Promulgated on August 15, 1990 and intended to become effective in the academic year starting in 1991, its aim was to define and refine the Catholicism of Catholic institutions of higher education. Institutions newly claiming to be Catholic would require affirmation from "the Holy See, by an Episcopal Conference or another Assembly of Catholic hierarchy, or by a diocesan bishop".
Institutions currently claiming to be Catholic are considered Catholic unless declared otherwise by the same. The document cites canon 810 of the Code of Canon Law which instructs Catholic educational facilities to respect norms established by local bishops. Ex Corde underscores the authority of the bishops and mentions that canon law (canon 812) requires all teachers of theology in Catholic colleges and universities to have the mandate of the local ecclesiastical authority (normally the local bishop).