Politics & Policy

Higher Standards

Pope Benedict pushes back against an unCatholic tide.

‘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.”

It was an obvious way for the pope to open his address to Catholic educators at the Catholic University of America on Thursday. For one thing, he was borrowing the line from his own encyclical on Christian hope. For another, it’s fundamental. But it was revolutionary, too. And necessary to hear.

Emphasizing the necessity of the Catholic identity of a Catholic school, Pope Benedict XVI said:

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.

It was a wonderful thing to hear on the campus of Catholic University, where I spent my undergraduate years. When Fr. David O’Connell became president of the Catholic University of America — after I had graduated — he voluntarily took a Profession of Faith and the Oath of Fidelity. He said in his inaugural address that the school should be “unambiguously Catholic.” He said, “Now is ‘our time’ to lead the discussion and model the relationship between Catholic universities and colleges and the Church.” Fr. O’Connell insisted that the Catholic University of America possesses a “unique responsibility” in this regard because of its foundation by the U.S. Catholic bishops and approval by the Holy See.

To a freshman some 15 or so years ago, that seemed like a given (I was a naïve young Catholic happy to take out loans to go to what I thought might be Little Rome). But O’Connell’s words were bold on a campus where his predecessor derided the Catholic bishops and embraced both the idea of pro-abortion groups and the reality of a gay-right group on campus for the sake of academic freedom. On a campus where not too long ago, having crucifixes on law-school classroom walls was controversial. Fr. O’Connell, on the other hand, said that “academic freedom must evidence academic responsibility, both of which seek truth through fidelity within the Catholic university.”


What O’Connell knows is that you’re just another northeastern non-Ivy school that costs a bit (imagine the bitterness of the Obamas if they took out student loans on something other than Harvard!) if you’re not radically different. That difference — the Catholic difference — is living up to the Catholic label. In CUA’s case, it’s living up to its very name.

The view is a little different from that of Notre Dame, the Catholic flagship school of football in the United States. There, Father John Jenkins welcomed performances of the odiously crude play, The Vagina Monologues, on campus. He wrote, “it is an indispensable part of the mission of a Catholic university to provide a forum in which multiple viewpoints are debated in reasoned and respectful exchange — always in dialogue with faith and the Catholic tradition — even around highly controversial topics.”

The bishop there, mercifully, disagreed. Outraged by the Notre Dame president suggesting an equivalence between Eve Ensler’s play and the works of Nietzsche, Gibbon, Luther, and Joyce, Bishop John M. D’Arcy wrote that — however unCatholic the views of those four dead white males might be — they “have written serious philosophical, theological and literary works, which have influenced Western thought. As such, their work has academic merit and is worthy of serious discussion and critique in a classroom setting. Father Jenkins believes that Eve Ensler’s play was written to shock and offend. How can one put such a play, which many consider pornographic, on the level of serious works such as the writings of Gibbon and Luther?”

An Associated Press story after the pope’s speech Thursday suggests Fr. Jenkins may have adapted the speech to defend himself:

The Rev. John Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, said he appreciated the pope’s message that Catholic educators “shouldn’t make any untruth appealing or attractive.”

He said Catholic colleges and universities already do that by distinguishing between “providing a forum where various views can be expressed and promoting views.”

I hope I’m wrong in reading that. Some views don’t need a forum at a Catholic university. Everyone in Catholic education should read and pray on what Benedict had to say Thursday and reflect on what he says about academic freedom:

In regard to faculty members at Catholic colleges universities, I wish to reaffirm the great value of academic freedom. In virtue of this freedom you are called to search for the truth wherever careful analysis of evidence leads you. Yet it is also the case that any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and the teaching of the Church would obstruct or even betray the university’s identity and mission; a mission at the heart of the Church’s munus docendi and not somehow autonomous or independent of it.

In toasting Pope Benedict at a White House dinner in the pontiff’s honor on Wednesday night, President George W. Bush said, “The Catholic Church has been a rock in a raging sea and it is my prayer that it will never change.”

Bush proves you don’t have to be a Catholic or a product of Catholic education to get it. Now if only some of the Catholic educators who listened to the pope on Thursday would catch on — just as CUA has begun to do in the wake of some neglect and even some notorious dissent (Charles Curran). Catholic-school classrooms — from K through postdoc — are the frontlines in the culture war. God bless them as they “bear witness to hope,” as Benedict instructed. Count on your brother and sister Catholics — and all who appreciate the difference the Catholic Church makes — to “Nourish your witness with prayer.”


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