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Introduction to Reflections on Ex Corde Ecclesiae at 30

by Naomi Fisher and Andrew Krema

Just over thirty years ago, Pope John Paul II issued Ex Corde Ecclesiae, an Apostolic Constitution for Catholic universities. It made waves in the Catholic world, with some seeing it as an infringement upon the autonomy of the Catholic university, which had been asserted forcefully in the 1967 “Land O’ Lakes Statement” by a group of Catholic educators from the US and Canada: “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.”   In its specification of norms for the university and the authority granted to local ecclesiastical ordinaries, some worried that Ex Corde Ecclesiae would undermine the search for truth, which is the mission of the university as specified by that very document. 


Over three decades later, Ex Corde Ecclesiae appears as a prescient guide to maintaining a distinctively Catholic identity at Catholic universities in the midst of increasing secularism. Rather than autonomous and thriving centers of Catholic thought, Catholic universities have too often assimilated themselves to secular culture. In emphasizing the aspects of Catholicism which are compatible with those concerns guiding our secular counterparts, many Catholic universities have severely attenuated the distinctive witness of Catholic thought in the modern world. Moreover, in compromising the Catholic character of the Catholic university, we have made the Catholic university less likely to fulfill its proper end as a university. As asserted in Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the Catholic university shares with every other university the “joy of searching for, discovering and communicating truth in every field of knowledge.”   Accordingly, it should “consecrate itself without reserve to the cause of truth.”   But Catholic universities differ from their secular counterparts in that they are able to more fully achieve the end of truth-seeking, being already in possession of and guided by the revealed truth of the gospel.


I. The Proper End of the University


St. John Paul II asserts the centrality and prime importance of truth, subordinating to truth the acquisition of useful knowledge. Moreover, freedom, justice, and human dignity, he claims, are “extinguished” if they are not grounded in the fundamental value of truth.   Our first set of essays examine this proper end of the Catholic university, considering especially the relatively recent emphasis on moral cultivation as a task, perhaps the ultimate task, of the university. Richard Kim, in “Is Moral Cultivation a Proper Aim of a Catholic University?”, argues that the primary end of a university is not moral cultivation, but rather intellectual development. Still, the Catholic university is not indifferent to the moral and spiritual dimensions of human life, and a Catholic university should differ from a secular university in being able to fulfill this secondary goal of moral cultivation in a responsible way. However, this goal can be successfully pursued only when certain conditions are met, and those conditions are not met by most contemporary Catholic universities. Similarly, Jeff Fisher in “Against Isocrates” identifies a debate concerning the end of education that goes back to the origins of higher education in ancient Greece. This debate, he argues, exists in the Catholic university today. Ex Corde Ecclesiae agrees with Plato and Aristotle in holding that the end of education is not the mere acquisition of useful knowledge, contra the sophists, nor is it moral cultivation, contra Isocrates and his contemporary counterparts. Rather, it is intellectual development for the sake of wisdom, which is valuable in its own right.


II. Engagement Across Traditions


St. John Paul II claims that there is ultimately “one culture”;   the gospel “transcends all cultures” and yet is called to engage with particular cultures, being more attentive to the cultures within and outside of the Church. The Catholic university is called to assist in this task.   In being more authentically Catholic, the Catholic university offers its distinctive, hopeful witness to the world: a vision for how things ought to be and the Truth that guides us in that direction. Genuine engagement with other traditions and cultures can only happen if we are deeply rooted and uncompromising in our own Catholic intellectual and cultural heritage. Moreover, we can only be open to challenges to that heritage when we are willing to consider and focus on the ways in which Catholicism conflicts with the broader culture or with different religious traditions. Both internal progress and external witness thereby depend upon deepening and further exploring our distinctive Catholic identity. 


