Last month’s Vatican decree that the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru has lost the right to call itself pontifical or Catholic has resonance for Catholic colleges and universities in the United States. While Vatican representatives say they have spent years trying to persuade the University of Peru to comply with Church guidelines for Catholic universities, most American Catholic colleges and universities have devoted several decades to ignoring them.
Refusing to comply with Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church), the 1990 papal document requiring all Catholic colleges to teach “in communion” with Church doctrine, the University of Peru—like Catholic colleges here—has long claimed independence from Catholic authority. This independence was codified in a symbolic manifesto issued in 1967 at a meeting of U.S. Catholic academic leaders in Land O’ Lakes, Wisconsin, led by Notre Dame’s longtime president, the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh. What became known as the Land O’ Lakes Statement declared: “To perform its teaching and research function 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.”
Defiant from the earliest days of the release of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, many Catholic college presidents have refused to implement it. Notre Dame’s then-president Fr. Edward Malloy, along with Fr. Donald Monan, chancellor of Boston College, responded to the release of the document by publishing an article in America calling the document “positively dangerous.” Warning of “havoc” if it were adopted, the faculty senate at Notre Dame voted unanimously for the guidelines to be ignored.
The National Catholic Register has reported that the most recent Vatican concerns about the University of Peru stemmed from the granting of honorary degrees to Gianni Vattimo, a gay supporter of same-sex marriage, and to Gregorio Peces-Barba, one of the writers of the Spanish constitution whom the Register described as “anti-Catholic.” Catholic colleges in the United States have been doing this for years—most recently at Georgetown, which honored Kathleen Sebelius, the pro-choice Secretary of Health and Human Services and the creator of the controversial contraception mandate that has been denounced by bishops throughout the country because of the threat it poses to religious liberty.
For decades, many Catholic colleges and universities have operated as if Catholic doctrine were a social construct contingent on the specific historical, cultural, and institutional contexts in which it emerges. Yale sociologist Michele Dillon points out in her book Catholic Identity: Balancing Reason, Faith and Power that for progressive Catholics—like those teaching on Catholic campuses—authority is diffuse: “It is not located solely in the official hierarchical power structure, but it is dispersed, seen in the everyday interpretive activities of ordinary Catholics.”
While most Catholic colleges continue to ignore Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Pope Benedict has quietly continued his commitment to revitalizing Catholic higher education here and abroad. In a speech to Catholic college presidents at Catholic University a few years ago, Pope Benedict warned those gathered that any appeal to the principle of academic freedom to justify positions that contradict the faith and teaching of the Church betray the university’s identity and mission. Unfortunately, the subtlety was missed by many of those in attendance. The congratulatory headline in The Chronicle of Higher Education claimed that “Pope Benedict Thanks Educators and Addresses Academic Freedom in Talk.” In a published interview in The Chronicle, Mary Lyons, president of the University of San Diego, called the Pope’s speech “affirming and generous” and pronounced the controversies surrounding Ex Corde “so 90s.”
Well, maybe not. Georgetown alum William Peter Blatty, author of The Exorcist, announced in May that he is leading an effort to file a canon lawsuit against his alma mater for failing to live up to the demands of the school’s Catholic identity. Motivated by the honors given to Sebelius by Georgetown, Blatty is joined by alumni, students, and members of the university community in the lawsuit because they agree with his conclusion that “21 years of ignoring Ex Corde Ecclesiae makes a mockery of our Church and of Christ Himself.”
In an open letter explaining his decision, Blatty said that he was sad to see that “Georgetown University today almost seems to take pride in insulting the Church and offending the faithful.” Calling Georgetown a “Potemkin village” in an interview, Blatty complained that the university “points to its chaplains, its Masses, its Knights of Columbus Chapter. At alumni dinners, they will make sure there is a Jesuit in a collar at every table, like the floral arrangement.” For Blatty, Georgetown is the “leader of a pack” of schools that fail to fulfill their Catholic identity, and the lawsuit may be “the only thing that can stop Georgetown in its path.”
Blatty is right about that. The Presidents of these colleges will never implement the tenets of Ex Corde Ecclesiae unless they are forced. The goal of Blatty’s lawsuit is to revoke Georgetown’s right to call itself Catholic. The pronouncement by the Vatican that the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru is neither Catholic nor pontifical may be just the start.
Anne Hendershott is Distinguished Visiting Professor of Public Affairs at The King’s College. She is the author of Status Envy: The Politics of Catholic Higher Education.