Papal flag in front of McMahon Hall

Pontifical Status

The Catholic University of America’s Special Relationship with the Pope

Catholic University has a unique relationship with the Holy See stemming from its founding by the bishops of the United States under a papal charter issued by Pope Leo XIII in 1887. The University’s pontifical status finds expression in ways large and small. It confers ecclesiastical degrees, which are accredited and certified by the Holy See. Its official colors — gold and white — are the same as those of the Vatican. It is one of only four universities in the United States to have hosted the Pope on its campus and it is the only one to have done so more than once — Pope John Paul II in 1979 and Pope Benedict XVI in 2008. The visit of Pope Francis on Sept. 23, 2015, was the third time a Pope has visited Catholic University.

Pope Leo XIII

A statue of Pope Leo XIII was placed in the lobby of McMahon Hall in honor of his role in founding The Catholic University of America.

Under the bylaws of the University’s Board of Trustees, the archbishop of Washington is ex officio the chancellor of the University. Cardinal Donald Wuerl serves as a liaison between the University and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, as well as between the University and the Holy See.

On April 10, 1887, Pope Leo XIII sent a letter to Cardinal James Gibbons, archbishop of Baltimore, giving his formal approval for the founding of The Catholic University of America. In it, he urged the bishops of the United States to “earnestly promote true knowledge … in conformity with divine faith, so that the forces of revelation and reason combined should form an invincible bulwark of faith.” He wrote that the University was “destined to provide the Church with worthy ministers for the salvation of souls and the propagation of Religion, and to give the Republic its best citizens.”

The Catholic University of America observes the date of Pope Leo XIII’s letter as its Founders Day, the official beginning of its history as the national University of the Catholic Church in the United States.

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