Pope Benedict surprised and delighted a lot of people today. After his Mass at Nationals Stadium, he met privately with several victims of clergy sex abuse, a move that surprised many but a gesture consistent with a theme of repentance and reconciliation he tackled head-on at the start of this visit.
To the delight of Catholic educators, his address to us at Catholic University struck exactly the right notes of encouragement and affirmative challenge. Calling the work of Catholic schools “an outstanding apostolate of hope” and praising the work of great women in the history of Catholic education like Katharine Drexel and Elizabeth Ann Seton, Pope Benedict immediately established rapport with his audience of Catholic school superintendents, diocesan religious educators and university presidents. As a former university professor himself, a fact he noted wryly, he approached his remarks with a collegial tone that resonated well with the collegiate leaders in the room.
The Pope addressed both K-12 education as well as higher education. Of Catholic schools he said, “Their long-term sustainability must be assured. Indeed, everything possible must be done in cooperation with the wider community to ensrue that they are accessible to people of all social and economic strata. No child should be denied his or her right to an education in faith.” This comment seems especially important in light of current trends to close inner-city Catholic schools, a complex problem that requires creative solutions.
The reasons why the Pope is adamant about the need to preserve and strengthen Catholic schools became clear as he moved through his text, reminding the assembled educators that Catholic education’s responsibility is to provide a completely integral environment rooted in faith as an antidote to the moral relativism and chaos in so much of our culture today. The strength of our schools is not about the number of Catholic students, he said, but about the strength of our convictions.
For higher education, the Pope’s remarks included a passage on academic freedom that will likely be a source of much exegesis and possible debate in the weeks to come. He had this to say about academic freedom and campus culture:
“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. 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.”
This passage is entirely consistent with the expectations the Church has always set forth for institutions that claim the Catholic mission. Some critics of Catholic higher education are claiming that this is a stern warning from the Pope, but the presidents I sat with found the remarks, in context, to be a clear restatement of the directions we have already received through Ex Corde Ecclesiae, which is the 1990 Vatican document on Catholic higher education. The Pope’s entire message was one of collegial encouragement to examine and renew our faith principles and practices, affirmation of the good that is already being done by Catholic institutions, and a call to “bear witness to hope” every day. That’s the best kind of message the leader can give to the laborers in the vineyard.
We’ll have many opportunities in the days to come to examine this address and the other messages the Pope is sending during this trip to the United States.