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What does Pope Francis’s new document mean for the Church?

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On Monday, Pope Francis promulgated Veritatis Gaudium, a new Apostolic Constitution governing how Ecclesiastical Universities and Faculties are to be set up and governed. As with most canonical documents, there are two distinct purposes, the first treats the motivating force for its promulgation, and the second is legal and technical – detailing how it is to be put into practice.

Before considering the text, it is worth clarifying some terms. Ecclesiastical universities and faculties are those places of higher education which have been either created or approved by the Vatican and which grant degrees in the name of the Holy See. These would, of course, include pontifical universities like the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, but not what the Church calls “Catholic universities”, which are those places which grant degrees like any other secular institution under civil authority, but which are explicitly Catholic in name, heritage, governance and ethos. Examples of these would be Notre Dame University in the United States or St Mary’s University in London.

Ecclesiastical faculties are departments or schools, either free-standing or within another university, which grant degrees in the name of the Holy See, even though the wider university community issue degrees through civil recognition. An example for this would be my own alma mater, the Catholic University of America, where students reading engineering receive degrees issued by the university under and with recognition by civil authority but students studying the sacred sciences (theology, philosophy, and canon law) under one of the ecclesiastical faculties receive their degrees in the name of the civil authority and the Holy See.

Ecclesiastical degrees, those issued in the name of the Holy See, in the sacred sciences have a particular significance, since they are required for some roles in the Church – like being a bishop or, in the practice of canon law, a judge.

Veritatis Gaudium concerns only the governance of ecclesiastical universities and faculties. Legally, it reforms, or better said renews the previous governing document Sapientia Christiana, which was promulgated by St. John Paul II in 1979. It does not apply to Catholic universities in the broader sense (which are governed by the apostolic constitution Ex corde ecclesia), or seminaries, which have their own canonical regulations.

The purpose of the new constitution is, the words of Pope Francis, to include various norms and decisions issued since that time, and to “acknowledge the changed social-cultural context worldwide.” This changed situation takes a number of forms.

At the broadest level, society has come a long way in the last forty years, and not all of it in a good direction. The Pope reminds us in his forward to Veritatis Gaudium that “things are now reaching a breaking point, due to the rapid pace of change and degradation” and that we are culturally in a time of crisis – social, financial, and environmental.

An essential part of the Church’s mission to engage with and enlighten wider human society is articulating the strength and transformative power of the Church’s magisterium. Crucial to this work, the Pope says, are places where Christians, lay and cleric, can be formed in the Church’s intellectual tradition and receive her accumulated knowledge.

And the demand for this education is growing. When I was studying canon law, I was the only layman in my year, and this was not abnormal. Now, I am told, more than a quarter of some classes are made up of lay men and women. Veritatis Gaudium comes as a response to an increase both in supply and demand for people properly equipped to bring the Church’s answer to a more secular and divided world.

The title of the constitution means the Joy of the Truth, and this captures the essence of the Catholic academic tradition. Truth is something essential and rooted in the Divine, and the search for and knowledge of the truth is the search to know God better, which is the source of human joy. Better equipping the faithful to understand this truth and bring it to the complicated reality of our world is a noble work, and an essential one.

Pope Francis notes in his forward that “the theologian who is satisfied with his complete and conclusive thought is mediocre. The good theologian and philosopher has an open, that is, an incomplete, thought, always open to the maius of God and of the truth”.

This openness is essential in communicating the eternal to the temporal, but it never comes at the expense of the truth. Indeed, in the section relating to theological faculties, the Pope reminds us that “all syncretism and every kind of false particularism are to be excluded” – the truth does not come to accommodate bad situations, but to challenge them.

In his forward, Pope Francis speaks of the Church that is always called to “go forth” and insists that the Church must apply its missionary purpose and zeal in academia, where “Ecclesiastical studies will thus be poised to make their specific and unique contribution of inspiration and guidance, and will be able to articulate and express in a new, challenging and realistic way their proper task.”

Veritatis Gaudium is, in this way, a bold intellectual call to arms for the Church, one which answers an increasingly obvious need as our secularised society struggles to hold on to even the most basic truths of human existence.