Ex Corde Ecclesiae Still Matters

Progressive Catholics would try and convince Catholics that Ex Corde Ecclesiae is obsolete. Don't be fooled.

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Despite the celebratory headline in National Catholic Reporter proclaiming that “Pope Francis Has Changed the Mission for Catholic Colleges and Universities,” faithful Catholics should reject the misplaced triumphalism promoted by progressive professors that Catholic colleges should give up their primary mission to save souls.

Pope Francis has not changed the evangelizing mission of Catholic colleges and universities. In fact, Pope Francis has been devoted to encouraging Catholic colleges and universities to expand on that mission by reaching out beyond the university walls to invite others “to be an expression of the love that inspires every activity of the church, namely, God’s love for the human person.”

In his latest address to the International Federation of Catholic Universities, given last month, Pope Francis called Ex Corde Ecclesiae “the Magna Carta of Catholic Universities.” This choice of words for St. John Paul II’s 1990 apostolic constitution providing general norms for Catholic universities is important and indicates that Pope Francis has no interest in changing this mission through this important charter.

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Far from changing the mission, Vatican News reported that in his brief address to the Federation of more than 225 Catholic universities and institutes of higher education, Pope Francis drew their attention to Ex Corde Ecclesiae and how its title, “from the heart of the Church,” must inspire educators on Catholic campuses to “make choices that reflect the Gospel.”

In some ways, it is understandable that a progressive publication like National Catholic Reporter would try and convince Catholics that Ex Corde Ecclesiae is obsolete. Progressive professors have rejected the papal document since its release in 1990—seeing it as a threat to their academic freedom to teach about issues that are in direct contradiction to the Gospel. While many progressive professors teaching on Catholic campuses would likely prefer to be released from the norms of faithfulness to Catholic teaching on life issues and the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman, Pope Francis is not about to give them that permission. 

And although many faithful Catholics have been critical of some of the recent decisions Pope Francis has made to restrict the Latin Mass and endorse blessings for same-sex couples, we cannot blame the pope for the secularization that has occurred on the majority of the more than 220 Catholic campuses in the United States. That secularization began more than 50 years ago. 

Pope Francis had nothing to do with Notre Dame’s late president Theodore M. Hesburgh’s decision to gather a small group of Catholic academic leaders—including ten Jesuit priests— at a Conference on July 20, 1967, in Land O’Lakes, Wisconsin, to declare that their universities were independent from Church authority. 

Pope Francis had nothing to do with the decision by many Catholic colleges and universities to revise their mission statements by deleting any reference to their Catholic identities and mission. In 2014, an Atlantic article examined what it called the “rebranding campaigns” of several Jesuit universities that “shifted marketing strategies to appear more inclusive.” Rockhurst University in Missouri removed the word “Jesuit” from the university tagline; Regis University in Denver launched a new brand campaign deleting both “Jesuit” and “Catholic” in the school’s description. Thayne McCulloh, president of Gonzaga University, described a “tension between desire to be strongly identified as Jesuit and Catholic and the desire to respond effectively to the call to be a contemporary, competent university in North America.” A Development Officer for Regis University admitted to the Atlantic reporter that “We hide the word ‘Catholic’…We focus on the Jesuit piece rather than the Catholic piece.”

And Pope Francis had nothing to do with the decision by students, faculty, and the president of Villanova University—the academic home of Theology Professor Massimo Faggioli, the author of the article proclaiming that Pope Francis is changing the mission of Catholic colleges—to post a “Prayer for all Marriages” on the Villanova website which includes a prayer for same-sex marriages/couples who are denied recognition by the Church. Even Villanova’s president wrote an open letter to the LGBTQ+ community on campus to criticize the Vatican for making students wonder “whether their place on campus is safe and secure.” 

Counter to the Gospel—and the norms of Ex Corde Ecclesiae—some within the Villanova community appear to embrace a pro-abortion culture. Last February, The Villanovan, the campus student newspaper, described campus reactions to the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade. It published excerpts from interviews with those pro-abortion Villanova students and faculty who decried the decision that has already saved thousands of unborn lives. Rather than supporting the life-saving Dobbs decision on the Villanova campus, the article focused on the “violation of women’s rights” and gave no space to the pro-life voices on campus. Counter to the Gospel—and the norms of Ex Corde Ecclesiae—some within the Villanova community appear to embrace a pro-abortion culture.Tweet This

For example, Villanova Professor of English Alice Dailey strongly denounced the pro-life decision, saying that she was “absolutely outraged and appalled…I was devastated, and a lot of women were and still are devastated. Women’s bodies belong to women, not anyone else.” 

Likewise, Isabella Balian, class of 2025, told interviewers that “It feels as if America is regressing in terms of human rights, and women’s rights specifically. As a strong supporter of women’s rights and the right to bodily autonomy, my peers and I were extremely disappointed.” And Hannah Bisson, Villanova class of 2024, said that she “felt horrified when she discovered Roe v. Wade had been overturned. She strongly believes in the need for women to choose what they do with their bodies.”   

Despite Professor Faggioli’s insistence that Pope Francis has changed the mission of faithfulness to the Gospel, it is clear that Pope Francis would certainly not support such anti-life statements from faculty like Professor Dailey on a Catholic campus. Pope Francis has strongly condemned abortion—making several statements throughout his papacy, including his statement in 2015 that “care for creation is incompatible with the justification of abortion.” 

He has also said that “abortion is a violation of the Hippocratic Oath,” that abortion “is like hiring a hitman,” and that abortion is “what the Nazis did.” In a speech to the United Nations, Pope Francis told the Assembly: 

It is troubling to see how simple and convenient it has become for some to deny the existence of a human life as a solution to problems that can and must be solved for both the mother and her unborn child.

When asked about whether Communion should be withheld from pro-abortion politicians like President Biden, Pope Francis responded that “Abortion is more than an issue. Abortion is murder.” And although Pope Francis urged priests to be pastoral rather than political when faced with the question of who can receive Communion, he has said on many occasions that the Catholic Church is firm in its stance on abortion because “abortion is murder.” 

None of this is included in Professor Faggioli’s essay on how Pope Francis is changing the mission of Catholic higher education. But, then again, Professor Faggioli is often selective in how he views the subjects of his scholarship. Author of the book Joe Biden and Catholicism in the United States, Professor Faggioli’s hagiography praised Biden’s Catholic commitment to social justice and concluded that “Biden is a son of the people of God…whose faith is a credible Catholicism because it is more lived than proclaimed.” Claiming that President Biden is a “sincerely practicing Catholic,” Faggioli tries to convince readers of his book that Biden should be lauded for his “compassionate and humble truth telling.”

It is clear that Faggioli—like most progressive professors—wants Pope Francis to give them the freedom to choose which Catholic teachings they will support on their Catholic campuses and which they will ignore. The fact that Faggioli never even mentions Ex Corde Ecclesiae in his long essay claiming that Pope Francis is changing the mission of Catholic higher education reveals much more about Faggioli’s secular goals than any papal change in the true mission of Catholic colleges and universities.   


  • Anne Hendershott

    Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, OH. She is the author of The Politics of Envy (Crisis Publications, 2020).

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