“Ex Corde Ecclesia” and “Donum Veritatis”: Twenty-Five Years After

Though many academics put up a firestorm of controversy over having a mandatum when Pope John Paul II wrote "Ex Corde Ecclesia" in 1990, their objections are utterly silly and juvenile

2015 offers Catholic universities two silver anniversaries which are of particular importance. First, this year marks a quarter-century since Pope John Paul II issued his landmark apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesia, a charter describing a profoundly important and necessary vision for how Catholic universities are to be fully Catholic and fully academic at the same time—without diluting their faith or diminishing their intellectual excellence. (On this, see George Weigel’s recent column, “Catholic Higher Education and the Perils of ‘Preferred Peers’”.)

Second, this year also marks the silver anniversary of a lesser known but clearly connected document, Donum Veritatis, published in May 1990 under the signature of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger on behalf of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and with the full approval of the pope. This document in English bears the title “On the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian.” Let us briefly consider each one in turn.

The first document generated controversy immediately upon publication, and that controversy has dimmed only slightly in the last twenty-five years. For the pope issued, especially to American Catholic universities, a direct challenge to reverse direction from the one adopted in 1967 at the infamous and pernicious Land O’Lakes conference in July of that year.

The danger and the damage of the Land O’Lakes statement has been far-reaching in the last 48 years and it is almost impossible to overstate. The threat may be discerned in its very first paragraph:

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.

Hindsight is perfect, of course, but nonetheless this claim must be seen as utter nonsense that no serious academic today could possibly accept. For no academic is ever “truly autonomous” and no research is ever free of “authority of whatever kind.” That is so fatuous a claim that I am astonished anybody could have subscribed to it in the first place.

If I am, say, a psychologist licensed by the state of Indiana to perform research here at the University of Saint Francis, I am accountable not only to the state, but also to the American Psychological Association not to do certain things and to abide by certain professional codes of conduct and ethics. I am “free” and “autonomous” in ignoring those only if I want to lose my license, my job, and my livelihood. This is what the Catholic moral theologian Servais Pinckaers, OP (1925-2008), called the “freedom of indifference”: I am indifferent to any and all others outside myself even at severe cost to myself. That sounds perverse, and it is, but such is the nature of sin.

These two bodies—Indiana and the APA—are both “external to the academic community itself,” and have authority over me in very important ways. One could easily call to mind comparable examples for the health sciences, the biological sciences, the other social sciences, and almost all academic fields.

Autonomy and authority

Theology can and must be no different in this regard, though here the “external authority” is not an academic accrediting body, and in fact, properly understood, is not “external” at all. Theologians are accountable to the Church, though you would never understand that by reading the stunningly bad theology found in this first paragraph of the Land O’Lakes document. And it’s not just bad Catholic theology: it’s foreign to Christianity in any form! The entire Scriptural witness from Genesis to Revelation make abundantly clear that no Christian (indeed, no human being) has “true autonomy”. We are creatures dependent upon our Creator. And no Christian is ever outside authority, either, for we are sons and daughters of a King in whose kingdom His Word is truth and life. Our freedom is dependent on our obedience to that Word: “you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” (We are—to use Pinckaers again—set free not to be indifferent but to be virtuous and in pursuit of excellence: moral, intellectual, and spiritual.)

Pope John Paul II clearly saw through this 1960s rubbish. In Ex Corde Ecclesia he made it clear that to be worthy of the name “Catholic” a university needed to have not just a clear, close connection to but full communion with the Church, not least in the person of the local bishop in communion with the bishop of Rome. And “full communion” means, inter alia, subscribing to the fullness of orthodoxy, the fullness of divine and Catholic truth which comes to us from the apostles. In all its idiotic blather about “autonomy,” the Land O’Lakes document utterly fails to recognize the centrality of communion, that theologically rich notion so key to all the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.

Communion with the Church requires us to do certain things. It is a lofty and beautiful (if sometimes rather abstract) theological vision, but it is also expressed concretely. The most obvious and important way Catholics express communion is, of course, in receiving Holy Communion. No priest can ever celebrate the Eucharist in isolation: his bishop has to have given him permission to do so. This is an ancient requirement of both East and West, and remains true today for Catholic and Orthodox clergy. And the same holds true for bishops: no Catholic bishop can celebrate the Eucharist in isolation but only in communion with the bishop of Rome and all his brother bishops around the world.

How do Catholic academics in universities express communion with their bishop and the bishop of Rome? It goes far, far beyond merely attending Mass on campus once in a while. Here Pope John Paul II had a very practical plan: academics, especially those teaching the “sacred sciences” (philosophy, canon law, theology), were to have a “mandatum” signed by them and their bishop. When I moved to Ft. Wayne and the University of Saint Francis in 2007, I wrote to the late Bishop D’Arcy (even though he was not my bishop and I am not Roman Catholic) and asked for such a mandatum, which he happily granted. I wanted that in order to be held accountable. It remains in effect even after his death as long as I reside here. I am enormously happy and privileged to teach in a Department of Theology-Philosophy at the University of Saint Francis where all those teaching theology hold the mandatum and take that seriously.

