Have you not heard of that mad Catholic professor who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours and ran to the marketplace, crying, “I seek Catholic higher education in the United States! I seek what St. John Paul II set forth in Ex Corde Ecclesiae!” As many who were standing around no longer truly believed in Catholic education, he provoked much laughter. “Why, did it get lost?” said one. “Did it lose its way like a child in a crowd?” said another. Or is the once widely discussed papal document on Catholic universities hiding? Is it afraid of us? Gone on a voyage? Emigrated? Thus those in the public square yelled and laughed. The mad professor jumped into their midst and pierced them with his glances. “Where did Catholic higher education go?” he cried. “I shall tell you. We have killed it—you and I. All of us are its murderers.”
But how? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away an entire tradition of education? Why do we not feel the cold breath of our empty curricula? Or the mission statements that say meaningful words but have no meaning? Can it be true that we never heard the noise of the gravediggers’ machines? That we’ve noticed no stench of decomposition?
More than thirty years ago, John Paul II issued Ex Corde Ecclesiae, his apostolic constitution on Catholic universities. Although in some respects an updating of Vatican II’s Declaration on Christian Education, the all-but-forgotten Gravissimum Educationis, John Paul’s document was meant to inspire a renewal of authentic Catholic education in troubled times. He adopted what the late John O’Malley called Vatican II’s “invitational” style. Rather than denouncing abuses, the pope sought to invite, perhaps re-invite, Catholic professors and administrators to the adventure of Catholic higher education.
The adventure lies in sustaining an educational tradition that unites features of the intellectual life commonly thought antithetical: on the one hand, reason’s unencumbered search for truth; on the other, faith’s “certainty of already knowing the fount of truth,” the Son of God, the Logos of everything that exists. This adventure has an institutional aspect, as well. It unites the freedom proper to an institution of higher learning with the fact that any university worthy of the adjective “Catholic” derives its vitality from “the heart of the Church.”
By this phrase, John Paul reminds us of the historical fact that the very concept of the university arose in the Middle Ages, out of the Catholic conviction that faith and reason belong together. More importantly, he wished to make a substantive point: The education a Catholic university offers is informed by what the Church has learned from millennia spent in contemplation of the God of Jesus Christ. Catholic universities are “called to explore courageously the riches of Revelation and of nature so that the united endeavor of intelligence and faith will enable people to come to the full measure of their humanity, created in the image and likeness of God, renewed even more marvelously, after sin, in Christ, and called to shine forth in the light of the Spirit.” A Catholic university enables the local Church to pursue an “incomparably fertile dialogue” with the surrounding culture, one that touches on all aspects of human flourishing. It does so by producing students who bring to their professional lives and civic responsibilities a view of the whole of human life and the created order shaped by Christian faith. Moreover, John Paul continues, the scientific and humanistic research done within a truly Catholic university enhances the Church’s engagement with the wider society, allowing lay and clerical leaders to guide and influence governmental policies, economic arrangements, and new technologies so that they accord with what is truly good for human beings.
Ex Corde is a powerful document promulgated by a sainted pope. It should have excited and fortified every religious order, every bishop, every Catholic lay person entrusted with the leadership of a Catholic college or university. But it did not. To re-read it three decades after its promulgation is an experience more bitter than sweet. John Paul’s words fell on bad soil in America. By the time of the document’s release, Catholic higher education was surveilled by plucking birds, filled with stony rocks, and choked by suffocating weeds. There was little chance for Ex Corde to bear good fruit.
Not that there was no reaction. Apostolic constitutions are legislative in nature, and the second half of Ex Corde laid out general norms pertaining to Catholic universities, which were to be “applied concretely at the local and regional levels by Episcopal Conferences and other Assemblies of Catholic Hierarchy” throughout the world. These norms put some teeth in the document’s theoretical description of a Catholic university. The most important required that each university make clear to the public its Catholic identity and devise strategies to preserve this identity, including by ensuring that the number of dedicated Catholic faculty never dips below majority status. Local bishops were charged and empowered to oversee the institutions in their jurisdictions and certify that these requirements were met. If problems arose, bishops were “to take the initiatives necessary to resolve the matter, working with the competent university authorities in accordance with established procedures and, if necessary, with the help of the Holy See.”
