Canon Law

Ex Corde Ecclesiae: A Brief Look At Its Canonical Implications

by Pete Vere

Since Pope John Paul II promulgated his constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae back in August of 1990, the Church has witnessed all sorts of debate concerning this document. In spite of the fact its eighth article clearly stated "the present constitution will come into effect on the first day to the academic year 1991," after ten years controversy still rages over the canonical scope of Ex Corde Ecclesiae's promulgation.

The Scope Of The Document

One issue that immediately comes to the fore is whether this apostolic constitution applies to all Catholic universities. For those wondering about this issue, a brief look at the first article promulgated within the second part of the document is in order.

"Article 1. 1. These general norms are based on, and are a further development of, the Code of Canon Law and the complementary Church legislation, without prejudice to the right of the Holy See to intervene should this become necessary. They are valid for all Catholic universities and other Catholic institutes of higher studies throughout the world."

In short, the legislation contained within Ex Corde Ecclesiae builds upon the Code of Canon Law as well as other complementary Church legislation concerning Catholic universities. As such, Ex Corde Ecclesiae applies to all Catholic universities situated throughout the world. One should keep in mind the distinction between a Catholic university, which offers academic programs in various disciplines, and a pontifical university, which offers ecclesiastical degrees in the sacred sciences. The latter come under separate legislation, whereas the legislation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae applies to the former.

The Nature And Identity Of Catholic Universities

A second issue aptly addressed by Ex Corde Ecclesiae is the nature and identity of Catholic universities. With regards to the nature of Catholic universities, the document states rather succinctly:

In other words, a Catholic university must be consistently Catholic in upholding Catholic ideals, principles, and attitudes within all aspects of its institutional life. Our Lord is not simply to be banished to Sunday chapel and the theology department, but rather His divine guidance is to be sought in all matters concerning the Catholic university's existence. To facilitate this mission, the Catholic identity of a university is to be made publicly known as follows:

Simply put, this article restates two principles which at one time would never be questioned; first, every Catholic university is to publicly make known its Catholic identity; and second, a Catholic university is to safeguard within its institutional structures means for preserving and promoting its Catholic identity.

Adherence To The Church's Magisterial Teaching

Continuing where the previous article left off, Ex Corde Ecclesiae expands upon the preservation of Catholic identity by legislating fidelity to Catholic morals and doctrine. As one can see from the following norm, within the university setting the obligation to remain faithful to, or to at least respect, the Church's teaching Magisterium applies to all teachers within a Catholic university, regardless of the subject or discipline which they happen to teach:

Nevertheless, while the above obligation applies to all faculty within a Catholic university, a particular obligation to remain faithful to Scripture and Tradition as mediated by the Church falls upon those entrusted with teaching theology. For this is the mandate theologians have received from the Catholic Church, and in accordance with canon 217 of the Code the Catholic faithful have "the right to a Christian education, which genuinely teaches them to strive for the maturity of the human person and at the same time to know and live the mystery of salvation."

Preservation Of Communion And Evangelization

Upholding the right of the Christian faithful to receive a Catholic education, Ex Corde Ecclesiae obliges Catholic universities to always maintain communion with the universal Church and the Holy See, as well as the local Church and the diocesan bishop. This obligation is clearly stated in the following manner:

For by fostering communion with the universal Church as well as the local bishop, not only will a Catholic university impart intellectual truth to Catholic students in fulfillment of their right to receive a Christian education, but a great contribution to the Church's work of evangelization also comes about. After all, a student who graduates with a sound intellectual formation in the Church's magisterial teaching is well prepared to maintain, promote, and defend the Church's Gospel of Life in today's secular culture of death.

Abolition Of Contrary Laws

A final issue regarding Ex Corde Ecclesiae concerns those Catholic universities, which, because of some special historical consideration, maintain that this apostolic constitution does not apply to their specific institution. One should note such considerations were foreseen by His Holiness John Paul II in promulgating Ex Corde Ecclesiae, who addressed these considerations in the 11th article of the apostolic constitution by stating:

In short, previous legislation governing Catholic universities which contradicts the norms legislated in Ex Corde Ecclesiae are now canonically suppressed by the Church. Therefore the conclusion of this apostolic constitution's canonical legislation matches its introduction, in that Ex Corde Ecclesiae applies to all Catholic universities.

Pete Vere
The Catholic Legate
January 12, 2004


This article originally appeared in The Wanderer.