Encouraging Catholic universities and other institutions to act within the structure of the Church, Archbishop of Washington, D.C. Donald W. Wuerl has warned that those institutions which ignore legitimate instructions from the bishops weaken the Church’s "practical communion."
Writing in a Tuesday column in the Catholic Standard, Archbishop Wuerl noted periodic media reports about Catholic institutions apparently behaving at odds with their Catholic identity. He said the incidents often prompt discussion about the unity of the Catholic Church and how Catholic institutions relate to the broader Church.
"Institutions that are recognized as Catholic and that exercise their ministry and activities as a part of the Church and in the name of the Church are not independent from the Church," he said. Such institutions must "live and act" within the structure of the Church, working "in solidarity" with the bishops who are responsible for preserving the unity of the Church.
He noted that contemporary Catholic thought, following Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Constitution "Ex Corde Ecclesiae," increasingly reaffirms the Catholic university as an "integral part" of the Church. The Catholic university must look to the bishops, especially the local bishop, to authenticate its claim to be "an expression of the faith and mission of the Church."
Archbishop Wuerl characterized the U.S. bishops’ 2004 document "Catholics in Political Life" as a "practical judgment" about the path that best serves the unity and teaching of the Church, with the local bishop being responsible for its application.
Though some disagree with a bishop’s application, Archbishop Wuerl said, "Communion in and with the Church obliges its members, even in practical decisions, to support the legitimate exercise of a bishop's responsibility… Otherwise, the unity of the Church becomes a theoretical consideration and the role of the bishop, who has the responsibility of unifying, is diminished."
The archbishop cited the directive of "Catholics in Political Life" that Catholic institutions should not honor those "who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles."
Though Archbishop Wuerl did not explicitly mention the controversy over Notre Dame’s invitation to President Obama, the passage he quoted has been frequently cited in the debate.
Bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend John D’Arcy cited the same passage in a letter to Notre Dame’s president, saying he should have been consulted about the school’s invitation to and honoring of the U.S. president who supports permissive abortion policies.
Archbishop Wuerl said the bishops’ document was "all the more significant" because of a contemporary mindset that suggests the bishops are "just one among many voices" offering direction and guidance to Catholics and the wider community "in the name of the Church."
When any Catholic institution chooses to disregard a legitimate instruction, the archbishop explained, "it weakens the Church's practical communion and fails to recognize the authentic role of the leaders of the Church."
"Public honors are different from the internal affairs of a university, such as the formulation of its budget, the advancement of faculty or the regulation of normal student activities," he continued. "Honors are a public declaration in the name of the institution. They therefore automatically invoke the institution's self identity and very mission. Such action necessarily touches on the school's relationship to the whole Church community and its leadership."
John Paul II’s "Ex Corde Ecclesiae," the archbishop said, helps to refocus on what it means to be an institution not only academically excellent and culturally engaged, but also one that is active specifically from its Catholic identity and heritage.
Archbishop Wuerl closed his column with a call for renewed attention to how institutions may meaningfully express their ecclesial communion, Catholic identity and "practical solidarity" with the bishops.