The Incomplete Picture of Ex Corde Ecclesiae

Last May we celebrated the centennial of the birth of Saint Pope John Paul II and recently (on August 15th), those of us interested in Catholic education and intellectual life marked the thirtieth anniversary of his Apostolic Constitution, Ex corde Ecclesiae: On Catholic Universities. Though written towards the end of his time as pope, John Paul II made clear that Ex corde Ecclesiae contained “ideas and sentiments” close to his heart from “the beginning of this pontificate,” specifying four prerequisites for any university to be authentically 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 from 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.

After its publication, Ex corde Ecclesiae was both praised and criticized in many quarters. The thorniest of the four criteria has been the second, John Paul II’s call for the entire university to reflect upon the “growing treasury of human knowledge” within the “light of the Catholic faith” and contribute to that treasury “by its own research.” As noble and important as this criterion may be, the realization of it is certainly problematic, especially the question of the independence of scholarly research in pursuit of that knowledge. Since the publication of Ex corde Ecclesiae, everyone recognized that there might well be tension between privileging faithful Catholicism across a university faculty and maintaining the highest standards of excellence in research and teaching. As a consequence, Catholic scholars worried, and with good reason, about the potential dangers to academic freedom. As the theologian, Joseph Komonchak, succinctly puts it:

To preserve the integrity of faith there is the requirement that Catholic theologians have a mandate from ecclesiastical authority, but to preserve the exigencies of reason, there is only the affirmation, in principle, of institutional autonomy and of academic freedom; no institutional safeguards of these are indicated.[1]

The second and related practical difficulty is the question of who decides what is faithfully Catholic research and teaching and what is not. Although no one would question the episcopal duty to safeguard Church doctrine, just about everyone realized that the oversight role John Paul II envisioned for bishops would be problematic in a university context, since few bishops in our day have the kind of scholarly training and expertise necessary to fulfil that role in a university setting, and even fewer universities have a governing structure that would allow for their input.[2]

The problem, therefore, with JPII’s second tenet, so central to his idea of a Catholic university, is not the ideal itself, which is as beautiful as it is laudable. Rather, the problem lies with the actualization of his ideal. Yet there are good reasons now, three decades later, to revisit that ideal and consider whether it is merely wishful thinking or might in fact be realized. The question of the fraught future of Catholic universities, both in the United States and abroad, is just as pressing as it was during the pope’s lifetime, and further complicated by the forecasts of a decreasing demand for colleges, especially, small private colleges, amid the massive upheaval in education brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In light of these exigencies, it seems worthwhile to consider anew Ex Corde’s vision of the Catholic university in two ways: first by revisiting the insights of John Tracy Ellis, the eminent historian of the American Church, whose seminal essay published 35 years prior to Ex corde Ecclesiae takes a hard look at all the reasons why establishing a Catholic university of surpassing excellence is so difficult, at least in this country, and, second, by reflecting upon those insights in light of what is arguably the most searching critique of Ex corde Ecclesiae, by another eminent Church historian, John O’Malley, who calls into question JPII’s appeal to the medieval university as the basis and model for a Catholic university.

Catholic Intellectual Life and Catholic Universities in the United States

Anyone interested in Catholic intellectual life in the United States would do well to read the essay written in 1955 by the distinguished historian of the American Church, John Tracy Ellis, entitled “American Catholics and the Intellectual Life.” Originally published by Fordham University Press, Ellis’s article is a tour de force examination of the roots and future of the Catholic intellectual tradition in the United States.[3] Though written before the Second Vatican Council, which changed the course of Catholicism, intellectual life included, the essay’s insights and observations remain startlingly relevant.

