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In a commentary published by The Chronicle of Higher Education , David House looks back and assesses the influence of Pope John Paul II’s apostolic constitution on Catholic higher education, Ex Corde Ecclesiae .

House takes an optimistic view, reading the last couple of decades as a muted, but nonetheless sustained, turn toward a more faithful approach to Catholic education. Well, maybe.

It is true that most Catholic colleges and universities have come to realize that they cannot take their Catholic identity for granted. These days there are endless “mission and identity” committees trying to figure out a way to buttress the specifically Catholic dimension of higher education.

Yet, it is also true that the once coherent and expansive reality of Catholic culture in America is much diminished. One reason the post-Vatican II generation so thoroughly embraced experimentation and critique was the fact that they felt themselves marinated in a Catholic world. Not so today, which explains why men and women who probably have largely the same outlook now feel the need to retrench rather than experiment.

At an even more fundamental level, Catholic colleges and universities, most run by religious orders, are reckoning with the fact that there are hardly any nuns or priest to run them. Thirty or more years ago, the faculty began to become laicized. Religious orders concentrated on influencing schools by putting their people in key administrative posts. Now that’s become harder and harder to do.

I can report that nobody really knows how to put the Catholic into Catholic higher education. Yes, some small colleges have done an excellent job. House points to Thomas Aquinas College and others. But the big, multi-faceted postmodern university? Notre Dame is trying, but House himself holds them up for criticism rather than praise.

House is right to champion the intentions that motivated John Paul II to write Ex Corde, as well as its contents. And he’s right to point out that the rising generation of academic leaders in the Catholic system see that doing nothing is unacceptable. The secular temptation in Catholic higher education is very strong, mostly because it happens by default.

But we’re only at the beginning, and it ain’t gonna be easy. Too often, Catholic academic leaders take the easy way out, translating “Catholic” into “social justice.” But for those of us who see the inadequacy of this approach, what’s the alternative? What’s a Catholic English department supposed to be like? Or Classics? Or Economics? Hard questions these.

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