In the United States, the work of application fell to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB), predecessor of the USCCB. And hard work it was. The nine years between John Paul’s document and The Application of Ex corde Ecclesiae for the United States in 1999 were fraught with great fear. Catholic literati warned, often in frantic tones, that the progress Catholic higher education had made in the wider academy was under direct and immediate threat. The focus of the panic was Ex Corde’s assertion that Church officials “should be seen not as external agents but as participants in the life of the Catholic university.” That notion that church authorities were to play a role in university governance contradicted the central message of the 1967 Land O’ Lakes Statement, signed by more than twenty prominent leaders in American Catholic education. This statement soon became the manifesto for a new day in Catholic higher education, a bright future that required the very opposite of Ex Corde’s teaching. In a key passage, the Land O’ Lakes Statement stipulates: “To perform its teaching and research functions effectively the Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself.”
It is patently absurd to imagine that a university can be more effectively Catholic by virtue of its autonomy from the Church. Nevertheless, the independence called for by Land O’ Lakes was credited for the growth in size and reputation of Catholic colleges and universities in the United States during the 1970s and ’80s. The brass ring of prestige had finally been grasped; Catholic flagships such as Georgetown and Notre Dame could be mentioned in the same sentence as Yale or the University of Michigan. The grandees of American Catholic higher education determined that Ex Corde, if implemented, would return Catholic higher education to its parochial past of mediocre business degrees, football, and smaller budgets. The bishops were under serious pressure, therefore, not to alter the Land O’ Lakes approach. And they complied. Their 1999 Application soft-pedaled the role of the bishop. It repeatedly asserted that a Catholic university enjoys “institutional autonomy,” that it possesses academic freedom as “an essential component,” and that “its governance is and remains internal to the institution itself.” The local bishop would not be internal to the regular functioning of the university—he would not disrupt, as Ex Corde intended, the essential principle of the Land O’ Lakes consensus. But the Application could not ignore the letter of Ex Corde, so it stipulated that the local bishop would not be wholly external to university affairs, either. To describe the nature of this relationship, the Application relied on an ecclesiology of communion, speaking of “dialogue” and “collaboration” in harmony with existing university structures and statutes. Any reader of the Application can feel the defensiveness of its authors. They sought to implement the pope’s requirements without eliciting pushback from the leaders of American Catholic higher education or unflattering stories in the New York Times—which meant, in the end, ensuring that nothing important would change.
The Application focused on less threatening requirements, such as writing distinctively Catholic mission statements, informing incoming faculty that they would be teaching at a Catholic school, and ensuring that students had the opportunity to take classes in Catholic theology and attend liturgy. It was very weak tea. In one instance, however, the American bishops had to advance what seemed at first glance a hard-and-fast requirement, expressly stated in Ex Corde and canon law, that theologians at Catholic schools receive from the local bishop a mandate (mandatum) to teach. I still remember the frenzied sessions of the Catholic Theological Society of America and the College Theology Society dedicated to this frightening prospect. The notion that a Catholic theologian was somehow an agent of his or her bishop, and would be seen as such by his or her colleagues, struck terror in many a tender heart. All the worry, however, turned out to be for nothing. There never was any desire on the part of the vast majority of bishops to risk their episcopal reputations by vouching for the personal orthodoxy of academic theologians or the orthodoxy of what they taught their students. They knew, as did everyone else, that a large proportion of the faculty of Catholic theology departments (many of which had refashioned themselves as religion departments) were hostile to the longstanding teachings of the Catholic Church. There were and are exceptions, of course, but the standard practice to this day is to view the mandatum as a personal issue between the bishop and the theologian who requests one. The school has no right to know, and most do not care to know.
This is not to say that Ex Corde and the Application had no effect. In the 1990s there was a brief surge of hopeful activity. Mission statements were written or strengthened with distinctively Catholic language. Vice presidents of “mission integration” were hired and given offices near executive suites. Glossy flyers and booklets were produced with good-looking students happily standing before campus chapels, walking with religious sisters or brothers, and serving at soup kitchens or underprivileged schools. Pithy slogans conveyed the distinctive Catholic flavor of a given school. Most were indirect enough not to frighten away secular students, parents, and donors, but the receptive ear picked up a Catholic resonance.
