Twenty years ago: Ex corde ecclesiae, a personal recollection

JPH at the College of St Francis 1990

Today is the twentieth anniversary of Ex corde ecclesiae; I remember waiting at the College of St. Francis (Joliet, Il) with anticipation for the publication of this document and I remember my disappointment in seeing it shunted aside.

In the spring of 1985 I received a call from Dr. John Orr, president of the College of St. Francis in Joliet, Illinois. He told me that he wanted to renew the Catholic identity of St. Francis. There was an opening in the department of philosophy and theology so he thought that this appointment would be a good time to begin a change. He had called a few prominent Catholics in the academic world and they all mentioned me as a person who could assist him in this project; I was just finishing my PhD at Catholic University and had spent seven years as an instructor and assistant professor at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. My wife and I were ready for a change; and the challenge of implementing the vision of Pope John Paul II for Catholic higher education appealed to me.

I took the position and within a year I was the chair of the department of philosophy and theology. In the span of two years we hired some solid young scholars to teach theology — Greg Sobolewski a new PhD from Marquette was hired first; and then, an experienced teacher from St Anselms, Dan Hauser; and finally we hired  a new convert with great zeal and learning, Scott Hahn (see Rome Sweet Home, pp. 119-120). We worked together to transform the department to become a major resource for Catholic education. Although there were others on the faculty who wanted to develop a stronger Catholic identity and mission inspired by John Paul II, we were in the minority. So I discussed with the President the possibility of hiring some people in other departments to work with us. We brought on board Phil Sutton to work in the psychology department on an interim basis. We brought in various speakers such as Helen Hull Hitchcock, Mark Miravelle, Fr Mitch Pacwa and others. Needless to say, we met with resistance from many quarters and the prospects for full blown renewal were quite dim.  After a three year struggle, in the spring of 1990 Scott Hahn accepted a position at Steubenville; my friend Phil Sutton also left for Steubenville.

The President, Dr. Orr counseled patience and spoke assuringly of the new Vatican document that would appear later in the summer. I too was hoping that Ex corde would provide us with some leverage for a greater transformation of the College. I took copies of the document to a meeting of the academic affairs committee, of which I was chair, and asked the members if they would discuss how this document may apply to our college. I was stunned to hear that a significant number simply did not want to read it or to discuss it — liberal open mindedness had its limits. I shall leave it to Scott Hahn’s prudent summary of the lesson learned: “In three years I discovered that it takes more than the sincere desire of a few members of the administration and faculty to restore the Catholic identity of a college that has traveled a long way down the road of secularization. It was a real struggle at times.” I left in 1994. I have taken up the struggle at two other Catholic institutions, but that would be a story for another day.

The promise of Ex corde still beckons those Catholic institutions willing to align themselves with Pope John Paul II’s vision for renewal. Few have seriously done so; of course, few even have the capacity to do so, given the entrenchment of the faculty, the measures of success adopted by many administrators,  and the distractions of the board of trustees. There must be a plan endorsed by the board and set up as the chief measure of success for administration. Faculty hiring and formation would be the centerpiece of the plan. In fact, Pope John Paul II said it will take “courageous creativity and rigorous fidelity” (§8) That combination is exceedingly rare.

But if anyone wishes to seek the sources of renewal, here is my brief summary of the three key points of Ex corde:

1. The bishop and the Church’s magisterium are intrinsic and essential to Catholic higher education; it is not enough to speak about the “Catholic tradition,” we must allow the apostolic faith, ecclesial faith according to Pope Benedict, to echo through the institution by means of the mandatum, the board and administration working in close cooperation with the Bishop, and the respect for Catholic faith and morals to be predominant throughout the institution. “The responsibility for maintaining and strengthening the Catholic identity of the University rests primarily with the University itself. While this responsibility is entrusted principally to university authorities (including, when the positions exist, the Chancellor and/or a Board of Trustees or equivalent body), it is shared in varying degrees by all members of the university community.” 4.1

2. A majority of the faculty, dispersed throughout all schools and departments, must be Catholic in practice and education. See article 4, no. 1: “calls for the recruitment of adequate university personnel, especially teachers and administrators, who are both willing and able to promote that identity. The identity of a Catholic University is essentially ed to the quality of its teachers and to respect for Catholic doctrine.” Who is willing and able to promote the Catholic identity? As for personal life, all must maintain communion in the church by their manner of acting including an obligation to live a holy life, (see canons 209 and 210, and particularly canon 810, found in footnote 49). The obligation to be formed beyond professional specialization is great:  “University teachers should seek to improve their competence and endeavor to set the content, objectives, methods, and results of research in an individual discipline within the framework of a coherent world vision. Christians among the teachers are called to be witnesses and educators of authentic Christian life, which evidences attained integration between faith and life, and between professional competence and Christian wisdom.” §22 

3. Students should receive an education that equips them to live as authentic witnesses in the world today. “Through research and teaching the students are educated in the various disciplines so as to become truly competent in the specific sectors in which they will devote themselves to the service of society and of the Church, but at the same time prepared to give the witness of their faith to the world.” (§20) These cannot be parallel developments but mutually informative. This requires a fairly extensive core set of courses in philosophy and theology.  John Paul references Newman and Vatican II: here is what he means by life-long learning — a “growth in its ability to wonder, to understand, to contemplate, to make personal judgments, and to develop a religious, moral, and social sense.” (§23) Again, philosophy and theology would be central to this education.

Students will be leaders when they can become “witnesses to Christ in whatever place they may exercise their profession.” (§23) From this end or outcome must educators derive the curriculum. As I have written extensively about this, I shall not elaborate. (see this article

Twenty years ago, from the heart of the Church, Pope John Paul II  laid out a vision and a program for Catholic education — it will prove pure and fruitful, meek and strong, humble and courageous, zealous and prudent, like our Lady. We need more ventures of faith like hers — “He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty.”


  1. Dr. Hittinger,

    Thanks for that walk down memory lane. Although the effort of you and the other orthodox faculty members did not result in transforming CSF, it did have a lasting impact. Dr. Timothy Gray, who attended CSF for three years before transferring to Steubenville, is the director of the Augustine Institute Graduate School of Theology in Denver. There are at least 2 priests from that time as well as several others who work for the Church. I also know that several other students who are strong, practicing Catholics today. My education at CSF helped me to endure a liberal seminary experience with a firm grounding in Philosophy and Theology. CSF had a great thing going, but not enough backbone from the administration. This priest, however, is very thankful.

    Fr. Chris Comerford
    St. Elizabeth Catholic Church
    Granite City, Illinois.

  2. Fr Chris
    Thanks for reminding me that every effort for the kingdom bears fruit — I was actually going to mention you in the blog but decided not too — so glad you commented!

  3. A slight adjustment: Hahn was hired before Hauser.

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