Ellis describes in detail an anti-intellectualism within the United States in general and among Catholics in particular, making the case that “the position of the Catholic intellectual in the United States is not basically different from that of his non-Catholic colleagues.”[4] Ellis provides a clear-eyed look at the causes of this anti-intellectualism but also a lament at what the Catholic university could and should be. Indeed the essay reads like a poignant response to Professor Denis W. Borgan, a political scientist at Cambridge, who stated in 1941 that “in no Western society is the intellectual prestige of Catholicism lower than in the country where, in such respects as wealth, numbers, and strength of organization, it is so powerful.”[5]

While the scope of Ellis’s essay and the discussion it generated reaches well beyond the intent of this essay, it is helpful to consider Ellis’s six principal assertions and his two final critiques, in the context of the vision put forth by JPII’s Ex corde Ecclesiae. The first is Ellis’s assertion that “the American intellectual climate has been aloof and unfriendly to Catholic thought and ideas, when it has not been openly hostile.”[6] His second point is the fact that so many American Catholics were immigrants, and the Church’s attention was directed towards their needs. Ellis points out that, prior to the 1920s, when “Congress locked the doors upon all but a small proportion of the immigrants who sought these shores, the Catholic Church was faced with the staggering task of absorbing an estimated 9,317,000 immigrants of its faith.”[7] As Ellis notes, for the vast majority of such American Catholics trying to escape poverty and gain an economic foothold in this country left very little room for intellectual pursuits.

Ellis underscores his third point, that, in general, Americans, a practical and egalitarian people, undervalue scholars and scholarship, by contrasting the heroic accomplishment of restarting in Belgium the Catholic University of Louvain in 1834 with the situation facing Catholic universities here.[8] He fourth cites “the absence of an intellectual tradition among American Catholics,”[9] based in good part on his fifth observation, that American Catholics, just like Americans in general, focus their efforts on business, devoting their energies to making money.[10] Ellis’s sixth and last point cites “the failure of Catholics in posts of leadership, both clerical and lay, to understand fully, or to appreciate in a practical way, the value of the vocation of the intellectual.”[11] As regards laypersons, while bemoaning the relative impoverishment of his own institution, the Catholic University of America, Ellis notes with approval the generosity of lay endowments of other Catholic institutions of higher education in this country.[12] With regard to bishops and clergy in this country, Ellis emphasizes and provides strong supporting evidence for the fact that almost all are administrators rather than intellectuals.[13]

The main point to be gathered for our purposes is Ellis’s insistence that American Catholic culture reflects the culture of American society in general, and while each of the individual points he made has provided a valuable catalyst for constructive debate, it would be hard to argue against that main thesis. It is Ellis’s two final assertions, however, that bear especially on any consideration of Ex corde Ecclesiae in this country. Thus, Ellis first argues as follows: “Part of the reason why American Catholics have not made a notable impression on the intellectual life of their country is due, I am convinced, to what might be called a betrayal of that which is peculiarly their own.”[14]

Citing as his example the revival of scholastic philosophy that was then underway, Ellis charges that American Catholics largely ignored their own intellectual tradition “in their mad pursuit of every passing fancy that crossed the American intellectual scene.”[15] In support of his assertion, Ellis cites one-time University of Chicago president Robert Hutchins, who in 1937 criticized American Catholic universities for “failing to emphasize” their own tradition, “the longest intellectual tradition of any institution in the contemporary world.”[16]

Lest one dismiss all of this as no longer relevant, it is important to recognize that it was here that Ellis comes to the very core of his critique, namely the importance of maintaining the highest possible standards, for he also quotes Hutchins’s statement addressed to Catholic universities: “you have imitated the worst features of secular education and ignored most of the good ones . . . high academic standards, development of habits of work, research.”[17] Ellis’s second and final criticism is, if anything, even more damning:

A second major defect in Catholic higher education that helps to account for its paucity of scholars of distinction, is what I would call our betrayal of one another. By that I mean the development within the last two decades of numerous and competing graduate schools, none of which is adequately endowed . . . The result is a perpetuation of mediocrity and the draining away from each other of the strength that is necessary if really superior achievements are to be attained.[18]

Here Ellis makes clear that he is speaking only about Catholic graduate schools and not about the competition between the more than 200 Catholic undergraduate institutions in the United States.

As we ponder the second of John Paul II’s four salient hallmarks of the authentically-Catholic university (“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”), Ellis’s main points–Catholic higher education in the United States, as elsewhere, reflects the values of the broader culture; Catholic universities in the United States imitate their secular counterparts to the detriment of the Catholic intellectual tradition; and last but by no means least, real intellectual excellence is not possible where available Catholic resources are so widely dispersed—need to be kept firmly in mind, unless we want to dismiss altogether John Paul II’s ideals as impossible dreams in the American context.

