"Only the Catholic university that conserves its identity will have a future," said the prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education just days before the 20th anniversary of John Paul II's document “Ex Corde Ecclesiae.” Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, in speaking about the continued relevance of the document on Catholic higher education, explained that if a Catholic university loses its identity, it becomes just like any other.
The Apostolic Constitution “Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” which established guidelines for the functioning of Catholic universities, was presented by Pope John Paul II 20 years ago this Sunday. Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education and prefect emeritus of the Apostolic Signatura, spoke with CNA about the importance of the document on Friday.
According to Cardinal Grocholewski, two motivations led John Paul II to write the document. The first was the "importance" that he attributed to the Catholic university, which, he said, the Pope himself explains best at the end of the document in an exhortation for Catholic witness. The second reason, the prefect pointed out, was that John Paul II believed it was necessary to create legislation outlining the nature and mission of Catholic universities, while giving them juridical norms for their creation and the composition of their faculty.
“Ex Corde Ecclesiae” has produced "great results," he said, most of all we can see this in the foundation of so many Catholic universities "with a clear disposition" since its publication in 1990.
Citing the creation of more than 250 Catholic universities during Pope John Paul II's pontificate, he said, "many of these have had a guideline from the very beginning, a clear vision of what a Catholic university should be."
This has been especially significant in African and ex-Communist countries, he explained.
"I think that many universities, also based on this document, have strengthened their identities, which is very important," he added.
Fidelity to the Magisterium
CNA asked the cardinal about certain challenges that have come up in the course of applying norms for John Paul II's ideal for the Catholic university, such as the need for a "mandatum," a statement from the local bishop that assures theologians are in communion with the Church's teachings.
The cardinal prefect said that this is a question of methodology as with any other field of study. He explained that "to be a theologian, one must believe in the Sacred Scriptures and Tradition and must be united to the Magisterium (teaching) of the Church."
"It is a rather risky assumption if a single person wishes to be more important than the Magisterium of the Church," he remarked.
When asked about the requirement for Catholic institutions of higher learning to promote their Catholic identity, even with non-Catholic faculty members, the cardinal replied that all professors have a "responsibility" in this sense to the Church, and before science and the world.
"In the Catholic university people who are not Catholic can also teach, but they are obligated to respect the Catholic identity."
Reflecting on the application of the Apostolic Constitution today, Cardinal Grocholewski said that it remains "current everywhere." He considers it to be an "stupendous" document that "gives spirit to the Catholic university."
To the cardinal, "the Catholic university that conserves its own identity, as was delineated in Ex Corde, truly has a future and will contribute to the good of society," while seeking to be an interlocutor between cultures and a force for progress.
Stressing the importance of Catholic schools retaining their roots, the cardinal said that "if the Catholic university loses its identity, it's similar to all the other universities, practically it becomes less significant and this is a big challenge, or a big problem."
He noted that his congregation has received protests from people who attended Catholic universities, who have said that the education being offered was not in line with Church teaching. They have said that if the institution does not offer a Catholic education while claiming to be Catholic, it is "hypocritical and lying."
"I think they are right," said the cardinal prefect," and the same goes for Catholic grade schools, he said.
"I think that only the Catholic university that conserves its identity will have a future."
“Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” he said, "does not demand a 'grand reform,' the document is current, it is a very realistic approach, and in itself it has a great dynamism to make the Catholic university important in today's world ... where, as we know there is a cultural and moral relativism that creates so much damage."
What is needed in the modern context of permissibility and relativity, he said, is "the Catholic university that defends the truth, the objective truth."
The Model Catholic University
There is no specific model Catholic university in the world, noted Cardinal Grocholewski. Universities should not compare themselves to each other, he also advised, "rather they should turn to the document which is fundamental for the Catholic university, which is 'Ex Corde Ecclesiae'.”
"There," he said, "the ideal of the Catholic university is outlined, and I think that studying this document is much more productive" than looking to the "diverse realities" of other universities for direction.
Asked about Pope Benedict XVI's perspective on Catholic education today, the cardinal prefect said he is "a great enthusiast of the Catholic university. He practically rejoices when he sees that the Catholic university, (as) it progresses, preserves its identity ..."
The current Pope, he said, has encouraged him to continue "to fight for the Catholic university."