The Jesuits lapped the field with their slogan of “forming men and women for others,” a statement drawn from a speech by Pedro Arrupe, S.J., on the intrinsic relationship between Jesuit education and the pursuit of social justice. A few Franciscan schools tried out “knowledge joined with love”—quite Catholic to those in the know, innocuously pleasing to everyone else. Mission statements identified schools as Dominican or Spiritan or Mercy. Phrases like “in the tradition of” or “inspired by” or “founded in” were widely deployed. Intentionally or not, they imply that the Catholic dimension is safely in the past. The mission statements inevitably prioritize “academic excellence” and the promise of a caring community that is open to all. Carroll College instills “enduring wonder,” Aquinas College in Michigan prepares “the whole person,” Barry University in Florida fosters “individual and communal transformation,” and King’s College in Pennsylvania transforms “minds and hearts with zeal in communities of hope.” Hard words such as God, faith, and Catholicism appear from time to time, but are always offset by a commitment to inclusion and diversity. In many statements, being distinctively Catholic is equated with welcoming non-Catholics. Almost none of the statements speak, as Ex Corde does, about offering an education “inspired by Christian principles” to help students “live their Christian vocation in a mature and responsible manner.”
Looking back, we can see how unserious the whole thing was. The new Catholic language, when spoken aloud by school officials, targeted misty-eyed alumni, mission-oriented donors, and parents seeking refuge for their offspring from the surrounding culture. Catholic talk had virtually no implications for the actual work of the university or college, the hiring and promoting of faculty, the development of curriculum, and the life expected of students on campus. Whereas Ex Corde had called for determined action on the part of college administrators and real vigilance by local bishops, the actual results were windy words from the former and the façade of engagement from the latter. What looked like a sunrise turned out to be a sunset—the last glimmers of a dying light. In theological parlance, this teaching of the papal magisterium was not received.
In Catholic theology, the teaching authority of popes and councils is derived from their having received what God, through the Holy Spirit, has provided the Church. There are certain markers of this reception, and when they are present, the faithful are obliged to accept what is thereby taught. As an apostolic constitution, Ex Corde Ecclesiae possesses the markers of an ordinary exercise of the papal magisterium on a solemn matter of concern to the whole Church. Accordingly, the document is owed “the religious submission of will and of mind.” It is not quite that simple, though. It is possible for teachings not to be received by the Church. They can fail to affect the belief and practice of the majority of Catholics. Progressives commonly refer to Humanae Vitae, the restatement of the traditional Catholic prohibition of artificial means of contraception, as not received, just as many speak of the ongoing non-reception in many dioceses of Francis’s Traditionis Custodes, which significantly restricts the celebration of the traditional Latin Mass.
Non-reception does not affect the authority of a magisterial teaching, but it is a sign that something is amiss. Avery Cardinal Dulles gives us three possible scenarios: that, in the case of non-infallible teaching, the magisterium has erred; that “the teaching, as currently formulated, is ill-timed, one-sided, or poorly presented”; and “that the faithful are not sufficiently attuned to the Holy Spirit.” Exactly which scenario obtains will be clarified by the subsequent direction of the Church’s doctrine. Sometimes non-reception occasions further thought on an issue, and further teaching is promulgated that effectively supersedes the previous teaching. This need not (and usually does not) entail a reversal, but rather an effort to do fuller justice to the topic. Such, perhaps, will be the fate of Francis’s attempt to suppress the old Mass. Yet, at other times, the faithful’s rejection of a teaching counts in favor of its validity. John Paul II, for example, was convinced that this was the case with Humanae Vitae. As he put it before becoming pope: “The inheritance of salvific truth is an extremely demanding one, fraught with difficulties. Inevitably the Church’s activities, and those of the Supreme Pontiff in particular, often become a ‘sign of contradiction.’ This too shows that her mission is that of Christ, who continues to be a sign of contradiction.” The failure of Catholics to conform to Paul VI’s prohibition on artificial contraception was, in John Paul’s view, not evidence that the teaching was wrong or ill-considered but rather that it was a prophetic word regarding the truth of human sexuality spoken to a generation that had lost its way. A similar interpretation, I believe, should be applied to the non-reception of John Paul’s Ex Corde.
By the 1990s, Ex Corde’s vision of Catholic higher education was “a sign of contradiction.” To a generation of university faculty and leaders formed by the conceits of the Land O’ Lakes consensus, it could not be otherwise than a hard teaching that caused would-be disciples to resist and fall away. Ex Corde was not received, I submit, not because there is anything wrong or impractical in John Paul’s conception of a truly Catholic college or university, but simply because turning around the ship of Catholic higher education was too hard, and the cost in worldly prestige and revenue too painful.