Ellis’s critique is so thorough and daunting that one wonders whether establishing an elite Catholic University in the United States would even be possible. Yet John Paul II’s confidence in Ex corde Ecclesiae is hard to ignore, as is his choice of the model for his “authentically-Catholic university,” namely the medieval university. To see whether that model might actually work in the contemporary context, I turned to the critique of Ex corde Ecclesiae of another eminent Church Historian, John O’Malley.

A Searching Critique: The Medieval University and the Catholic University of Today

In an essay published in America in 2012, O’Malley calls into question John Paul II’s historical claim, made in the opening words of Ex corde Ecclesiae, about the university: “Born from the heart of the Church, a Catholic University is located in that course of tradition which may be traced back to the very origin of the University as an institution.” According to O’Malley, while attributes of our contemporary universities are derived from the medieval model, even that model does not meet John Paul II’s criteria. To this end, O’Malley sets down a list of practices and institutions inherited from the medieval university:

Medieval universities, although they differed among themselves in significant ways, all quickly developed highly sophisticated procedures and organizational strategies that we recognize as our own today. The list is long: set curricula, examinations, professorial privileges and duties, a full array of officers of various kinds, division into different “faculties” (we call them schools), and the public certification of professional competence through the awarding of degrees.

The invention of degrees was particularly important. A man could practice medicine without a university degree (and the vast majority of doctors did so), but with a degree he enjoyed greater prestige and could exact higher fees. He was a professional with documentation to prove he had passed the scrutiny of his peers. A university degree spelled upward socioeconomic mobility, whether in the Church or in society at large.[19]

O’Malley rightly highlights the fact that the graduate faculties, of law, medicine, and theology were professional faculties, independent of one another and of the Arts faculty that trained all students prior to any and all such professional education. This is where O’Malley sees a serious discrepancy between the late pope’s Catholic university and its medieval predecessor:

But would medieval universities satisfy the norms held up today to qualify as “authentically Catholic”? A composite profile of such norms drawn from such documents as “Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” would look something like this: The university explicitly professes the Catholic faith, is unquestioning of the magisterium, installs theology as a core subject, contributes to “the common good” of the church and of society at large and professedly fosters the students’ moral and religious formation as well as their commitment to the church. A Catholic university is a religious university. [20]

O’Malley also calls into question the very heart of the ideals set forth in Ex corde Ecclesiae:

Were medieval universities Catholic universities? It is a question easier to ask than to answer. One thing, however, is certain: the contemporary grid for an “authentically Catholic” university does not neatly fit the medieval reality. There are even grounds for asserting that in their core values, medieval universities more closely resemble the contemporary secular university than they do today’s Catholic model. If we are looking for historical precedents for that model, we do not find them clearly in the Middle Ages.

This is a serious charge, for if true it would rob the Apostolic Constitution of its very basis, namely the historical assertion that the medieval university was in fact born of the Church. It turns out that O’Malley is both right and wrong. He is mistaken, innocently so, about the historical question, but largely right that JPII’s comparison is anachronistic and hardly a straightforward blueprint for any kind of authentically-Catholic university. For this reason, his critique, like Ellis’s critique of American intellectual life, is worth exploring in more detail. I will first address the historical misunderstanding and then consider the more substantive aspects of his critique.

The Historical Question: Was the Medieval University Born of the Church?

What force does O’Malley’s historical critique have? In logical terms, O’Malley calls into question John Paul II’s assertion that the university was born from the Church for assuming what needs to be proven, namely that the medieval university did in fact arise from the heart of the Church. In fairness to O’Malley, his point was well-made when he made it, since the evidence needed to judge the pope’s assertion was until very recently unavailable. Indeed, scholars had almost no evidence for the transition that occurred during the second half of the twelfth century between the schools of Paris and the University that they turned into at the close of that century.

Our understanding of that situation, however, has now changed and radically so owing to manuscript discoveries made during the past five years in cathedral libraries around England. It turns out that Anglo-Norman bishops and their circles either brought with them or had copies made of lectures given by the most famous Parisian masters.

