal the purpose and status of their own institutions, then we're in deeper trouble than I thought.” Of course, Rome understood only too well what the Americanists wanted to accomplish, and the Congregation's misgivings were targeted accordingly; there was much wry amusement to be bad from the “How can this possibly apply to us?” routine, when almost every bullet in the draft had a patently recognizable name on it.

With the appearance of the final document, the predictable volte-face has occurred, and now we are meant to find the prime significance of Ex Corde Ecclesiae in its recognition of institutional autonomy and norms that are “few, general, and applied at the local level.” The prestige media has rallied ‘round to help put out the word that Catholic educators who take their values from the surrounding culture have nothing to fear from the latest foray. A premature judgment.

In his preface to the text, the Pope says, “I felt obliged to propose a . . . document for Catholic universities as a sort of magna carta, enriched by the long and fruitful experience of the Church in the realm of universities and open to the promise of future achievements that will require courageous creativity and rigorous fidelity.” The words “magna carta” ought to make the drowsy reader start. The implications of the historical analogy are astonishing, since we are obliged to find a sense in which Ex Corde Ecclesiae is intended as a gesture of defiance, as a declaration from below, as a rebuke to the encroachment of tyranny upon the rightful prerogatives of a long-oppressed order. The rhetoric of emancipation has been used for so long by the academy against the teaching Church that it is a commonplace; all the more interesting then that the Pope should take it for his own.

“What is at stake,” writes the Pope, “is the very meaning of the human person.” This meaning has to be vindicated in every age and in every culture with respect to the threats posed by constantly changing circumstances. This vindication “requires a clear awareness that by its Catholic character a university is made more capable of conducting an impartial search for truth, a search that is neither subordinated to nor conditioned by particular interests of any kind.” There is a neat inversion here of the standard anti-hierarchical polemic in which every insubordinate scholar is a martyr to truth, David set upon by Goliath, Galileo besieged by a Grand Inquisitor. How can the Pope, this late in the twentieth century, pretend to a reverence both for dogma and for an impartial search for truth?

Perhaps the Pope is on to something overlooked by others, that the secular academy in our century has abetted partisan attempts to discredit methods proper to science and scholarship, and this with a vigor unparalleled in the history of the West. We have seen Marxists condemn Mendelian genetics as a counterrevolutionary intrigue, Nazis reject the theory of relativity as a Jewish fabrication, feminists dismiss propositional logic as a white male conspiracy—all with the (rather uneasy) connivance of the university authorities. Would an impartial observer find more political contamination in Renaissance scholarship than in our own, or less intellectual independence among the orthodox churchmen than among the dissenters of our time? Is Scaliger more a child of his age than Stanley Fish? Charles Curran less a product of politics than Henri de Lubac? Is there doubt any longer that the proper distinction is not between dogmatists and free inquirers, but between those who are aware of their dogmas (and to this extent free) and those who are unaware that they bold any dogmas at all (and thus their unwitting slaves)?

The terms of the magna carta are these: (1) that genuine scholarship and scientific independence are in grave danger of forfeiting their rightful prerogatives to an increasingly tyrannous politicization of knowledge, a tyranny that has made itself felt by placing ideological constraints on nearly every field of enquiry; and (2) that Catholic scholars have in this document a charter of their duty “to speak uncomfortable truths which do not please public opinion, but which are necessary to safeguard the authentic good of society,” and their freedom “to preserve the sense of the human person over the world and of God over the human person.”

John Finnis recently reminded us what was at stake in an earlier Kulturkampf wherein worldly power felt threatened by teaching authority. After the declaration of papal infallibility in 1870, Reich Chancellor Bismarck wrote that Vatican I had established a “papal totalitarianism” over Catholics. In a response that must be seen as uncomfortably prescient in terms of subsequent European history, the German bishops said, “It is not the Catholic Church that has accepted the immoral and despotic principle that superior orders release one unconditionally from personal responsibility.” The bishops' position was vindicated some seventy years later—ironically, at Nuremberg.

The reception given to Ex Corde Ecclesiae must be understood in light of the fact that it is in the Catholic faculties themselves in which virulent anti-Roman sentiment is to be found, and not merely in the Bismarcks of our time; indeed, the faculty apparatchiks of the Catholic left have found an ally in Big Government in their project to insulate themselves from the Magisterium, whence the (often disingenuous) claims that the “state-approved charters” of American colleges are jeopardized by an “extrinsic ecclesiastical authority.”

The professoriate is extremely uneasy with the notion of evangelization as a task of the Catholic university, precisely because a true Gospel freedom runs counter to that politicization of knowledge, and especially of theology, which the professoriate has been at such pains to advance. The authority by which evangelical liberty is safeguarded is the enemy of every Goliath, and most commentators have chosen to ignore the central place this document gives to evangelization in the university's mission, for reasons that are not bard to find. For if the message of Ex Corde Ecclesiae is taken seriously by Catholic scholars, it is all too likely that the tyranny of ideology over the search for truth—a tyranny so long complacent, so long indulged—will have met, if not its Waterloo, then at least its Runnymede.

Paul V. Mankowski, S.J., is a frequent contributor to First Things.