Misplaced Nostalgia

'Ex corde' & the medieval university

Ex corde ecclesiae will go into effect as church law for the United States on May 3, 2001. For most commentators, the fundamental issue concerning the implementation of Ex corde is the conflict between the ideals and practices of American higher education, as these have emerged in a liberal, secular society, and the ideals and practices informing a distinctively Catholic tradition of learning. Those who criticize Ex corde, especially its requirement that theologians obtain a mandate from the local bishop, do so on the ground that it will lead to violations of academic freedom, or that it will destroy the credibility of Catholic higher education in this country. Those who defend it reply that Catholic universities should be governed by a different set of ideals, in which accountability to the church and demonstrated fidelity to its teachings are paramount.

Much of this debate presupposes a certain perspective on the history of Catholic higher education. In this view, the earliest Catholic universities, emerging as they did from "the heart of the church," were very closely connected to, and under the control of, ecclesiastical authorities. Scholars working in such a context, it is thought, had no aspirations to freedom of inquiry, and would probably have considered such aspirations as expressions of a dangerous disloyalty. It is certainly the case that the scholastics did not defend an ideal of academic freedom as we understand it today. It is hard to see how they could have done so, since this ideal presupposes a set of institutional arrangements that were not in place in the twelfth century. However, scholastics neither defended nor practiced an ideal of complete subordination to ecclesiastical authorities. Yes, medieval scholars were concerned with accountability, but they also defended freedom to conduct research and teaching as they saw fit. Moreover, the institutional expressions of these commitments were shaped by many factors, including religious and social anxieties and a lot of good old academic and church politics-in other words, by forces very similar to those at work in our own day. We have much to learn from our medieval forebears, but we cannot turn to them for an ideal or example of scholarly humility or subservience.

The European university emerged in the twelfth century out of loose associations of master scholars and their students. In contrast to monasteries and cathedral schools, the universities developed from a felt need for a new educational system not tied to any particular locality. The twelfth century was a period of institutional centralization, reform, and expansion. In this context, the university proved to be an ideal training ground for the kinds of scholars and professional men needed to staff the new ecclesiastical and civil bureaucracies.

In the parlance of the time, a university, or studium generale, was first of all a school that accepted students from all over Europe. The university was also distinguished by the fact that it had a community of scholars in residence (as opposed to one or two masters), including at least one professional faculty offering a degree in theology, law, or medicine. Every university also had a faculty of arts, which included what we would call liberal studies and especially philosophy. In addition, a university could offer its students the jus ubique docendi, the right to teach which would be recognized anywhere, something like the modern Ph.D.

From their inception, universities were involved in conflict. Because the new universities were national or supranational institutions rather than parochial or diocesan, they were natural allies for both the papacy and the monarchies in their struggles against local bishops, who were at that time more or less independent, and often quite formidable forces. Furthermore, the universities quickly became a locus of conflict between the regular clergy and the newer mendicant orders, especially the Dominicans and the Franciscans. The mendicants often operated independently of local bishops, thereby becoming natural allies of the papacy, which in turn strengthened the hand of the orders in the university. Still, the most fundamental and persistent source of tension was internal to the university structure itself. Not surprisingly, the masters of arts, primarily the philosophers, fought for the independence and autonomy of their discipline, while theologians attempted to keep philosophical speculation within "proper" bounds.

These conflicts provided the context within which demands for accountability and claims for the freedom of research and teaching were articulated. Such claims did not arise as abstract matters of principle. Rather, they emerged over specific issues, which almost always included both theological concerns and what might be described broadly as organizational or juridical arrangements. We do not find scholars calling for a general and unrestricted freedom of research and teaching. However, with increasing directness and forcefulness university faculties did demand freedom and autonomy. Philosophers insisted on their independence from theologians, theologians called for their freedom from local bishops, and members of religious orders demanded autonomy from members of other orders and from the secular clergy.