Most Catholic schools had already populated their faculties with professors who had little ability or desire to bring together faith and reason in their teaching. The same institutions had already reduced their requirements in theology and philosophy, and in many cases had converted their theology departments to departments of religious studies. Dorms at Catholic schools had become no less bacchanalian than their secular counterparts, and in some cases more so. Indeed, the party life had become a hidden but essential part of the Catholic brand. Serious implementation of Ex Corde would have required significant changes in hiring practices, curricular reforms that ran against the growing mania for “diversity,” and strict, countercultural codes of student conduct. An easier path was found. It involved redoing promotional materials, slapping up some crucifixes in the new business building, and hosting a few friendly chats with the local ordinary. The ten-year review of the application of Ex Corde by the United States bishops in 2012 celebrated the easy path.
Bishops reported that they believe our institutions of Catholic higher education have made definite progress in advancing Catholic identity. The relationship between bishops and presidents on the local level can be characterized as positive and engaged, demonstrating progress on courtesy and cooperation in the last ten years. Clarity about Catholic identity among college and university leadership has fostered substantive dialogues and cultivated greater mission-driven practices across the university.
When those charged with implementing Ex Corde are satisfied with “courtesy” and “dialogue,” it is not hard to see why the Catholic professor was shouting in the marketplace like a madman.
The non-reception of Ex Corde has had at least one tragic outcome: It inspired a generation of sincere Catholic academics to expend a good part of their careers in issuing unheeded and unwelcome warnings of the death of Catholic higher education in the United States. The fortunate ones could express their frustration in published monographs: Philip Gleason’s Contending With Modernity: Catholic Higher Education in the Twentieth Century, James Burtchaell’s The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges & Universities from their Christian Churches, Melanie Morey and John Piderit’s Catholic Higher Education: A Culture in Crisis, and Anne Hendershott’s Status Envy: The Politics of Catholic Higher Education. Most, however, spent their time seeking a hearing from provosts and presidents, boards of trustees, alumni groups, and bishops, all in the hope that they could awaken those with power to the fact that something precious was being lost. Their argument is easy enough to grasp. Catholic education requires willing and able faculty committed to Catholic education; if you aren’t intentional about hiring Catholic educators, you won’t have them, and if you don’t have them, you can’t have a Catholic university.
Ex Corde itself insists that the majority of the faculty must be Catholics faithful to the teachings of the Church and eager to unite faith and reason in their disciplines. The pope correctly saw that a Catholic university with a majority of faculty who do not embrace the Catholic Church cannot be Catholic. The logic is unassailable: Personnel is policy. Catholic education involves passing on a tradition of learning from teacher to student, and one cannot hand on what one does not possess. Far too much energy was wasted in the making of this obvious point. Those with power had already made their decision: Hire “the best,” where “the best” was determined in reference to secular standards.
Sponsoring religious orders, bishops sitting on boards of trustees, provosts, and presidents refused to do what was needed to renew their schools in light of Ex Corde. Thus, as an entire generation of authentically Catholic professors began to retire, they were largely replaced by—at best—academics with little interest in Catholic education, and—at worst and in not insignificant numbers—those brutally opposed to the Church’s teaching on abortion, marriage, sexuality, and gender identity. I cast no aspersions on this growing cohort of faculty at nominally Catholic institutions. They are being who they are, and they are doing what their nominally Catholic institutions hired them to do. But this is the important fact, evident to anyone who cares to see: These people, indifferent and sometimes overtly hostile to the Catholic tradition, now run our schools. This was a choice, not an inevitable outcome. In many cases, Catholic scholars could have been hired, but insisting upon their hiring was too much trouble and only grew harder. Once an academic department has a majority that is indifferent or hostile to the mission, insisting that it hire someone whose qualifications include a dedication to Catholic teaching becomes a bloody, uphill battle. Presidents, provosts, and deans find it much easier to redefine or domesticate what it means to be a “Catholic university.” Ex Corde became a dead letter long ago.
It is bitterly ironic, therefore, that the same faculty who decry hiring for Catholic mission, insisting that it violates academic freedom and runs against academic excellence, embrace the demands of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Faculty who refuse to take religious commitment into account insist on assessing job candidates on the basis of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and now gender identity. While vice presidents of mission are kept at bay, vice presidents of DEI are welcomed into the hiring process. With the power of inquisitors, they approve job ads, hiring committees, finalist pools, and sometimes the hire itself. This is now the state of affairs at countless institutions, and it elicits not a peep of protest from the leaders of Catholic higher education so otherwise concerned about autonomy, outside inference, and threats to academic excellence.
