It has been almost 16 years since Pope John Paul II issued his apostolic constitution on Catholic universities, Ex Corde Ecclesiae (“From the heart of the Church”). With his approval, university officials, theologians and other Catholic educators were invited to participate in the drafting process and to offer critical comments and suggestions for improvement.
In spite of the changes that were incorporated into the final text, concerns were expressed upon release of the document that it might have the effect of encouraging interference into the internal operations of Catholic colleges and universities by external, non-academic sources, namely, the Vatican and individual diocesan bishops. If so, institutional autonomy and academic freedom would be at risk.
For the most part, those concerns have not been borne out in spite of occasional pressures, however subtly applied, in the matter of honorary degrees, the performance of certain artistic productions, and the showing of certain films.
Most of the attention at the time had been focused on the canonical mandates that were to be required of Catholic theologians teaching in these institutions. That, too, became less of an issue because of the prudent way that almost every bishop with a Catholic college or university in his diocese handled the matter.
The chief positive effect of Ex Corde Ecclesiaewas to inspire a renewed discussion of the Catholic identity and mission of Catholic institutions of higher learning, and this process continues more than a decade and a half after its promulgation in 1990. There is an ongoing effort to determine how the adjective “Catholic” modifies the noun “university,” without diminishing the institution’s commitment to either value.
An important contribution to this effort has just been published in a book co-authored by Melanie Morey, a long-time researcher and consultant in the area of Catholic higher education, and John Piderit, SJ, former president of Loyola University Chicago. Their book is entitled, Catholic Higher Education: A Culture in Crisis (Oxford University Press).
Because there is always a vigorous difference of opinion when educators attempt to describe, much less define, the Catholic culture of a university or college, the Morey-Piderit book underscores the crucial importance of role models and “dramatic exemplars” — individual leaders who have shown what Catholic character means and how it can be embodied in a university or college.
In their interviews with some 124 senior administrators, the co-authors noted how often those administrators “pointed with admiration and pride” to various members of the sponsoring religious congregation as role models for Catholic academic culture.
“Dramatic exemplars,” on the other hand, are defined as “people from the past who personify the (Catholic academic) culture in an extraordinary way.”
Not surprisingly, the one name that looms largest in this category, standing almost alone in reputation and achievement, is Father Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, who served for 35 years as president of the University of Notre Dame and as the leading figure in Catholic higher education for almost that entire period — and beyond. I say “beyond,” because after retiring from the presidency of Notre Dame, he became chair of the Board of Overseers of Harvard University and continued to fill similarly important positions in the academic and public sectors.
One president interviewed in the study put it this way: “We have to shape our own future and we have to be doing it better. I’m not doing a good enough job, nor are my peers. Perhaps some champion will come along or a couple of champions will come along — Ted Hesburghs — who can intellectualize the academy for us and champion the future of Catholic higher education.”
As in most areas of life — political, corporate, professional, organizational, academic, and religious — leadership is utterly crucial for success. In the absence of high-quality leadership, which consists of the capacity to communicate a vision and inspire people to work together for its realization, no enterprise or initiative can ultimately succeed.
Theodore Hesburgh remains a living role model and “dramatic exemplar” of what leadership means and requires, not only in Catholic higher education, but in the Church and society generally.
Father Hesburgh turned 89 on the 25th of May. Apart from failed eyesight, his mind and spirit are as sharp as ever. He remains the greatest single human asset of the university he essentially re-created and an abiding light for those institutions that hope to make their way along the path to academic greatness.
This book also illuminates the way along that path.