Though many academics put up a firestorm of controversy over having a mandatum when Pope John Paul II wrote about them in Ex Corde in 1990, I have always found their objections utterly silly and juvenile. A mandatum is, as I explain it every semester to my students, just a promise of “truth in advertising”. You have, I say, come to a Catholic university, and what you will hear in my classroom will not be my own opinion—which is tedious and uninteresting—but the teaching of the Catholic Church, which is not only intellectually fascinating but life-giving. You deserve no less.

Then I use an analogy from my own life: my father worked for Ford his whole life. If you came into his shop and asked him to sell you a part for your Ford truck, and instead my father said, “Ford trucks are junk. You should go down the street and buy a Chevy, which is a superior truck,” then at some point Ford, rightly, is going to step in and say, “Look, you work for us. Promote Ford or get out.” The same is true for those teaching in a Catholic university: teach what the Church teaches, or find another line of work. Whining and sniveling about how oppressive ecclesial authority is to your “autonomy” is a degrading spectacle unworthy of serious adults.

Ex Corde Ecclesia was concerned with all aspects of a Catholic university, and the intellectual life more generally. The very title is a key reminder that all of the ancient and great universities in the Western world—Oxford, Paris, Cambridge, Bologna, Barcelona—were born ex corde ecclesia: literally, from the heart of the Church. The Church values the intellectual life so highly (as Jesus says, love the Lord with your heart, mind, soul, and body!) that she set up these schools to teach important subjects, especially theology.

The centrality of a kneeling theology

In every century, the Church wisely asks: How should theology be taught today? Theology, historically, has been seen as the “queen of the sciences,” the integrating discipline that brings together literature and math, languages, history, philosophy and all other legitimate academic disciplines. It has never been enough to say of Catholic universities, “Well, as long as your theologians aren’t raging heretics, the rest of your professors can teach whatever rot they want.” Every Catholic intellectual (Catholic mathematicians, Catholic poets, Catholic philologists, Catholic zoologists, Catholic physicians) is called sentire cum Ecclesia, to think with the Church. But theology, admittedly, has a special position here. What is that position?

To answer that question, let us turn now to the second document whose anniversary we are celebrating this year. Donum Veritatis was published in 1990, but it wasn’t until about 1996 that I first heard of it and read it—before I became Catholic.

As I was finishing up a degree in psychology in the mid-90s I discovered an interest in theology, and was taking a couple of courses at an ostensibly Catholic university in my native Canada. It was a place in sharp decline because in the late 1960s it had decided to stop teaching Catholicism, or indeed much of even basic Christianity. Yet it still called itself Catholic, and still claimed its courses were Catholic theology. But they were Catholic to the extent that some professors briefly raised official Catholic teaching only to mock it and tell students that no “modern” person could take it seriously.

When I mentioned to a couple of the theology professors that I had just stumbled upon Donum Veritatis, and raved about what a wonderful and compelling vision I found in it, they looked at me as though I were insane. They scoffingly dismissed the document as yet another attempt by the ham-fisted Joseph Ratzinger (the “Panzer-Kardinal”) to try to control the lives of theologians at the behest of that horrid reactionary pope whose name they could never mention without seething disdain.

But to my mind—young, ignorant, naive Anglican that I was—it was amazing to me that anybody could object to doing theology in communion with the Church as expressed in an active and vibrant life of prayer, fasting, liturgy, and communion with the bishop and all in communion with him. What other kind of theology is there? What other kind of theology is worth doing? What other kind of theology has ever, in her long history, been recognized by the Church as worthy of the promises of Christ?

As I read this document, and then more of the early writings of that wonderful theologian Joseph Ratzinger, I came across a beautiful phrase he used: “kneeling theology” or “praying theology.” Here was a vision of theology true to Christian antiquity and faith, a vision at once recognizable to the Fathers of the Church, East and West. Here was an understanding of theology free from the foolish notions of the modern academy where theology means whatever you decide on your own it means.

To read early Christian history, especially that of the Fathers, is to know that the kind of theology they knew or practiced was born out of communion, prayer, fasting, and obedience to their bishops. All other kinds of theology were not only uninteresting but in fact demonic. Indeed, in the East, the word “theology” has a highly restricted usage, and the word “theologian” even more so. In fact, the Christian East only officially grants that title to three people: St. John the Theologian and Evangelist, author of the fourth gospel; St. Gregory the Theologian, that is St. Gregory Nazianzus (one of the three great Cappadocians celebrated by East and West for their learning and preaching); and St. Symeon the New Theologian. All three remind us that “theology” is in fact contemplation of God, a rare achievement after years of struggle not to obtain doctoral degrees or book contracts, but purity of soul, body, and mind.

In this anniversary year, may we rely on their intercession along with that of St. John Paul II so that Catholic institutions everywhere may remain faithful to this timeless and inspiring vision of theology—and all intellectual life—done in communion with the Church and her Divine Teacher, whose word is truth, life, and the only kind of freedom worth having.

About Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille 41 Articles
Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille is Associate Professor and Chairman of the Department of Theology-Philosophy, University of Saint Francis (Fort Wayne, IN) and author of Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame, 2011).