ROME – Pope Francis wants “a bold cultural revolution” in pontifical universities, according to Vatican officials presenting a new document on Monday, so those universities are capable of forming leaders who can strike out on new paths and address an ongoing “epochal shift” marked by rapid “change and degradation.”
“The primary need today is for the whole People of God to be ready to embark upon a new stage of ‘Spirit-filled’ evangelization,” Pope Francis wrote in the foreword of Veritatis Gaudium, an apostolic constitution dedicated to ecclesiastical universities and faculties.
Translating as “Joy of Truth,” Veritatis Gaudium was signed by Francis on Dec. 8 last year, and made available to the public Jan. 29.
This “Spirit-filled” evangelization, the pontiff wrote, calls for “a resolute process of discernment, purification and reform,” and a renewal of the system of ecclesiastical studies plays “a strategic role,” as these education centers are called to “offer opportunities and processes for the suitable formation of priests, consecrated men and women, and committed lay people.”
Seeing the anthropological and environmental crises that are fueling the “epochal shift,” with a rapid degradation evident in “large scale natural disasters as well as social and even financial crises,” the world calls for new models of development and a redefinition of the notion of progress, Francis wrote.
Yet “the problem is that we still lack the culture necessary to confront this crisis. We lack leadership capable of striking out on new paths,” he wrote. Hence the need for a “bold cultural revolution,” that must include ecclesiastical universities and faculties, which are called to offer the “decisive contribution of leaven, salt and light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the living Tradition of the Church.”
“The theologian who is satisfied with his complete and conclusive thought is mediocre,” Francis wrote.
In concrete terms, the pope’s latest apostolic constitution applies almost exclusively to institutions granting pontifical degrees in fields such as theology, philosophy, and canon law. To put it into perspective, there are just 13 ecclesiastical faculties and universities in the United States, while there are more than 200 Catholic colleges and universities in the country.
Ecclesiastical universities and faculties offer Vatican-approved degrees required to teach in seminaries or at pontifical universities.
The new document replaces 1979’s Sapientia Christiana from St. Pope John Paul II, and subsequent amendments made by the Polish pope and Benedict XVI. It doesn’t affect John Paul’s 1990 constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae, on Catholic universities.
A second document, attached to the constitution, but signed by Cardinal Giuseppe Versaldi, Prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education and containing the implementation of the norms, was also presented on Monday.
In the foreword, Francis writes that while offering a great contribution to the Church’s life and mission, Sapientia Christiana, written after the Second Vatican Council, “urgently needs to be brought up to date.”
“While remaining fully valid in its prophetic vision and its clarity of expression, the constitution ought to include the norms and dispositions issued since its promulgation, and to take into account developments in the area of academic studies in these past decades,” he said.
“There is also a need to acknowledge the changed social-cultural context worldwide and to implement initiatives on the international level to which the Holy See has adhered.”
The first of the criteria Francis listed in the foreword relates to the ecclesiastical centers’ “missionary identity,” meaning a return to the “heart of the kerygma, namely the ever fresh and attractive good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
The second guiding criterion is “wide-ranging dialogue,” practiced not as a “tactical approach” but as a requirement for experiencing the joy of the Truth in community. The proclamation of the Gospel and the Church’s doctrine, he argued, are called to promote a “culture of encounter.”
Third, he pointed towards a need for an “inter-disciplinary and cross-disciplinary” approach, carried out “with wisdom and creativity in the light of the revelation,” as an alternative to the “fragmented and often disintegrated panorama of contemporary university studies and to the pluralism – uncertain, conflicting and relativistic – of current beliefs and cultural options.”
“The urgent need for networking” among worldwide institutions was the final criteria presented by the pope, urging for the creation of suitable channels of cooperation with institutions of different countries and even those of different cultural and religious traditions.
Here, Francis also said that there’s a need to establish more specialized centers of research dedicated to studying “the epochal issues affecting humanity today and to offer appropriate and realistic paths for their resolution.” Scholars, he added, are called to interact with “responsible freedom,” dialoguing in the sake of protecting nature and in defense of the poor.
Presenting the constitution, Italian Archbishop Angelo Vincenzo Zani, secretary of the Congregation for Catholic Education, told journalists that even though it only affects ecclesiastical faculties, he hoped the new document would remind Catholic universities that their theology departments cannot “be left in a corner by themselves.”
Theology, he said, must be questioned by other fields of knowledge and must be in active dialogue with questions posed by other departments of said university and “with the world we live in,” particularly on issues that partake of Catholic social teaching and integral ecology.
Many of the norms in Veritatis Gaudium have a resemblance with those found in its predecessor. Among the differences are the facts that the new constitution makes provisions for online education, calls for faculties to determine what to do with refugees, exiles and migrants who don’t have the required documentation, and regulates the possibility of professors from other Christian denominations or even other religions to teach in these faculties.
Zani gave the example of Rome’s Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic studies, that counts among its professors Muslims who profess Islam, though even they are required to have a PhD from a pontifical university.
Those professors, however, are not allowed to teach students in the “first cycle,” meaning the initial years of study, as it is designed to provide students with a foundation in Catholic philosophy, Scripture and Catholic theology.
Most of the norms, however, are taken almost verbatim from Sapientia Christiana, including the call for professors to be “marked by an upright life, integrity of doctrine, and devotion to duty, so that they can effectively contribute to the proper goals of an Ecclesiastical academic institution.”