To cite one of many examples that could be adduced, it was long thought that Peter Lombard wrote his famous Four Books of Sentences, which would become the standard textbook for theological study for centuries, near the end of his Parisian teaching career. In fact, numerous copies of the Sentences predating those Ignatius Brady used for his famous edition, which so many scholars, myself included, assumed to be definitive, have been discovered in English cathedral libraries including early versions in three books rather than four. It turns out that Peter Lombard started teaching the Sentences far earlier than scholars have supposed and for quite different purposes.

From these and many other manuscript discoveries related to Parisian lectures, mainly on the Bible, given by Peter Lombard and his students and successors at the cathedral school of Paris, we now know for a fact that the institutional practices of that school not only spread to Anglo-Norman England but were adopted by the nascent University of Paris itself. The story is one of strict continuity: from how lectures were first copied and subsequently developed into Scholastic textbooks to what was taught, when, and why. The evidence, which is massive, will need to be edited and studied, for there are many long-settled questions that turn out to be not so settled after all.

For our purposes, however, what is absolutely clear already is that the medieval University of Paris was born from the cathedral school of Paris, which was housed at the old cathedral of St. Mary’s before the new Cathedral of Notre Dame was built, the one that still stands today. Thus, evidence sufficient to decide for the first time the historical question has been uncovered during the past five years. Institutionally, therefore, to use the last word in Pope John Paul II’s opening line in Ex corde Ecclesiae, we can now trace with confidence a straight line from cathedral schools, which as their name suggests were run by the Church, to the university.

Stark Differences: How helpful is John Paul II’s Appeal to the Medieval University?

Even granting, however, that the medieval university was born of the Church, there still remains the question of its relevance to Catholic universities today. One could reasonably argue that present differences outweigh any historical connections. Such differences run the gamut from internal to the university to external in society more broadly considered. The modern university as a rule eschews any sort of common curriculum, since undergraduates pursue a host of different intellectual disciplines. Those few institutions that do emphasize a core curriculum feature almost exclusively humanities offerings. Mathematics and science, if offered, tend to be at introductory levels. The acquisition of the ability actually to use logic, traditionally a salient strength of Catholic university education, has all but disappeared.

Within the medieval university, by contrast, every Arts student studied the same core curriculum, which, as O’Malley notes, privileged logic. During the century before and after the founding of the University of Paris, the art and science of logic developed at an astonishing pace, much as does physics today. It is no accident that, although the works of the great Arabic thinkers, many of them physicians, on almost every field were translated into Latin, their logical works were not. The reason for this is that the logic of the Latin West had raced ahead. Thus, university students at Paris and elsewhere shared in common an extremely rigorous curriculum ordered towards precise thinking.

The rigor of the long Arts course made it possible for everyone, students and masters alike, to participate in university-wide debates. Masters had to be able to answer in class any question, and many were hard-pressed, in real time, by other masters. The result, contrary to idealized conceptions of the Catholic High Middle Ages, not infrequently produced regular and serious disagreements, even and especially in theology but in the other faculties as well. The intellectual standard was very high indeed and, among other interesting facets of the manuscript discoveries of the past few years has been the unexpected revelation that some of the greatest logical advances are to be found in lectures on the Bible. The old saw that Patristic theology was biblical, whereas medieval theology was philosophical and speculative, turns out to be false, altogether so, even long after the University of Paris was up and running.

Administratively and organizationally too, the differences are striking. The modern Catholic university is run, like its secular counterparts, by phalanxes of professional administrators. The student experience is emphasized, and one often finds building projects and campus beautification prioritized by those professional administrators. In stark contrast, the medieval university asked individual faculty members to take turns serving as deans and even as praeses, returning to the faculty when their terms were up. They were paid no more than their ordinary salaries, and this system had salutary effects other than keeping costs way down; for these faculty administrators knew well that they would have to live with and under any legislation implemented during their terms of office.

Students from all over Europe came to Paris not for the buildings or the experience—classroom space often had to be rented—but rather for one purpose only: to learn from the most brilliant minds in all of Europe. It is here that we find arguably the greatest historical instantiation of John Paul II’s dreams, for there was in fact “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.”