In such a context, it can be difficult to articulate the exact parameters of freedom and accountability. The institutional forms of both university and church were in flux and overlapped to a considerable degree. For example, at the University of Paris, which included the preeminent theology faculty of the time, both masters and students could claim with some justice to speak for the church. They were all considered to be clerics, and most of them were aligned with ecclesiastical structures through multiple affiliation with a local bishop, the papacy, or one of the religious orders.

Given these facts, it is not surprising that the lines of freedom and accountability within the university emerged out of struggles over authority in the church, more specifically between the local bishop and the papacy. Originally, scholars in Paris had to be granted a license to teach by the chancellor of the university-a requirement not unlike Ex corde’s mandate-since the chancellor acted with the authority of the bishop of Paris. And, in fact, around the turn of the thirteenth century, the chancellor of the University of Paris attempted to extend his authority by requiring masters of the university to take an oath of obedience to him.

"Had he succeeded," Hastings Rashdall wrote in his classic history of the medieval university, "either the university could not have continued to exist or the chancellor’s position in it would have become even more powerful than that of the chancellor of Oxford in the days when he was really the bishop’s officer and before the masters had succeeded in making him merely the executor of their own decrees." But the masters appealed to the papacy, and as Rashdall says, "the papacy, with that unerring instinct which marks its earlier history, sided with the powers of the future, the university of masters, and against the efforts of a local hierarchy to keep education in leading-strings."

In short, the mechanisms that will be implemented in Catholic universities under Ex corde are dramatically opposed to the policies of the medieval papacy toward higher education. Indeed, in a bull of 1212, Pope Innocent III relaxed the obligations of prior oaths and forbade the exaction of similar oaths in the future.

Despite the complexity of both university and ecclesiastical structures in the medieval period, some generalizations can be made about the ways in which scholars attempted to balance freedom and accountability. The twelfth century saw mostly ad hoc calls to investigate and discipline individual scholars, usually initiated by individual churchmen or other scholars rather than by episcopal or papal authority. By the thirteenth century, regular procedures for balancing these claims emerged. For example, young men who went through the course of study and teaching necessary to receive a license to teach had their views scrutinized by their academic masters. Junior scholars who propounded questionable views would be asked to explain and correct them publicly, and if they did so, their careers did not seem to have been much affected by the process. More problematic, theologians sometimes attempted to monitor and control their colleagues in the faculty of arts, particularly the philosophers, who were often looked on as dangerous quasi-heretical radicals. But the philosophers had resources of their own. The faculty of arts in Paris, for example, outnumbered the theologians by a considerable margin, and, more important, anyone interested in studying in one of the higher faculties first had to pass through a course of philosophical study. Naturally, the methods and perspectives of philosophy increasingly infiltrated theology itself. This system of checks and balances came to extend beyond the university as well. By the mid-fourteenth century, the theologians of Paris were generally regarded as the arbiters of doctrinal authority, and they were consulted as such by popes and bishops alike. When it came to the exercise of authority, it was almost always a two-way street.

This brings us to a point often made, but worth repeating. Thanks to the intellectual assumptions and practices of scholasticism in the high Middle Ages, scholars were trained as a matter of course to consider a wide range of views and to give serious consideration to intellectual options they almost certainly would have rejected on the grounds of faith. Again, we cannot simply equate the ethos of scholasticism with modern secular ideals of intellectual inquiry: The scholastics certainly took the parameters set by Christian dogma seriously, and for the theologians, in particular, any final resolution of a dispute would have to fall within those parameters. Nonetheless, scholastic theologians did not spend their time simply defending the doctrines articulated by the magisterium. Rather, they helped to formulate Christian thought in a context in which a wide diversity of views was considered as a matter of course, and any formulated position had to stand the test of rigorous challenge and debate.

