Within the Confines of the Truth: Ex Corde Ecclesiae & the Future of Catholic Higher Education

by Margo Borders


On March 18th, Chris Canniff, A&S ’14 and editor-in-chief of The Torch, gave an address to the UGBC student assembly about Catholic higher education, presenting his ideas about how to stay committed to and promote the Catholic mission on the BC campus.


Canniff began by referencing the article by Nicholas Hahn that inspired his talk. Hahn talks about Pope Francis’ recent address to the Board of Trustees at Notre Dame. This address led Hahn to conclude that something is awry in Catholic higher education in the United States and that schools need to refocus on their commitment to educating with a Catholic mission.

Canniff mentioned the controversial action of Notre Dame by hosting President Obama as their 2009 commencement speaker in light of the president’s advocacy of abortion rights. This caused a great uproar. Ironically, Notre Dame is currently pursuing legal action against the Obama administration in regards to the Health and Human Services mandate on contraception.


Canniff compares the incident at Notre Dame to difficulties Boston College has in staying committed to its Catholic identity. Last spring, Boston College invited the Taoiseach of Ireland, Enda Kenny, to be our commencement speaker and to receive an honorary doctorate. Because of his controversial advocacy for a lessening of abortion regulations, among other negative relations with the Catholic Church and Ireland, Cardinal Sean O’Malley refused to attend the commencement and give the expected blessing. Canniff argued that such a momentous occasion for Boston College in its sesquicentennial celebration should not have been marked with a contentious and controversial speaker. Although Kenny did not touch on these issues in his address, the Catholic mission of Boston College should have been evident in the person giving the final send-off to the class into the world. Instead, the person sending off the sesquicentennial class of Boston College publicly stood against that for which the Catholic Church and Boston College stands.


With these examples in mind, Canniff proceeded to provide a background of the Church’s teachings on higher education and how a Catholic university should promote the mission of the Church. Since Vatican II, the Index of Forbidden Books, which restricted the books that could be freely discussed at Catholic schools, has been abolished. Another result coming from Vatican II was the Land O’Lakes Conference. From this conference came the conclusion that the Catholic university should have “true autonomy and academic freedom” and that “the intellectual campus of a Catholic university has no boundaries and no barriers.” Canniff argues that although the document attempts to emphasize the Catholic nature of the institution, it is “naïve optimism” to believe that people will continue to act in accordance to Catholic mission once complete freedom has been given. Coming out of this conference, Jesuit colleges and universities decided to cut official ties with the Church by appointing an independent board of trustees.


Next, Canniff introduced an Apostolic Constitution, Ex corde ecclesiae, by Pope John Paul II that responded to the “decline in commitment to Catholic values on the campuses of so many Catholic universities.” Pope John Paul II emphasizes the relationship between faith and reason, and says, “being both a University and Catholic, [the university] must be both a community of scholars representing various branches of human knowledge, and an academic institution in which Catholicism is vitally present and operative.” John Paul stresses the idea that all actions of the University are to be in accord with its fundamental Catholic identity, which contradicts many ideas presented at Land O’Lakes. Canniff argued that the status quo at most Catholic universities are in accordance with the Land O’ Lakes agreement, although Ex corde ecclesiae has actual legal force within the Church.


Canniff concluded by citing the New Evangelization, which Pope Francis has aligned with in the first year of his pontificate. Canniff summarizes this vision: “to show people the joy of living life in Christ, convert their hearts and minds, and in the end, they will freely commit themselves to living the Christian gospel.” He hopes this vision can be effective in the long run at Boston College and other Catholic college campuses across the country.


“It is incumbent on each of us as part of this community to evaluate our commitment to the Catholic faith, to strive to live by it, to strive to act in accord with it, to strive to promote it, and finally to strive to build a culture here at BC that is predicated upon it,” Canniff concluded.


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