A new directive from Pope Francis, Veritatis Gaudium, was released in January 2018. His introduction to the document is an eloquent description of the purpose of “ecclesiastical studies” as part of the church’s mission of evangelism within a diverse, pluralistic, rapidly changing society, rooted in the basic Christian belief that God has entered history in the person of Jesus.

The new document is an Apostolic Constitution, an authoritative legal document issued by the Vatican, which revises the norms set out for “ecclesiastical universities and faculties” by Pope St. John Paul II in the 1979 document Sapientia Christiana. The institutions to which both Veritatis Gaudium and Sapientia Christiana are directed are not your average seminaries training priests for dioceses or religious orders. Rather, they refer to a distinct kind of Catholic educational institution in a special relationship with Rome.

“Ecclesiastical universities and faculties” are established by the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education and offer “canonical degrees” — that is, degrees issued under church authority that qualify the recipients to teach in official church institutions. These degrees are offered in three primary area s — theology, philosophy, and canon law — and often in other related subjects as well.

In the United States, six institutions offer canonical degrees in theology, while Catholic University of America also offers degrees in philosophy and canon law. Only Catholic University of America qualifies, under existing norms, as an ecclesiastical university rather than an ecclesiastical faculty. In Canada, there are three ecclesiastical faculties, the Faculté de théologie et de sciences religieuses de l’Université Laval in Quebec, Regis College of the University of Toronto, and the Pontifical Institute for Mediaeval Studies, also in Toronto. The last is unique in offering degrees in medieval studies rather than a degree in one or more of the primary three ecclesiastical subjects.

At all these institutions, the three degrees offered are the baccalaureate (after a period of “general studies” consisting primarily of lectures), the “licentiate” (corresponding to a master’s degree and following a period of more specialized seminars), and the doctorate (upon completion of a dissertation). Veritatis Gaudium, like Sapientia Christiana before it, requires teachers in ecclesiastical faculties to have earned the doctorate and expects teachers in seminaries (and “equivalent institutions”) to have earned the licentiate; however, in practice, many North American seminary professors have master’s degrees and doctorates from Catholic or non-Catholic institutions, but without the licentiate.

Seminaries, whether run by local dioceses or religious orders, generally do not grant canonical degrees. However, seminaries (and other institutions) may enter into a legal relationship with ecclesiastical universities or faculties, which allows them to grant such canonical degrees. “Affiliation” with an ecclesiastical faculty allows an institution to grant the bachelor’s only, “aggregation” to grant the bachelor’s and licentiate, and ”incorporation” to grant the doctorate as well.

Ecclesiastical theology programs function as seminaries, including the “pastoral year” required of priests following their academic formation, but they also offer academic degrees that qualify their recipients for certain positions within the church. For example, bishops are generally expected to have degrees from ecclesiastical universities or faculties. While ecclesiastical universities and faculties comprise a small percentage of the many Catholic institutions of theological education found in North America, Veritatis Gaudium’s Norms of Application (section 1, article 1, paragraph 1) specify that they also apply to other institutions “erected or approved by the Holy See” insofar as they are relevant to those institutions.

What’s in the document?

On the whole, Veritatis Gaudium marks a relatively modest change to existing norms governing ecclesiastical universities and faculties. There is somewhat more attention given to the various forms such institutions may take and particularly to the possibility of ecclesiastical faculties being incorporated in a larger university. There is also a little more attention given to the proper procedures for firing faculty or suppressing whole institutions. The concern for the orthodoxy of faculty members is greater than in the previous document, and the norms of application for canon law and philosophy stress the importance of Latin and Aquinas, respectively. While its 1979 predecessor, Sapientia Christiana, bore the imprint of Vatican II’s emphasis on openness to the modern world, the new document reflects a modest concern to return to the basics of traditional Catholic theological education.

The main body of the document is a set of norms revised from those set forth in Sapientia Christiana, often with quite minor alterations. Both documents are divided into General Norms and Special Norms, and followed by a separate document called Norms of Application, which provides specific guidelines for implementing the principles found in the document itself.

General Norms

The first section of the General Norms, on the nature and purpose of ecclesiastical faculties, is largely unchanged. It does make a clearer distinction among different kinds of faculties, which runs throughout the new document, reflecting more openness to the possibility of “ecclesiastical faculties” within other universities, both Catholic and non-Catholic. This is continued in the second section, on governance; where Sapientia Christiana assumes that the chancellor of the university will be the bishop, or the superior of a religious order, Veritatis Gaudium allows for the university to “legally depend” on someone who is not the bishop.

The section on teachers adds to the requirement of “upright life, integrity of doctrine, and devotion to duty” that if teachers cease to show these qualities, they may be removed from office. There is no change to the requirement to teach in agreement with the Magisterium (that is, to submit to the official teachings of the church as expressed by the Pope and by the worldwide body of bishops in union with him).