In the course of his comprehensive history of scientific thought in the medieval period, the historian David Lindberg remarks, "It must be emphatically stated that within this educational system the medieval master had a great deal of freedom. There was almost no doctrine, philosophical or theological, that was not submitted to minute scrutiny and criticism by scholars in the medieval university."

The history of this period reveals surprising points of contact between our present difficulties and the challenges faced by our medieval forebears. I would suggest three points at which the history of the early medieval university illuminates our situation.

• First, in the medieval university accountability and freedom were communal ideals as well as individual claims.

• Second, these universities accepted both a degree of independence and authority on the part of scholars themselves.

• Finally, the balance struck between these ideals depended on a situation in which diversity of opinions and freedom of debate were built into the academic process.

In many respects, then, the medieval balance between freedom and accountability is closer to a modern ideal of academic freedom than we might at first suspect. Academic freedom comprises two kinds of freedom, that is, freedom in research and freedom in teaching. It implies that a scholar should not be censored or penalized for what he or she says in scholarly publications and lectures or in the classroom. Correlatively, however, it also requires that individual scholars conduct their teaching and research in a responsible way, and that, when necessary, the scholarly community calls individual members to account. Practically, this responsibility involves training and accrediting students, guiding younger scholars, and granting tenure after a probationary period. In this respect, the academic profession functions like most other professions where the practitioners themselves set the standards for training and accreditation, and have a decisive say in determining who meets those standards.

Very few Catholic theologians would deny the legitimacy and importance of the teaching function of the magisterium, that is, the formulation of doctrines that express the essential elements of Christian belief. These doctrines serve to set the boundaries that preserve our integrity as a community of faith. Yet if drawn too tightly, boundaries can strangle the community life they are meant to preserve. In the high Middle Ages, the built-in diversity of scholasticism preserved a freedom of debate that kept the boundaries of doctrine from becoming strangleholds. In our own time, the academic freedom exercised by theologians serves a similar indispensable function.

In saying this, I do not mean to imply that medieval scholars would have endorsed precisely our notions of academic freedom. Nonetheless, the modern norm of academic freedom functions in a way analogous to the structures of the medieval university. American Catholics have a stake in preserving academic freedom among theologians, not only to preserve the credibility of our colleges and universities in a secular society, but also to preserve and foster a vigorous life of theological inquiry, without which the church community as a whole cannot flourish.

In this light, Ex corde raises serious concerns. In particular, the requirement of the mandate, if enforced, will have serious negative consequences on Catholic theology in this country. Not only will it undermine the freedom of the individual scholar, it will also undermine the processes for collective self-regulation and self-governance. It would also have the result, so far scarcely noted, of undermining the teaching orders of priests and religious sisters. Jesuits or Sisters of the Holy Cross, who were once under obedience to the head of their orders, will no longer be able to staff the theology faculties of their own colleges and universities without the approval of the local ordinary. It is ironic that today, in the name of returning the Catholic university to the heart of the church, we are reversing one of the foundations of the medieval university, namely its independence from local authorities and its status as a genuinely international body of scholars. At the same time, because of the structure of the modern episcopacy, Ex corde and its norms for implementation will place Catholic colleges and universities more firmly under the control of Rome than ever before-which is, of course, the intent of the original document.

Recent discussions of Ex corde have all too often failed to address critical questions: Accountability to whom, and for what? If we take seriously the decrees of Vatican II, according to which all Catholics together compose the Catholic church, then there is a real difference between accountability to the church and accountability to individual bishops. Real accountability requires that all parties have a share in authority as well as responsibility for answering to others. Ironically, our forebears in the Middle Ages did a better job of creating and sustaining such a framework. Our task is not to imitate them but to find ways to bring about, in our own time, a similar institutional integrity and flexibility.

Published in the 2001-04-20 issue: 

Jean Porter teaches ethics at the University of Notre Dame. Her most recent book is Natural and Divine Law: Reclaiming the Tradition for Christian Ethics (Eerdmans, 1999).

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