Posted May 18, 2009
Reflections on Catholic Universities and Ecclesial Communion
The Teaching of Christ
By Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl
Every now and then a news item surfaces about a decision by a Catholic institution that may seem at odds with its Catholic identity. Discussion that follows provides an opportunity to arrive at a better understanding of the unity of the Catholic Church and how institutions relate to the broader Church community.
Institutions that are recognized as Catholic and that exercise their ministry and activities as a part of the Church and in the name of the Church are not independent from the Church. As members of the Catholic community, they must live and act within the structure of this community. That means working in solidarity with the bishops who as the successors of the Apostles are given the responsibility for preserving the unity of the Church, and providing leadership as well as teaching and sanctifying.
Since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), there has been great development in the understanding of the relationship that the bishops have with Catholic institutions of higher learning. In 1990 Pope John Paul II issued an Apostolic Constitution, Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church). This document seeks to explain the connection between Catholic colleges and universities and the Church herself and marks significant progress in our understanding of these relationships. What is increasingly being reaffirmed is that a Catholic university is an integral part of the Church and, as a part of the Church community, looks to the bishops, particularly the local bishop, for the authentication of the school's claim to be an expression of the faith and mission of the Church.
Sometimes the bishops will make a practical judgment that a particular course of action best serves the unity and teaching of the Church. This happened in 2004 when the Bishops of the United States agreed that "the Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles" (Catholics in Political Life). While everyone may not agree with how an individual bishop applies this principle for institutions within his own diocese, it, nonetheless, is the bishop's call. Communion in and with the Church obliges its members, even in practical decisions, to support the legitimate exercise of a bishop's responsibility. Solidarity, which is a practical expression of spiritual communion, requires such support. Otherwise, the unity of the Church becomes a theoretical consideration and the role of the bishop, who has the responsibility of unifying, is diminished.
What makes the valid request of the bishops in the 2004 document all the more significant today is the context. There is a current in our society today that suggests that the bishops are just one among many voices offering legitimate direction and guidance to Catholics and the wider community in the name of the Church.
The very nature of a Catholic institution, which is part of a larger community of faith, makes it incumbent upon that institution to work out of a lived and concrete communion with its diocesan bishop whose task is to oversee all ministry in the local Church.
When an institution of higher learning or any Catholic institution - for example, health care, social service or Catholic Charities - chooses to disregard a legitimate instruction, it weakens the Church's practical communion and fails to recognize the authentic role of the leaders of the Church.
Public honors are different from the internal affairs of a university, such as the formulation of its budget, the advancement of faculty or the regulation of normal student activities. Honors are a public declaration in the name of the institution. They therefore automatically invoke the institution's self identity and very mission. Such action necessarily touches on the school's relationship to the whole Church community and its leadership.
Ex Corde Ecclesiae opened up for Catholic institutions of higher learning a pathway through all of the complexity of modern university structure and activity to begin to refocus on what it means to be an institution that is not only academically excellent and engaged in the broader culture, but one that does so specifically from its Catholic identity and heritage.
As we move into the future, renewed attention should be given by the leadership of all Catholic institutions to examine in collaboration with the shepherds of the Church how ecclesial communion is best sustained, Catholic identity manifested and practical solidarity expressed in meaningful terms.