Accordingly, the second set of essays examines methods of engagement across traditions. In “Ex Corde Ecclesiae and Interreligious Dialogue in Catholic Universities”, Xueying Wang argues that Ex Corde Ecclesiae offers an inclusive vision for interreligious dialogue at Catholic universities. This vision for interreligious dialogue evades the Scylla of an exclusive zealous proselytization and the Charybdis of a relativistic-pluralist vision. She shows that Catholic universities should follow the way of inclusivistic dialogue, which requires both maintenance of a strong Catholic identity as well as respect for other religious traditions. This opens the door to mutual understanding and authentic interreligious engagement. Fr. James Murphy, in “Diversity, Reason, and Catholic Faith”, similarly argues against a relativistic construal of the values of diversity and pluralism. He stakes out a replacement for such notions in a critical openness to and rational dialogue with other cultures and traditions. He grounds this normative pluralism in a notion of dialogic reason, which requires that we engage openly and rationally with other cultures and traditions, while challenging them with distinctively Christian reasons. Finally, in “Jesus as Philosopher: A Hermeneutical Approach to His Teachings”, Avery Smith makes a twofold claim: first, the teachings of Jesus should not be limited to the discipline of theology but also belong to the canon of philosophy; and second, hermeneutics possesses the proper methodology to consider and analyze the teachings of Jesus philosophically. She argues that these methods make the wisdom of Jesus relevant and accessible to those who are not Christians.


III. The Nature of Truth-Seeking at the Catholic University


The basic mission of the university is “a continuous quest for truth.”   But Catholic universities have the unique task of uniting “the search for truth, and the certainty of already knowing the fount of truth.”   Such certainty of knowing the fount of truth does not constrain or inhibit the mission of the university of truth-seeking. Rather, the possession of truths of faith both provide a foundation for truth-seeking and allow for a wider scope of truths to be available to the seekers of truth—students, faculty, and staff—at a university. In this way, the Catholic university is able to pursue truth more fully than its secular counterparts. 

Thus, in the final set of essays, the authors examine the nature of truth-seeking at a Catholic university. In her essay, “Pursuing Truth in the Catholic University”, Marcella Linn suggests a resolution to the ostensible tension between “seeking the truth impartially” and already being certain of knowing the “fount of truth”. She argues against a notion of impartiality as lacking all presuppositions or “starting from nowhere,” since such a notion would render inquiry arbitrary. Rather, a foundation is needed in order to seek truth in its entirety; this requires beginning from the universal truth which transcends human methods and institutions. The Catholic university begins its truth-seeking from this Truth. In “We Must Give Our Students Hope”, Naomi Fisher argues that because the ultimate goal of the Catholic university is to pursue the whole truth, love of and desire for the truth is necessary. This goal cannot be achieved if education does not instill hope in the students that the pursuit of truth in its totality is something ultimately worth attaining. She identifies various trends in education that lead to despair and argues that we should avoid these trends, instead inculcating a love of truth. Finally, in “Science, Religion and the Disaffiliation Crisis”, Joe Vukov identifies one cause of the disaffiliation crisis: a perception among youths that the Church is out of step with the sciences. He argues that the relationship between religion and science is best modeled not as antagonistic but as one of productive dialogue. Part of our task as educators is to expose students to this productive tension, in order both to explore the mutual challenges posed by science and religion and to correct the misconception that science and religion are in constant conflict. 


At this time, we turn to this document with fresh concerns and the experience of three decades to ask: what is distinctive about a Catholic university? What are its most crucial tasks? How do we, as educators and students, seek for truth in a way that is already grounded in the truth? In this set of essays, we seek to apply the wisdom imparted in Ex Corde Ecclesiae in order to provoke a deeper sense of the purpose of the Catholic university and how the contemporary Catholic university can better achieve that purpose.

1    International Federation for Catholic Universities (North America Region), “Land O’Lakes Statement,” July 23, 1967,, §1.

2    John Paul II, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, encyclical letter, Vatican Website, August 15, 1990,, sec. 1.

3    Ibid., sec. 23.

4    Ibid., sec. 4.

5    Ibid., sec. 5.

6    Ibid., secs. 44-45.

7    Ibid., sec. 30.

8    Ibid., sec. 1.









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Naomi Fisher

Naomi Fisher is Director of Catholic Studies and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Loyola University Chicago. She has broad interests in the history of philosophy and the interplay between that history and the history of Christianity. She specializes in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and his immediate successors, focusing particularly on personhood, freedom, and nature. She also as a graduate degree in Physics from UC Davis and has teaching interests in the relationship between science and religion. She is on the executive board of Philosophers in Jesuit Education and runs a working group in the Catholic Intellectual Tradition for the Hank Center for Catholic Intellectual Heritage. 

Andrew Krema

Andrew Krema is a third year PhD student in philosophy at Loyola University Chicago. Prior to enrolling at Loyola, he earned a Masters in philosophy at the University of Cologne (Germany) and a BA in philosophy and German at The Catholic University of America. His research interests lie in phenomenology, especially Husserl.

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