The gross hypocrisy of deploying the principles of Land O’Lakes to insulate universities from Catholic influence while embracing close control of faculty hiring by DEI commissars should be deplored. But something worse is happening. In the past five years, one detects a trend—a cascade, really—of schools collapsing their Catholic identity into the principles of the DEI movement. Those of a certain age remember when, in the 1970s, schools began equating their religious mission with their commitment to social justice, hoping to win over their progressive faculty and staff. I recall a religious sister telling me that, although her school’s students did not go to Mass or even particularly believe in God, she was happy to report that they had become more politically progressive. Now that secular schools have reduced social justice to matters of racial, gender, and sexual identity—aware, perhaps, that trumpeting concerns for economic justice comports uneasily with saddling their students with massive debt—Catholic schools have followed suit. Gray painted upon gray.
Every institution worthy of being called Catholic must make every effort to a create an environment ruled by justice and charity, with particular attention to those prone to be excluded. Racism is antithetical to the deepest principles of Catholicism. As Benedict XVI puts in Caritas in Veritate: “The unity of the human race, a fraternal communion transcending every barrier, is called into being by the word of God-who-is-Love.” However, the principles that inform the DEI movement are often closer to Marxism than to Christianity, seeking to attain utopian ends through conflict and resentment, pitting one race against another in continual warfare, with little room for forgiveness or reconciliation. Popes since Leo XIII have detected in the Marxist call for class struggle a dialectic of violence at odds with the dictates of Christ. Catholics ought to be resolutely opposed to any movement that seeks to remedy racism against African Americans by demonizing European Americans. The way of the Lord Jesus runs counter to a movement that inculcates in the young a self-righteousness that is quick to anger and ready to do harm, while being slow to show mercy. There is, of course, a way to think about racial and ethnic diversity that draws from and is informed by Christian wisdom. But few, if any, Catholic schools show much interest in teaching it.
The problem is more severe with respect to matters of sexual orientation and gender identity. The Catechism of the Catholic Church commands that those with deep-seated homosexual tendencies are to be treated with “respect, compassion, and sensitivity,” and that “every sign of unjust discrimination” must be avoided. Yet, concern for these persons must never be shown at the cost of undermining the Catholic conviction that the sexual union must take place within the marital bond between a man and a woman. Just as homosexual acts cannot be affirmed, so there can be no compromise with an ideology that denies the biological reality of sex or the essential complementarity of the sexes. Yet the ideology that informs the DEI movement regards normative views of sexuality or gender as offenses against equity and inclusion. Once a Catholic college or university establishes being “welcoming” instead of being faithful to truth as the controlling idea of what it means to be Catholic, it is only a matter of time before the teachings of the Church become marginal to the life of the school, sequestered to the chapel and select student groups. Catholic professors who uphold Catholic doctrine will do so at their own risk. Their protection will come from secular notions of academic freedom rather than from the religious character of their employer.
There is, I submit, no greater evidence of the failure of Ex Corde to be received in the United States than the ease with which the ideology of DEI has taken over Catholic colleges and universities. The anxieties about external control and the loss of institutional autonomy found in Land O’ Lakes and the response to Ex Corde seem to have evaporated. The issue, it seems, was never autonomy. Rather, the real issue was opposition to anything that prevented Catholic institutions from conforming to the prevailing trends of American higher education. DEI reigns in Catholic higher education because it reigns in secular universities.
There are genuine issues to be confronted whenever one brings diverse populations of students together. Catholicism is rich in resources for that task, far richer than the threadbare DEI ideologies. But employing Catholic resources would be inconsistent with “best practices.” The easy alternative has been simply to turn Catholic identity into the handmaiden of the much stronger and more culturally accepted DEI movement. When historians look back at the final death rattle of Catholic higher education in the United States, they will identify uncritical adoption of the principles of DEI as a decisive factor in its demise.
Thus, our situation in 2023. Among the nearly 250 colleges and universities listed as Catholic by the USCCB, very few come close to John Paul’s vision. Most are not even trying. Our bishops, for the most part, play marginal roles, some cheerleading, some criticizing, but precious few having any real effect on the Catholic identity of the schools under their care. The USCCB, the body now entrusted with overseeing the implementation of Ex Corde, has been silent since 2012, content to leave well enough alone. Ex Corde has not been received in the United States, and there is no immediate prospect that it will be.
