13 September, 2010

Can the Lutherans Pull off an Ex Corde Renewal?

Ex corde ecclesiae, John Paul II's Apostolic constitution requesting (or requiring, depending upon your read of the document) greater faithfulness to Catholic teaching in Catholic colleges and universities, has just reached its milestone 20th anniversary. In "Catholic Colleges 20 Years after Ex Corde" in the Chronicle of Higher Education, David House marks the anniversary with a retrospective look at what the papal message has, or hasn't, achieved in Roman Catholic higher education in the United States. Among the positive results, he notes that:

[Roman Catholic] colleges are beginning to recognize that emulating secular institutions might be worthwhile in some instances, but not at the expense of what makes them truly Catholic and, therefore, distinctive.... The importance of theology and philosophy, undergraduate core curricula, and how graduates of Catholic colleges should be distinguishable from those of secular institutions has emerged because of Ex corde. [italics added]

House points out that in the U.S. context in which the Land O'Lakes Statement of 1967 was expressive of the going paradigm in the heady years of and after Vatican II, Ex corde faced some stiff opposition--a corrosive opposition to the Catholic way, a critical rather than a fostering stance.

Heirs of the Wittenberg Reformation might learn a thing or two from Ex corde's success. First, a retrenchment is possible. The Wittenberg way need not be a relic, a something that, à Hegel, has led to another, quite different something. Second, a broad consensus (by which I don't intend to say the creation of a big-umbrella consensus that means nothing) among Lutheran colleges about what is at the heart of Lutheran higher education, and a consistent application of that across the range institutional functions can, in the long run, show some positive gains. But this requires fearless leaders at all levels. Third, the founding of some centers or even entire institutions that can show the way has a leavening affect. Today, "Catholic higher education" is not defined by Georgetown, but by Ave Maria or Belmont Abbey College or Franciscan University of Steubenville. Such colleges and universities stand as a constant reminder to their accommodationist peers that faithfulness to Church teaching and intellectual responsibility not only are not at odds, but may even--and, in fact, must--work in tandem in pursuit of a unique vibrance of faith and learning.

Herman Preus is noted to have said once that the colleges of the Evangelical Lutheran Church won't be steered wrong unless the congregations want it that way. In other words, the health or sickness of the colleges is a symptom, not a cause, of the health or sickness of the congregations. Melanchthon made the opposite case: if you want to ruin the Church, ruin the institutions of higher education. The truth is probably more complicated than either man might have imagined. But it is clear that the two are interrelated--and that the Church of the Augsburg Confession, whether because it is healthy or because it wants to be healthy, requires a distinctively Lutheran higher education of the highest quality. The question is whether we have the will to do it.

[Pictured above: Lutherstadt Wittenberg, market square.]

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