The Catholic University of America

Archived June 2006

Faculty Handbook Part I
The Government of the University
Charter Documents

Section 1: Introduction


The Catholic University of America was founded under the auspices of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States of America. From its inception, it has been supported by American Catholics who, through their Bishops, have made generous financial contributions to maintain a national center of academic excellence not only in the sacred sciences but in the arts and sciences generally and in selected professions.

The official history of the University dates from 1866 when the Bishops of the United States, meeting in the Second Plenary Council of Baltimore, expressed their earnest desire to have under Catholic auspices a university where "all the letters and sciences, both sacred and profane, could be taught." During the Third Plenary Council in 1884, the Bishops proposed to establish with a gift of $300,000 from Miss Mary Gwendoline Caldwell of Newport, Rhode Island, a school of higher studies in theology as "a kernel or bud from which, with the help of God's grace, there would blossom forth in its own time a complete university." Pope Leo XIII formally approved the project of a national university on April 10, 1887 (commemorated annually as Founder's Day). Civil incorporation was obtained immediately thereafter. Later in the same year, Pope Leo named John Joseph Keane, Bishop of Richmond, as Rector, and in 1889, in a letter to James Cardinal Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore, and his brother Archbishops and Bishops, the Pope confirmed the original Constitutions which placed the University under the jurisdiction of the American Hierarchy, subject to the approval of the Holy See, with pontifical status.

Classes opened in Caldwell Hall on November 13, 1889, with Cardinal Gibbons as Chancellor, Bishop Keane as Rector, and a distinguished Faculty of eight professors. The University then had only the School of Sacred Sciences. In 1895 the Schools of Philosophy and Social Science were opened in McMahon Hall, which had been built from proceeds of a gift of land valued at $400,000 from the Right Reverend James McMahon of New York City. Like The Johns Hopkins University, founded in 1876, and Clark University, founded in 1883, The Catholic University of America was conceived and established as a graduate school somewhat on the model of contemporary German universities. Today its academic complex includes nine Faculties or Schools and a University College[1], which includes a Center for Continuing Education and Service. More than 70 per cent of the degrees awarded annually continue to be post‑baccalaureate, either graduate or professional.[2]

The Certificate of Incorporation given to the University by the District of Columbia in 1887 was amended by the Congress of the United States in 1928 to extend the services of the University to institutions which it might accept for affiliation and to expand in various particulars the authority of the Board of Trustees. In 1964, by action of the Board, the University filed a Statement of Election to accept the provisions of the District of Columbia Non‑profit Corporation Act. These documents constitute the civil charter of the University.

The Constitutions approved by Pope Leo XIII were revised in 1926 and again in 1937, when they were designated as Statutes. Subsequent modifications were included in a new edition in 1964. In view of the University's pontifical status, explicit recognition was given to the Apostolic Constitution Deus Scientiarum Dominus of 1931, and to the Ordinationes of the Sacred Congregation of Seminaries and Universities attached to it. These documents were replaced in 1979 by a new Apostolic Constitution, Sapientia Christiana, and accompanying Ordinationes of the (renamed) Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education, intended to take into account the Declaration of Vatican Council II, Gravissium educationis, and other developments. The Apostolic Constitution and the Norms of Application govern the conduct of ecclesiastical studies having canonical effects.

With the approval of the Holy See, the former Statutes were superseded at the beginning of 1970 by the civil Bylaws which are now the effective governing document of the University. By provision of these Bylaws, their full force and effect is extended to the Constitution of the Academic Senate and the Faculty Handbook when these documents are duly approved by the Board of Trustees. The Bylaws give recognition also to the Special Statutes for Pontifical Schools which provide that courses, programs and degrees having canonical effects shall be conducted according to norms and regulations promulgated by the Holy See.

The relationship of the University to the Holy See that began with its foundation was marked most notably by the visit on October 7, 1979, of His Holiness, Pope John Paul II at an academic convocation to which were invited the presidents of all Catholic colleges and universities in the United States and representatives of Catholic learned societies in addition to members of the Faculties.

[1] The University presently (2001) consists of ten schools and Metropolitan College.
[2] For histories of successive administrations of The Catholic University of America, see John Tracy Ellis, The Formative Years of The Catholic University of America(Washington: American Catholic Historical Association, 1946); Patrick H. Ahern, The Catholic University of America, 1887-1896. The Rectorship of John J. Keane(Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1949); Peter E. Rogan, S.S.J., The Catholic University of America, 1896‑1903. The Rectorship of Thomas J. Conaty(Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1949); Colman J. Barry, O.S.B., The Catholic University of America, 1903‑1909. The Rectorship of Denis J O'Connell (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1950); Blase Dixon, T.O.R., "The Catholic University of America, 1909‑1928. The Rectorship of Thomas Joseph Shahan" (unpublished doctoral dissertation, The Catholic University of America, 1972); and H. Warren Willis, "The Catholic University of America, 1928‑1935. The Rectorship of James Hugh Ryan" (unpublished doctoral dissertation, The Catholic University of America, 1972).