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Catholic Colleges Leader Rejects Ex Corde Ecclesiae as ‘Checklist,’ Defends Pro-Abortion Speakers

The president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU) has claimed that Pope Saint John Paul II’s Ex corde Ecclesiae, the apostolic constitution for Catholic colleges and universities, is not a “checklist” binding on college leaders and does not prevent pro-abortion speakers and events.

ACCU President Michael Galligan-Stierle’s “checklist” comment resurrects arguments that the ACCU made in the 1990s against conforming with the letter of Ex corde Ecclesiae.  The false implication is that the document presents a personal vision for Catholic education which colleges may interpret in their own way, even when undermining the Church, but does not declare norms that are binding under the Church’s canon law.

In a Washington Post article about the Vatican’s pledge to take action in response to a “well-founded” canon law petition by Georgetown University alumni—explained here by The Cardinal Newman Society—ACCU President Michael Galligan-Stierle dismisses attempts to directly apply Ex corde Ecclesiae to Catholic colleges:

“Pope John Paul II was trying to say, ‘Here are common characteristics of what would be good to have at a Catholic college or university.’ Some people take that document and turn it into a checklist,” said Michael Galligan-Stierle, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. “It falls to the bishop at the end of the day to read that document” and consider all the specifics of a school, such as its setting and its work, he said.

In fact, the heart of the apostolic constitution is a set of “general norms” that are binding for all Catholic colleges and universities.  These include requirements that Catholic teachers remain faithful to Catholic doctrine, students’ education must include ethical formation and instruction in Catholic moral principles, at least a majority of the faculty must be Catholic, and professors must have a “mandatum” from the local bishop to teach Catholic theology.

Article 1 of Ex corde Ecclesiae states plainly:

These General Norms are based on ,and are a further development of, the Code of Canon Law and the complementary Church legislation, without prejudice to the right of the Holy See to intervene should this become necessary. They are valid for all Catholic Universities and other Catholic Institutes of Higher Studies throughout the world.

Although Pope John Paul II did expect some local variations in how the constitution was applied, he required each national conference of bishops to consider such variations and define them explicitly.  The Vatican rejected the first attempt by the U.S. bishops in 1996, because their draft did not clearly enforce each of the norms of Ex corde Ecclesiae.  The final 1999 Application of Ex corde Ecclesiae to the United States explicitly requires the ACCU’s members to conform to the Vatican constitution and to canon law, as do the procedures for the theologians’ mandatum approved by the bishops in 2000.

Galligan-Stierle goes further in answering a question related to the recent spike in scandalous commencement speakers and honorees at Catholic colleges who support abortion rights and otherwise publicly oppose key moral teachings of the Catholic Church.  The evidence compiled against Georgetown also included numerous instances of speakers, honorees and events that appeared to condone or even celebrate abortion rights.

Asked how a Catholic school could satisfy Ex Corde if it hosts people and conversations supporting abortion rights, for example, Galligan-Stierle said: “It’s very important our colleges prepare students to engage culture in a substantive way. . . . That’s different than advancing a certain method.”

Ex corde Ecclesiae, however, requires that, “A Catholic University, as Catholic, informs and carries out its research, teaching, and all other activities with Catholic ideals, principles and attitudes.” 

When Pope Saint John Paul II issued Ex corde Ecclesiae in 1990, the reaction in the United States was divided, with vocal opposition from many leaders and faculty of leading Catholic universities who declared it “unworkable.”  Although the furor eventually died down, The Cardinal Newman Society and other groups like the Georgetown petitioners remain concerned about a persistent lack of compliance with Ex corde Ecclesiae at many Catholic colleges and universities.

Hiring for mission and ensuring that theologians acquire the mandatum from their bishop are important aspects to Ex corde. Patrick Reilly, president of The Cardinal Newman Society, said in 2013 that many Catholic colleges “are not doing enough to replace retiring faculty with at least a majority of faithful Catholics, who are essential to a truly Catholic education.”

In 2012, The Cardinal Newman Society issued a report on compliance with the mandatum requirement and found that only a handful of universities were willing to disclose whether their theologians had received the mandatum as required in Ex corde.

Jesuit Father James Conn, professor of canon law at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and at Boston College, reportedly said of the mandatum requirement: “The reason for the law is a kind of truth in advertising. Otherwise, it serves no purpose. Canon 812 was not meant to be a meaningless norm.”

Catholic Education Daily is an online publication of The Cardinal Newman Society. Click here for email updates and free online membership with The Cardinal Newman Society.


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