Ex Corde Ecclesiae and the Notre Dame Affair

Now will it be implemented?

Will Notre Dame’s decision to honor the most pro-abortion American president ever occasion a serious and widespread implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae? If not, the outrage over it is idle.

Pope John Paul II’s apostolic constitution on Catholic universities and colleges has gathered dust since its 1990 release. These schools, with exceptions here and there, remain either indifferent or hostile to it. Notre Dame’s conferral of honors on Barack Obama is merely the latest and most graphic symptom of a larger disease that has coursed through Catholic colleges for decades.

What’s needed now is not more feckless and stalling discussions about “Catholic identity” but unapologetic and comprehensive episcopal application of Ex Corde.

Notre Dame’s decision to honor Barack Obama was not surprising but utterly predictable. Where a college’s faculty, student body, and curriculum are, there its heart will be also.

The scandal at Notre Dame originated not in 2009 but in 1967, when its then-president Theodore Hesburgh, along with academics and then-future bishops like Theodore McCarrick (who, decades later as the powerful archbishop of Washington, DC, would hide from his fellow bishops the Vatican’s memo on pro-abortion Catholic politicians), signed a de facto declaration of independence from Catholicism called the “Land O’ Lakes Statement on the Nature of the Contemporary Catholic University.”

That declaration gave birth to the modern American Catholic university, which would henceforth be modern and American but not very Catholic.

“The Catholic University today must be a university in the full modern sense of the word,” it stated in part. “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.”

Long before honoring Obama, Notre Dame, fostering this academic ethos, had honored the modern liberal ideology he represents by secularizing its curriculum and faculty. It cast aside the magisterium and marginalized the Catholic intellectual tradition as it ceaselessly hired professors who reduced Catholicism to “progressive” politics in the minds of their students.

That a majority of Catholics, many of whom graduated from colleges and universities like Notre Dame, voted for Obama is one of the legacies of the Land O’ Lakes manifesto. And Obama knows it, which is why he leapt at Notre Dame’s honorary degree, seeing in it one more opportunity to cement confusion and spread chaos within the Church.

Nothing if not an adroit politician, Obama pursued this divide-and-conquer strategy from the beginning. He found Catholic academics to serve on his “National Catholic Advisory Committee,” solicited donations from faculty members at Catholic schools (professors at Jesuit Georgetown ranked seventh among all faculties in donations to his campaign, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education), and used the specious defenses of “pro-lifers,” such as former Notre Dame Center on Law and Government director Doug Kmiec, to soften Catholic resistance to his agenda. 

“A passionate tumultuous age will overthrow everything, pull everything down,” wrote Soren Kierkegaard, “but a revolutionary age that is at the same time reflective and passionless leaves everything standing but cunningly empties it of significance.”

Obama is that cool revolutionary. He won’t even bother to topple the Church in America; he will leave it standing and co-opt it from within.

Whenever possible, it appears, he will enlist nominal Catholics for the work of neutralizing the Church’s influence in public life. He has already found a Catholic Health and Human Services secretary in Kathleen Sebelius to hasten the transformation of Catholic hospitals into secularist ones, a Catholic vice president in Joe Biden to lock anti-Catholic morality into place through the executive branch, and a Catholic Speaker of the House in Nancy Pelosi to seal the moral revolution in the legislature, all the while receiving honors from the Catholic bishops’ most prominent university and hosannas from Catholic academics.

This unfolding and grotesque farce defies even the satirical imagination of an Evelyn Waugh. And come May 17 a new scene in it will emerge: a staged, PR-necessitated “dialogue” between Obama and Notre Dame, as if the two don’t already basically agree, as if the middle distance (supposing that Notre Dame and Obama even wanted to get there) between grave error and orthodoxy isn’t still error.

Father John Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president, scrambling for cover in the wake of the controversy, spun the honorary degree as a chance for “positive engagement.” But the only positive engagement that could come from it is the engagement of bishops at long last with Catholic higher education.

Will they let this charade continue? Or will they finally enforce Ex Corde, not just at Notre Dame but at all Catholic colleges? Divided against themselves they cannot stand.


George Neumayr is editor of Catholic World Report.


If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.