Ex Corde Ecclesiae ("From the Heart of the Church") is an Apostolic constitution issued by Pope John Paul II regarding Catholic colleges and universities. Issued in 1990 and intended to become effective in the academic year starting in 1991, its aim was to define and refine the Catholicism of Catholic institutions of higher education.

AJCU played a key role in the American implementation of Ex corde Ecclesiae, working closely with the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU) on its implementation at institutions across the US. AJCU was consulted on many occasions to provide guidance on how the document should be lived out at Jesuit institutions. There were particular parts of Ex corde that raised concerns, specifically the mandatum, and AJCU provided counsel to its members on these issues.
Ex corde Ecclesiae

Ex corde Ecclesiae

Discussions on just what makes a university Catholic, and how a Catholic university should relate to the Church and the local bishop started long before Ex corde Ecclesiae was issued. They date back at least to 1949, in the early days of what was to become the International Federation of Catholic Universities. These discussions continued during and after Vatican II, influenced by that Council's document, The Church in the Modern World. Discussions have intensified these past fifteen years since the publication of Ex corde. Longstanding issues include: 

  • The essential characteristics of a Catholic college or university;
  • The nature of the relationship between the Catholic colleges and universities and the Church. Does the relationship have to be a juridical one?
  • The need in the contemporary Catholic university for institutional autonomy and academic freedom, while at the same time taking effective steps to assure that Catholic identity is "perceptively present and effectively operative." (See Land O'Lakes statement , 1967.)

The basic document, Ex corde Ecclesiae itself, appeared in 1990 after many years of drafts and international discussions. In 1996, a regional implementation document was worked out for the United States through a constructive dialogue involving bishops, presidents, theologians and trustees. The bishops voted in favor of the document 224-6, but Vatican officials returned that draft for recasting in a more juridical form, including specific instructions on the mandatum required of theologians in the 1983 version of Canon Law. (See below.)

The bishops spent two years developing such a document, and, despite strong representations of concern from most of Catholic higher education, they passed a fourth draft of implementation norms by a vote of 223-31 in 1999. [An important factor in the dramatic change in vote was the inclusion of an amendment to allow at least a year for further discussions with presidents and theologians before actual implementation took effect. This period was intended for bishops, presidents and theologians to resolve the ambiguities and difficulties with the implementation norms.]

The Vatican approved this draft of implementation norms in the spring of 2000, and it became The Application of Ex corde Ecclesiae for the United States. A committee of five bishops and four presidents-consultants then developed guidelines for implementing one particular norm, the mandatum for theologians, presuming that there was enough flexibility to deal with the other requirements, including the neuralgic issues of a majority of Catholics on the Board and on the faculty, and an oath of fidelity for new presidents.

The guidelines for implementing Ex corde went into effect on May 3, 2001, with theologians required to obtain a mandatum from the local bishop by June 1, 2002. Five years after the effective date, (i.e., 2006), the guidelines were to be reviewed. A new Bishops-Presidents Committee has been appointed with a charge to follow the implementation of ECE. The committee has been preparing a process for that review.

The Mandatum

The focus for much of the discussions with bishops has been on the mandatum required of theologians. The mandatum is defined in the Application and in the Guidelines:

The mandatum is fundamentally an acknowledgement by church authority that a Catholic professor of a theological discipline is teaching within the full communion of the Catholic Church.(Application: Article 4, 4, e, I)

The object of the mandatum is the content of the professor's teaching, and thus the mandatum recognizes the professor's "lawful freedom of inquiry" (Application: Article 2, 2) and the professor's commitment and responsibility to teach authentic Catholic doctrine and to refrain from putting forth as Catholic teaching anything contrary to the Church's magisterium.(Application: Article 4, 4, e, iii)

The mandatum is required of all Catholics who teach Catholic theological disciplines in a Catholic university. It is an obligation of the professor, not of the university. Discussions among the bishops have emphasized that it does not impact on the hiring, retention or promotion of professors, and that there is no mechanism of enforcement by the bishop. Like other Canon Law requirements, it is a matter of conscience.

It is recognized that Catholic theologians teaching courses in Catholic theology should teach the Church's position accurately, but there are ambiguities about the meaning of a mandatum and how it would be given and taken away. Of major concern is how it could violate commonly understood academic freedom and how it could marginalize the theologian and theology within the academic community. Those arguing for a more strict interpretation of the mandatum insist that it is a matter of "truth in advertising," i.e., parents and students should know if in fact "Catholic" theology is being taught. Complicating things are the different interpretations of what is "the Catholic" position.