All is not lost, however. There are exceptions to this sad story. A small but growing cohort of schools courageously bucks the trend toward post-Catholic imitation of the worst aspects of secular higher education. These schools seek not autonomy from the Church but a close collaboration in its mission to form young adults in the faith. A rough list includes the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Belmont Abbey in North Carolina, the University of Mary in North Dakota, Ave Maria University in Florida, the University of Dallas, Benedictine College in Kansas, Christendom College, Thomas More College, Magdalen College, Thomas Aquinas College (East and West Coast versions), and Wyoming Catholic College. These are experiments in Catholic education as envisioned by Ex Corde, and they are poised to play an important role in the educational landscape. Apart from the benefits their graduates offer the Church in difficult times, these schools show administrators of dying-of-light schools that another way is possible. And they provide an alternative for parents who know what awaits their sons and daughters on the average Catholic campus.
Another positive development in the post–Ex Corde era of Catholic higher education is the creation of small pockets of fidelity within schools that have otherwise lost or domesticated their Catholic identities. Instead of cursing the light’s dying, a small number of Catholic professors and supportive presidents have launched programs designed to provide faith-infused education to students who seek it. The most famous and most successful of these initiatives is the Center for Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. Founded by Don Briel and his associates in the early 1990s, it provides focused study of the riches of Catholic culture for undergraduate and graduate students. Other programs have sprung up in recent years. Some emphasize the intellectual and artistic dimensions of Catholicism, others are more oriented to the Church’s social teachings. Some have “Catholic” in the name of their programs, whereas others use the more generic “Humanities.” A few came about through the normal mechanism for creating new academic programs, but most are the result of presidential action. All have one thing in common: They seek to provide for their students a Catholic approach that is not found elsewhere in their institutions.
A common criticism of these programs has been that, for all their value, they represent a surrender of sorts, giving up on the institution as a whole by creating a Catholic “ghetto.” There is undeniable truth in this charge. Ex Corde is an institutional document. It concerns the entirety of the university. The word “institution” and its variants occur more than fifty times in the document, which, at key moments, speaks of “institutional commitment” and “institutional fidelity.” It is a Roman document, after all! John Paul made clear that he was speaking not of individuals or pockets within Catholic universities, but of “the university community as such.” Thus, it must be conceded that the rise of Catholic Studies does not constitute a reception of Ex Corde. In my estimation, it is a prophetic sign of a truth not received. Only when it became clear that Ex Corde was not going to avert the downward slide of Catholic higher education did these programs emerge. These days, to continue to worry that Catholic Studies creates a ghetto seems quaint. My response to Catholic critics who cite Ex Corde and hold out for an institution-wide turnaround is: “What else you got?”
We are a wayward people who will not walk the difficult path. The existence of a program of Catholic Studies at an institution that advertises itself as “Catholic” is a sign of contradiction. These programs don’t just resist the DEI takeover. They offer their students an approach to education that sees beyond careerism and activism. In place of the ephemera of academic fashion and as a bulwark against the dissipations of college life, they create a community of learning rooted in the wisdom the Church has accumulated for two millennia and expressed in theology, philosophy, literature, music, architecture, and art. On a more quotidian level, they provide jobs for Catholic historians, literature professors, classicists, artists, and economists who aspire to unite their academic work with their faith. It is a sad fact that very few Catholic schools are welcoming to scholars with these traditional ambitions. The existence of these programs can be a lifeline. And since nothing talks quite like money, programs in Catholic Studies enable faith-filled donors to direct their funds to something other than sports or new buildings, thereby conveying to the institution that concern for Catholic education can be good for the endowment. Finally, they stand as witnesses to the great treasures that the Catholic tradition can give to the life of the mind, and they remind us that an educational culture arising from the heart of the Church can be regained by those with the desire and courage to do so.
Catholic studies programs and other enclaves can provide a refuge, but they do not provide relief to professors driven mad by the loss of Catholic higher education in the United States, a loss not reversed by Ex Corde Ecclesiae. Most of those whose grief is greatest belong to the generation that attended graduate school during the intellectual revival of American Catholicism in the 1950s, only to spend their careers as impotent witnesses to the unraveling of our educational tradition. They founded the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars and other organizations. By now, many have retired or passed on to their reward. To the extent that there is a future for a pedagogy that unites faith and reason, a future we see in the form of small colleges and Catholic Studies programs, we have that generation to thank. They kept the fires burning against the darkening skies. In many cases, they were the teachers of those who later turned frustration into strategies for renewal. To the extent that Catholic Studies and allied programs reanimate the colleges and universities in which they are located, the mad professors, who fought the fight they were given, can be considered much like those who placed the foundation stones for cathedrals they never would enter, except as part of the Church Triumphant. In their work, and the work of their students today, John Paul II’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae enjoys an unexpected kind of reception.
James F. Keating is associate professor of theology at Providence College.