Pope sets higher goals for Catholic education

April 18, 2008

Pope Benedict waves after his speech to Catholic educators, 17 April 2008/Jonathan ErnstThere was some speculation before his visit that Pope Benedict was going to read the riot act to Catholic educators for not keeping their universities and schools sufficiently Catholic. That was never really on the cards, because Benedict doesn’t like to come and berate people like that.

Also, the situation is complex, reflecting changes in the overall Catholic population and in Catholic academe. Reading the riot act would not have been very effective, anyway, because Benedict doesn’t really have the power to enforce changes in individual U.S. Catholic universities.

Instead, he opted for an approach that was actually more challenging to the Catholic educators than sitting through an outright rebuke would have been. He outlined a whole philosophy of what Catholic education should be and challenged them to live up to its ambitious goals. It was a counter-cultural message, one that sounds quite strange in such an individualistic society like America. He defended academic freedom, but freedom as the Church defines it — the freedom to follow the truth of Catholic doctrine. Freedom in this view is not simply “freedom from…” It’s “freedom to…” It’s not some free-standing concept (as modern society might see it) but a concept with a purpose.

“Divergence from this vision weakens Catholic identity and, far from advancing freedom, inevitably leads to confusion, whether moral, intellectual or spiritual,” he said at Catholic University of America in Washington.

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne looked at the wider implications in his article “Disquieting Words for the Faithful.” As he wrote, “Almost any American who paid attention to his sermon had to be uncomfortable because all of us are shaped by the very forces he was criticizing. Benedict directly challenged an assumption so many Americans make about religion: that it is a matter of private devotion with few public implications … This is the thinking of a communitarian counseling against radical individualism.”

Here’s our news story on the education speech and the full text.

In the Washington Post, the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown, read between the lines and noted that the pope did not call for universities to dismiss theologians who disagree with church teachings. “At the same time, he says freedom can be abused by people who don’t teach the truth or who don’t teach Catholic teachings,” Reese said. “In a sense, he’s exercising his own academic freedom to criticize people he disagrees with, and that’s fine.”

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