Externally to the university, the differences were even more striking, for the medieval university was unabashedly elite. Open only to men, and restricted further only to those fortunate enough either to pay or to find patronage, usually from the Church itself, university study opened the way, as O’Malley notes, to upward socioeconomic mobility. It was the nearest thing to a sure thing as there was for those not fortunate enough to be born into privilege.

Let us broaden our view even further. We will see that, whereas in the opening decades of the twelfth-century students sought out individual teachers, who taught small groups of students at various locations around medieval Paris—hence masters such as Adam of the Little Bridge, named for where he taught—by the closing decades large numbers of students were arriving from all over Europe to study together in one place. The economics were such that for all of those students to travel to Paris or Bologna or Oxford or Cambridge to study with an assembled faculty of experts in one place was the cheapest option. Economies of scale were visibly in operation.

There is no need to point out how radically different is the modern university in all of these respects. Although, it is probably worth noting that, owing to the drastic change in the underlying social and economic circumstances, university education that was formerly aimed at elite, homogenous constituencies now strives to be as democratic and diverse as possible, and what was once reasonable, or at least manageable, has become exorbitant in cost. A reasonable person might wonder whether the university as it now exists will long survive. Add to this the evident fact that Europe is no longer the world, and the Church is no longer the main patron and beneficiary of university education, and it is fair to wonder about the extent to which the medieval university, even though born of the Church as John Paul II claimed, could serve as a model for Catholic universities today.

This is especially true in the United States, where as Ellis pointed out so soberly our Catholic community and culture, today as in 1955, seems neither prepared for nor inclined to the kind of commitment that would be necessary to make the late pope’s dreamed-of Catholic university a reality.

Conclusion: The Heart of the Matter

In highlighting the enormous gap between the medieval University of Paris, born as it was from the Church, and our own contemporary Catholic universities, I do not mean to reject the possibility of making John Paul II’s educational dreams a reality. It is, however, important to look at the difficulties with a clear eye. If John Tracy Ellis showed us what we were up against in trying to produce even one truly great American Catholic university in 1955, there seems little doubt that the challenge has grown more steep rather than less since that time. Moreover, even if it has turned out to be true in a historical sense that the medieval university was born of the Church, O’Malley’s statement that “the contemporary grid for an “authentically Catholic” university does not neatly fit the medieval reality” is certainly true, as we have just seen.

Would the Church ever again commit so many resources to intellectual excellence? That seems highly unlikely for many reasons, not least because it no longer has as much wealth to spare. Moreover, it remains a Church committed to serving immigrant and refugee populations. Could it ever again produce bishops and other prelates that were the scholarly equal of the best university professors in the world? Again, that seems highly unlikely, not only because of their focus on administration but also because of the longstanding shortage of priests.

Ellis wrote during a sort of golden renaissance of scholarly priests and prelates, but the kind of rigorous education that produced such preeminent scholars as Martin Grabmann and Artur Landgraf is long gone. The Church then had the luxury of committing a certain percentage of priests to intellectual life but no more. It seems virtually certain that, were John Paul II’s Catholic university to become a reality, the laity would have to take the lead, both in funding it and staffing it.

The heart of the matter, though, as Ellis pointed out so matter-of-factly, is culture, what we care about and cultivate. Catholics, whether here or abroad, would need to value and cultivate the life of the mind for its own sake. Instead of imitating, as Hutchins pointed out, the worst features of their secular counterparts, Catholic universities would have to commit to imitating their best: “high academic standards, development of habits of work, research.” Hutchins’s list remains as true today in 2020 as when he wrote it in 1941.

Rarely is great scholarship produced quickly or in a vacuum. Instead, it is most often the fruit of longstanding and mature research, deliberation, and collaboration. But time and money go together. The Pontifical Institute for Medieval Studies founded in 1929 by Etienne Gilson at the University of Toronto is both a model and a cautionary tale. It is a model, because the rigor of its program produced in a short period of time an astonishing number of world-class scholars, who are justly famous for their intellectual excellence. It is a cautionary tale, because after it ran out of money and shut down its graduate training, more or less, that stream of scholars and scholarship dried up as quickly as it began.

