John Paul II opened his apostolic constitution on Catholic universities, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, in dramatic fashion. Issued on the Feast of the Assumption in 1990 the document began with these memorable words: “Born from the heart of the Church, a Catholic University is located in that course of tradition which may be traced back to the very origin of the University as an institution.” From the outset, the philosopher pope, who had long taught at the Catholic University of Lublin, affirmed an integral relationship between Catholic universities and the Church of which they are part and which provided them with their distinct identity and raison d’être.

In Ex Corde, John Paul II aimed to provide “a sort of ‘magna carta’” for Catholic universities. He intended to bring the wisdom of the Church to bear for the benefit of Catholic universities given that many had experienced a crisis of identity and an attenuation in religious mission during the preceding quarter century. The pope endeavored to resolve some of the confusion which then reigned over the proper relationship between the Church and universities that designated themselves as Catholic.

The thirtieth anniversary of this important instruction passed without much serious reflection. Indeed, one might speculate that at present the majority of Notre Dame faculty, staff and students have little familiarity with it, if they have heard of it at all. But readers of the Rover should not be counted in that number. The contents and impact of Ex Corde Ecclesiae warrant the careful attention of all who would take seriously the challenge and promise of a Catholic university.

I took up my faculty appointment at Notre Dame just a few years before Ex Corde Ecclesiae appeared. I welcomed its arrival with what, in retrospect, one must assess as naïve enthusiasm. In subsequent years, I argued that it should provide the foundational charter for our distinctive university so that her students would pursue the truth in its fullness and willingly seek the good and live in light of it. Yet, given the perspective provided by the past three decades, one must conclude that Ex Corde was not adopted as a guiding light by most Catholic universities. Major Catholic institutions of higher education, like Notre Dame, declined to acknowledge it as their ‘magna carta.’

Instead of drawing on the wisdom shared by Pope John Paul II, leaders in American Catholic higher education focused their attention on opposing or limiting the supposed “interference” of the Vatican in their affairs. Attention fixated on the requirement that Catholic theologians should obtain a mandatum from their local ordinary. The charged rhetoric on the matter—with the requisite histrionic appeals to “academic freedom” and “institutional autonomy”—served to illustrate the resistance to any serious adoption of John Paul’s vision.

Admittedly, Ex Corde generated some conversations and discussion about the identity of Catholic schools in the United States. Notre Dame’s mission statement even drew upon Ex Corde and rightly declared that the “Catholic identity of the University depends upon … the continuing presence of a predominant number of Catholic intellectuals” on the faculty. These fine words, however, were never matched by convincing action.

Notre Dame, like so many major Catholic universities in the United States, ignored John Paul II’s call and instead trod down the path of conformity and pursued practices at its academic heart similar to those at secular schools. It pursued what one astute observer deemed its “craven quest for success understood in conventional, and often quite secular, terms.” It has hardly proved a place that has pursued the truth as John Paul advocated. Far too often, it has succumbed to the academic fads of the moment and accommodated the blights of expressive individualism, utilitarianism, and “woke” progressivism in its academic endeavors. Universities like Notre Dame, wedded to an excessive concern about secular rankings, adopted strategies that replicated the prevailing and often shallow practices that beset American colleges and universities. They gave up on providing anything resembling a holistic education such that their students might discover the Catholic faith as the integrating principle that helps make sense of their lives.

Of course, Catholic schools—with Notre Dame as a classic exemplar—are skilled at disguising their deterioration in identity by maintaining elements of what my colleague Fred Freddoso termed some years ago “the Catholic neighborhood.” This is the milieu provided by campus ministry, residence life, retreats, religious symbols, and service opportunities, which are deemed as sufficient to satisfy the Catholic dimension of the university. Meanwhile the central academic project of the university—with the exception of a few notable institutes and centers—is neither guided by Catholic principles nor by the call of Christ as Ex Corde Ecclesiae commends.

In addition to this painful reality, we also must note that over thirty years on from the issuance of the Apostolic Constitution the broad circumstances in which Catholic universities operate has changed. The credibility of the Catholic Church and its leadership has been greatly damaged in the United States by the scourge of clergy sexual abuse. The disaffiliation of the young proceeds apace and the animosity towards Catholic moral teaching among secular elites runs deep. It is now even more clear than it was in 1990 that “the age of Christendom” has ended. The pressures for Catholic institutions to “kneel before the world” have grown ever stronger. Many now succumb.

While a visit to a major American university campus, like Notre Dame, might leave a superficial observer impressed with the fine buildings and the general air of progress and material splendor, knowledgeable observers recognize that all is not well in higher education in the United States. The reigning paradigm is still set by a number of extraordinarily wealthy and rather bloated elite institutions which seem increasingly to have their self-aggrandizement as a principal purpose. Notre Dame’s own Christian Smith has pointed to academia’s “loss of capacity to grapple with life’s Big Questions because of our crisis of faith in truth, reality, reason, evidence, argument, civility, and our common humanity.”

Serious Catholic students at Notre Dame must have recourse to Ex Corde Ecclesiae to obtain a more incisive view as to what a genuine Catholic university should provide for all its students. They should not acquiesce in the present reality or merely settle for the benefits of the Catholic ‘neighborhood.’ Students who want the best from and for Notre Dame must continue to challenge the university to live up to its own authentic purpose. Whatever discipline they pursue, all Notre Dame students should receive an education that allows them to grasp the complementary nature of faith and reason, to receive a deep understanding and love for the truth, and to gain a sound appreciation of the Catholic social and moral vision. Furthermore, dedicated students who value the Catholic identity of the university must urge this institution to recruit devoted teachers and scholars who can provide such a distinctive education. In our present circumstances, where moral relativism and gender ideology have cut such a swathe in contemporary higher education, the willingness to pursue and speak the truth is of crucial importance.

We should not pretend that appeals to John Paul II’s vision are likely to strike any resounding chords among those who presently lead Notre Dame. And yet perhaps we can draw some inspiration from the personal witness of Karol Wojtyla who proved throughout his life, and especially in his service as a priest-teacher-scholar at the Catholic University of Lublin, that whatever the adverse environment we must not be afraid to seek and to speak the truth in its fullness. May present Notre Dame students, who wish to remain in the heart of the Church, labor to uphold and defend the Catholic mission of Our Lady’s school, and may St. John Paul II intercede on their behalf.

Fr. Bill Miscamble is a professor in the Department of History and a member of the Rover’s faculty advisory board.

Featured art: Unknown artist, “La Martiniere College, Lucknow”, appears in “Nouveau dictionnaire encyclopédique universel illustré”, Paris: La Librairie Illustrée, 1885-1891