Similarly, the new document still requires teachers to receive, in disciplines touching on faith and morals, a canonical mission from the chancellor or delegate and a nihil obstat (an official permission) from the Holy See for all permanent appointments and promotions. The Norms of Application in fact tighten the restrictions on non-Catholic teachers. The new norms also ask that the orthodoxy of a prospective faculty member’s writings be taken into account alongside more strictly academic qualifications.

The section on students has only one change from the previous guidelines — a provision to make special arrangements for “refugees and exiles.” Both documents open enrollment in ecclesiastical faculties to anyone who has completed the necessary studies and who lives a moral life (and the norms of application clarify that this is to be testified by a statement from a clergyman or religious superior). It sounds as if this could include non-Catholics, but that isn’t made entirely clear.

The sections on the plan of studies and on academic degrees have changed very little. They lay out a three-stage curriculum: first a general overview of
the subject matter conducted primarily through lectures, then a more specialized course of study including seminars and praxis, and finally an academic thesis which contributes to the discipline and is publishable either in whole or in part. The first “general cycle” is normally to result in the baccalaureate, the “specialization cycle” in the licentiate, and the dissertation stage in a doctorate.

The section on strategic planning, on the other hand, has been significantly expanded, again in the direction of allowing for a greater diversity of institutional situations. Veritatis Gaudium specifies that an ecclesiastical university needs to have four distinct faculties (or departments), while an institution with only three is referred to as an “athenaeum.” As becomes clear in the ensuing Special Norms, the three basic faculties are theology, philosophy, and canon law, while a “university” is made distinct by adding at least one additional discipline such as church history, biblical studies, archeology, or psychology.

The new document also explicitly grants “public juridic personality” (that is, the status of canonical “personhood”) to both universities and ecclesiastical faculties found within other universities and allows for “higher institutes of religious sciences.” Finally, the new document explicitly lays down a procedure for the suppression by the Congregation for Catholic Education of universities and faculties that have outlived their usefulness.

Special Norms

Part Two, the Special Norms, deals with specific faculties: theology, philosophy, canon law, and the much more briefly described “other faculties.” Both documents stress the centrality of Scripture and the importance of fidelity to the Magisterium (although Veritatis Gaudium omits any specific mention of norms found in papal or conciliar documents) and prescribe a five-year basic program in theology. In both documents the “specialization cycle” leading to the licentiate is to last for two years, followed by the writing of the doctoral dissertation. Both also see ecclesiastical faculties of theology as responsible for the scholarly formation of priests. In the Norms of Application, Veritatis Gaudium specifically mentions the need for students to possess “a suitable knowledge of the Latin language.”

However, the section on canon law has been considerably reshaped. While the older document required only one year for the baccalaureate, two years for the licentiate, and one year for the doctorate, the new one requires two years for the first stage, three for the second, and an unspecified time for the doctorate. The first stage of study is necessary only for those who do not already have theological or philosophical training, which is presumably why the baccalaureate is so short. The revision seems to be designed to allow people without previous theological training to study canon law; but on the whole the rigor of the program appears to have been increased, at least in terms of time spent.

The time spent in the philosophy program has also been increased, from two years for the baccalaureate to three, but as in the section on theology, the specific mention of magisterial norms has been omitted. The new Norms of Application stress the centrality of Aquinas in the study of philosophy and omit the older norms’ emphasis on the history of modern philosophy, marking a return to a more traditional understanding of philosophy in contrast to engagement with modern philosophies.

The primary change in the section on other faculties is that the list of such faculties has now been moved to the Norms of Application. The list now includes disciplines like bioethics, social communications, and studies on marriage and the family, which were not found in the older list.

Veritatis Gaudium asks to be implemented in the 2018–19 academic year but provides for a three-year provisional period to adapt to the new regulations, and it specifies that the Congregation for Education, the Vatican department in charge of educational matters, has to approve any dispensation from observing any article of the new Constitution or its Norms of Application.


Like the 1979 document on which it is based, the brand-new Apostolic Constitution Veritatis Gaudium serves as a kind of accrediting standard for Catholic theological faculties — although, to be clear, these standards have nothing to do with the Association of Theological Schools, the U.S. Department of Education, or the Canadian provincial ministries of education. Rather, Veritatis Gaudium presents a universal ideal for theological education that is relevant especially to the few ecclesiastical faculties and universities, but also to other Catholic institutions to varying degrees.

What is remarkable about the new document is its caution and conservatism — indeed, the Norms of Application strengthen the emphasis on Latin and on traditional philosophy and theology. This is a nuanced tweak to the standards for ecclesiastical universities, designed to help them function in a more flexible way, not a radical overhaul to the approach to Catholic theological education associated with Pope St. John Paul II.

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