The Guidelines (2001) offer suggestions for requesting and conferring a mandatum, and incorporate suggestions for due process when the mandatum is not granted or is withdrawn. Mindful of the fact that many theologians still find the mandatum to be a problem, the bishops stress the need to "further converse and build a community of trust and dialogue between bishops and theologians. Without ongoing and respectful communication, the implementation of the mandatum might appear to be only a juridical constriction of the work of theologians."

As if anticipating what has occurred in some instances, Bishop Joseph Fiorenza, president of the Bishops Conference at the time of the approval of the document on the mandatum, warned against using the mandatum to bring "dangerous" and "harmful" accusations against theologians in violation of Christian charity. Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk also warned against misuse of the mandatum as a tool to rate the orthodoxy or catholicity of theologians or Catholic education institutions.

Ex corde discussions have had their ups and downs, but there have been more conversations among bishops, theologians and presidents than perhaps ever before. With the Application and Guidelines for the mandatum now in place, we can hope that the "community of trust and dialogue," cited in the documents will characterize ongoing communication between bishops and theologians, and between bishops and Catholic colleges and universities. It is essential that the mutual responsibilities of bishops, theologians and universities be understood and respected.

In most cases, the issue of the mandatum has been dealt with quietly and peacefully, despite the efforts of some to force public disclosure about what is a private obligation of the individual theologian. Most bishops have refused such disclosure.

The Larger Picture

Despite the perhaps exaggerated focus on the mandatum, Catholic colleges and universities are working hard to realize the magnanimous vision of the basic document, Ex corde Ecclesiae, in which the Catholic university is seen as expressing the richness of the Catholic intellectual tradition in a multicultural and ecumenical context, and as being the dynamic link between Church and culture, Gospel and world.

Ex corde lists as the essential characteristics of "every Catholic university as Catholic":

1. A Christian inspiration not only of individuals but of the university community as such;
2. A continuing reflection in the light of the Catholic faith upon the growing treasury of human knowledge, to which it seeks to contribute by its own research;
3. Fidelity to the Christian message as it comes to us through the Church;
4. An institutional commitment to the service of the people of God and of the human family in their pilgrimage to the transcendent goal which gives meaning to life."

There will be and are honest differences of opinion on how each of these characteristics is or is not found on a Catholic campus, and therefore whether or not a particular college or university is "Catholic" or operates in fidelity to its Catholic identity in this or that situation. 

Ex corde Ecclesiae has had the very positive result of encouraging the many ways in which Catholic college and universities foster their Catholic identity and mission, e.g., through Catholic Studies programs and other ways to keep alive the Catholic intellectual tradition, effective campus ministry programs, strong theology departments and a range of orientation and educational programs for trustees, faculty and staff.


1949 - Conversations begin to take place about what makes a university Catholic; discussions between the Vatican Congregation on Catholic Education and the incipient International Federation of Catholic Universities (IFCU).

1990 - Ex corde Ecclesiae - Apostolic Constitution, meaning "from the heart of the Church," is issued by Pope John Paul II. 

1996 - A dialogue involving bishops, presidents, theologians and trustees resulted in a consensus position on implementation norms approved overwhelmingly by the U.S. bishops.  However, Vatican officials returned that draft in favor of a more juridical version, particularly with regard to the mandate (now mandatum) for theologians.

1998 - The U.S. bishops pass a fourth draft of implementation norms more acceptable to the Vatican. See the Application with its amendment allowing at least a year for more discussions with presidents and theologians to work out ambiguities and difficulties, before actual implementation occurred. 

1999 - Implementation Norms approved by the Vatican in the spring and published as the Application of Ex corde Ecclesiae for the United States. Committee of five bishops and four presidents-consultants is appointed to develop guidelines for the mandatum for theologians. 

2001 - The Application (and thus Ex corde) takes effect May 3. In July, bishops issue Guidelines Concerning the Academic Mandatum. First implementation date for the mandatum is June, 2002.

2005-06 - A five-year review of the implementation of Ex corde is being coordinated by the Bishops/Presidents Committee, a subcommittee of the Bishops Committee on Education.

An update on the dialogue surrounding Ex corde Ecclesiae can be found here.

Quote of the week

“As a product of Catholic schools, continuing my education at a Jesuit institution was a logical part of my journey. The emphasis on using your talents and skills to improve the lives and conditions of others, rather than focusing on personal enrichment, resonated deeply with me. I truly believe that living my life in service of others - both personally and professionally - has allowed me to thrive in unimaginable ways.”
Major General Marcia Anderson, Creighton University '79

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