Pope lays out crossroads for Catholic higher education

Midway through his U.S. visit, Pope Benedict XVI told Catholic college and university presidents that using a Catholic campus as a platform to teach something that contradicts the church’s teaching is an abuse of academic freedom. Commenting on that remark, Father Thomas Reese, S.J., offered an interesting slant. “In a sense, he’s exercising his own academic freedom to criticize people he disagrees with, and that’s fine,” said the ubiquitous media commentator on all things Catholic.

In other words: The pope is entitled to his opinion just like everybody else.

I took a rather different slant during a panel discussion cosponsored by the Heritage Foundation and the Cardinal Newman Society. Noting that our professor-pope had delivered a rich and stimulating paper on Catholic education that should keep Catholic academic circles happily occupied for months, I added that only time will show whether his academic interlocutors are up to the multiple challenges he’d presented.

Some quotes from his talk suggest the radical character of the position on Catholic higher education he staked out.

“First and foremost, every Catholic educational institution is a place to encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth.”

“A university or school’s Catholic identity is not simply a question of the number of Catholic students. It is a question of conviction – do we really believe that only in the mystery of the Word made flesh does the mystery of man truly become clear? Are we ready to commit our entire self – intellect and will, mind and heart – to God? Do we accept the truth that Christ reveals? Is the faith tangible in our universities and schools? Is it given fervent expression liturgically, sacramentally, through prayer, acts of charity, a concern for justice and respect for God’s creation? Only in this way do we really bear witness to the meaning of who we are and what we uphold.”

“Teachers and administrators, whether in universities or schools, have the duty and privilege to ensure that students receive instruction in Catholic doctrine and practice. This requires that public witness to the way of Christ, as found in the Gospel and upheld by the church’s magisterium, shapes all aspects of an institution’s life, both inside and outside the classroom. Divergence from this vision weakens Catholic identity and, far from advancing freedom, inevitably leads to confusion, whether moral, intellectual or spiritual.”

In passages like these, Pope Benedict is laying out an evangelical model of Catholic higher education. The role of a Catholic university, he says, is to form people in the light of the truth naturally accessible to the human intellect – and also the truth revealed by God in Jesus Christ.

It hardly needs saying that this stands in sharp contrast with the American secular model of higher education, which many if not most American Catholic colleges and universities have embraced in the last 40 years. Pope Benedict did not refer specifically to Pope John Paul II’s strong 1990 document on restoring Catholic identity to Catholic higher education, “Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” but it’s there, alive and well in the background, even so.

Catholic universities face a clear choice – the pope’s way or the way of secular education. Do they want Catholic identity or not? “I have no way of coercing you,” one can imagine Benedict telling them. “But if you go the way of secular education, you’ll no longer be Catholic schools.”

That points to an obvious question: How will this go over in American Catholic university circles? We haven’t reached the end of the story yet.

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.