Here is where, after the thirtieth anniversary of JPII’s Ex corde Ecclesiae, I believe we should direct our thoughts: what would it take for us to change to make his dreams a reality? And it is precisely here that the medieval university, “born from the heart of the Church,” can provide some guidance. For if, as we know from eight centuries (and counting) of experience with universities, they reflect the values and ideals of the communities whence they come and which they serve. It then seems clear that the values and ideals and culture of the medieval civilization that brought into being the university has something to teach Catholics today, perhaps even those living in the United States.

One can grant that in their function, the graduate faculties of the medieval University of Paris were as professionally oriented as any contemporary university, however distinguished. One can further grant that the Christian society out of which the medieval university sprung was flawed, deeply so, in many respects. Indeed, the medieval masters themselves told their students just how ambitious and political were the prelates who made up the hierarchy.[21]

Yet, when one reads the classroom lectures of the cathedral school of Paris from 1140-1200, and the classroom lectures from 1200-1250 of the institution born from that cathedral school around the turn of the century, namely the University of Paris, whether on the Bible, the Sentences, or on any other schoolbook then studied, it is impossible to miss a widespread evangelical zeal, the likes of which few of us have seen in our own time.

Saint Pope John Paul II, however, not only saw it but lived it. The medieval motto “docēre verbō et exemplō” (“teaching by word and example”), already famous in a twelfth-century that saw Bernard of Clairvaux hear our Lady return his “Ave,” became even more famous in the thirteenth century when Saint Dominic and his order adopted it as a standard by which friars who were preaching and teaching could imitate Christ, and when Saint Francis told his followers that on occasion it might be necessary to say something when preaching. In the High Middle Ages, Christianity, like philosophy before the coming of Christ and afterwards for many centuries, was not so much a body of doctrine as a way of life, not so much information to be communicated as the road to be followed, even unto death, for as their common master, Augustine of Hippo had taught: this world is not worth much compared to the next.

In short, even if one could maintain, reasonably so, that Christianity was in some sense “accidental” to the medieval university, no one could reasonably maintain that it was accidental to the society that gave the world Saint Bernard, Saint Dominic, and Saint Francis, among many others in rapid succession. No one who reads the classroom lectures of the masters of the High Middle Ages at Paris could doubt their evangelical zeal. This, I would argue, is what Saint Pope John Paul II meant to emphasize in saying that the medieval university was born of the Church. For all of the many flaws of Christian society during the High Middle Ages (and the list is long and grim) what is certain is that some segments of that society, including a large number of magistri who taught in the schools of Paris and the University that grew out of them, were determined to live lives modeled after that of Christ as depicted in the Gospels.

If we have somehow managed to turn Saint Francis into a tame and inoffensive garden statue, his contemporaries and followers had no such illusions. And since the Gospel is timeless, there is no reason whatsoever that our own age could not experience a comparable evangelical awakening, producing saints and universities, the kind that Saint John Paul II wrote about in Ex corde Ecclesiae. That culture combined remarkable evangelical zeal with an unstinting commitment to intellectual excellence, and there is no doubt that it saw the two, much as did the Polish pope, as integrally related.

It is worth noting that John Paul II’s emphasis on “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” could only really take place in graduate schools, which is precisely where it took place at the medieval University of Paris. This explains why Ellis emphasized that he was only speaking about graduate schools, and it forms the core of O’Malley’s critique of Ex corde Ecclesiae, namely that it was the graduate faculties of the medieval universities that produced the greatness of Scholasticism.

If Catholics were ever again to aspire to and imitate that greatness, they would have to commit to producing graduate schools and faculties that were the equal of the best in the world. This is not to dismiss the importance of undergraduate education, for I have emphasized just how rigorous was the Arts course in the medieval university, the counterpart to our high school and undergraduate course of instruction. It is no doubt true that a generally balanced curriculum at the undergraduate level, even now, could produce the dispositions and habits that would lead to excellence at the graduate level, in whatever area of specialization that was pursued.[22] But the road to the summit of academic excellence, now as in the High Middle Ages, goes through graduate schools.

Finally, it is also well worth pointing out that John Paul II understood the big picture in a way that most of us do not. He knew well that it was Augustine in De doctrina Christiana (On Christian Teaching) who first proposed integrating all education in a whole ordered to union with God, long before that cultural program even existed. The various systems of classical education, for all of their virtues, never integrated all of education. Thus, Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, although each convinced of the superiority of philosophy, nevertheless all knew and wrote about the ongoing battle between philosophy, on the one hand, and poetry or rhetoric, on the other—and they certainly never dreamed of ordering it all together towards union with God.

Aristotle, whose first mover neither knew of nor cared about creation, would have been puzzled over the very idea. Yet even the Neoplatonists, who did in fact have this goal of union with divinity in mind and whose works were well-known to Augustine, never thought of ordering all education to it.

Thus Augustine first, followed by Hugh of St. Victor and Bonaventure in the High Middle Ages, and Newman in our own, each had the same idea of a Christian education, the same vision that led to the birth of the university in the High Middle Ages, the blueprint for the Christian university described so well by JPII in Ex corde Ecclesiae, namely one in which all learning in every field is ordered in an integrated whole to union with the triune God.

Newman, of course, predicted, in the absence of a curriculum ordered to the highest, namely God and theology, what has transpired in the modern university and in truth in all contemporary schools, namely that each and every discipline seeks to make itself the highest. Yet were we to succeed in creating JPII’s dreamt-of Christian university, were we to succeed in creating educational institutions that combined and integrated evangelical zeal and world-class research aimed at and ordered to union with God, the source of all truth, Catholic universities could even outstrip their secular counterparts. After all, as JPII knew as well as anyone, Christ remains now and forever “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).

[1] Joseph Komonchak, “The Catholic University in the Church,” in Catholic Universities in Church and Society: A Dialogue on ‘Ex corde ecclesiae’ (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown, 1993), 45.

[2] The gap between the scholarly training and theological acumen of theologians as compared to bishops is by no means solely a modern phenomenon. As John O’Malley emphasizes repeatedly in his monograph, Trent: What Happened at the Council (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), already by the time of the Council of Trent in the mid-sixteenth century, the gap was large and widely recognized, such that the bishops of the Council not only listened carefully to the theologians but gave great weight to their opinions. In the High Middle Ages, by contrast, a great many bishops were well enough educated in philosophy and theology to exercise central roles in the university, especially at Paris.

[3] John Tracy Ellis, “American Catholics and the Intellectual Life,” Thought 30 (Issue 3, Autumn 1955), 351-388. Note that I will cite the pages of the pdf placed online by Boston College. Ibid., 1.

[4] Ibid..

[5] Ibid., 2.

[6] Ibid., 3.

[7] Ibid., 4.

[8] Ibid., 4-6.

[9] Ibid., 6.

[10] Ibid., 9-11.

[11] Ibid., 11.

[12] Ibid., 12-13.

[13] Ibid., 13-19.

[14] Ibid., 20

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid, citing and quoting Robert M. Hutchins, “The Integrating Principle of Catholic Higher Education,” College Newsletter, Midwest Regional Unit, N.C.E.A. (May 1937), p. 1.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., 21.

[19] John O’Malley “Were Medieval Universities Catholic?: Lessons for Higher Education Today” (America, September 24, 2012).

[20] Ibid.

[21] Langton, glossing Jerome’s discussion of the “fat cows” mentioned at Amos 4:1, tells his students that the fat cows symbolize “obese prelates, who have been placed on the peak of high offices” (“Vaccae pingues sunt praelati incrassati, constituti in eminentia dignitatum”). One hopes that Langton himself, when he became Archbishop of Canterbury, set a better example for his clergy.

[22] The question of what kind of undergraduate education in the modern world would serve to prepare students well for graduate education of any kind is even thornier than those considered in the present essay and must therefore be deferred to another time.

Featured Image: Botticelli, Young Man Before the Seven Liberal Arts, 1484; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


Mark J. Clark

Mark J. Clark is Gertrude P. Hubbard Chair of Medieval History and Theology at the Catholic University of America. He specializes in the history and development of the schools and thought during the High Middle Ages.  

Read more by Mark J. Clark