- The Washington Times - Friday, April 18, 2008

Pope Benedict XVI yesterday told hundreds of Catholic educators that academic freedom is not an excuse to stray from Roman Catholic teachings or the responsibility to ensure that Catholic doctrine and practice “shapes all aspects” of university life.

Standing in front of gold-colored drapes, the pope spoke to about 400 Catholic college and university presidents and leaders of Catholic elementary and secondary schools, in a crowded hall at the Catholic University of America.

“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,” Benedict said. “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.”

In his speech at the Edward J. Pryzbyla University Center, the pope struck an overall positive tone, education leaders said, describing the value of Catholic education at all levels and the important role it plays in the Church and society.

“Education is integral to the mission of the church to proclaim the Good News,” he said, thanking and encouraging all Catholic educators, and expressing “profound gratitude” for their “selfless contributions,” one of two occasions on which he was interrupted by applause.

“Catholic identity is not dependent upon statistics,” he told them. “Neither can it be equated simply with orthodoxy of course content. It demands and inspires much more: namely that each and every aspect of your learning communities reverberates within the ecclesial life of faith.”

The 1990 Vatican document Ex Corde Ecclesiae aimed to reassert bishops’ authority and the Catholic character of the church’s universities. But many Catholic universities have come under fire for such activities as rallies and speeches for pro-choice political candidates and performances of “The Vagina Monologues.”

In yesterday’s wide-ranging speech, Benedict highlighted the particular importance of Catholic education in today”s “relativistic” environment where “nothing beyond the individual is recognized as definitive.” He said it’s “particularly disturbing” to witness sex education that focuses on “management of risk.”

Outside, thousands of students and visitors eagerly watched the speech as it played on giant screens around campus.

The Rev. Terence Henry, president of Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, said that the message was “very positive” and that he was particularly “struck” by the pope’s saying that students in Catholic schools shouldn’t just have “an intellectual understanding” of their faith, but a “life-changing” faith.

The Rev. Brian Linnane, president of Loyola College in Baltimore, said the speech “was beautifully reasoned” and “exactly something you could share with new faculty to help them understand their responsibility.”

Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, said the pope had “set an agenda” with his speech, which he called “unassailable from a Catholic perspective.”

Mr. Reilly, whose group has criticized Georgetown University and others for resembling secular and state schools, said the speech would challenge education leaders to see that academic freedom doesn’t mean a campus atmosphere where “anything goes.”

“Catholic educators need to wrestle with the fact that being authentically Catholic means having a different understanding of freedom that’s not unlimited,” he said.

The Rev. Scott R. Pilarz, president of Scranton University in Pennsylvania, also noted that the pope’s encouragement to continue helping immigrant students was for all educators, from primary schools through university level.

Catholic University’s president, the Rev. David M. O”Connell, called the speech “masterful” and “a marvelous blend of gratitude, encouragement and guidance.” He noted that Benedict, a former college professor, “not only understands the academic and intellectual landscape of educational institutions but he is also keenly aware of the rhythms of that environment within our own country.”

One fortunate student at Catholic University, senior biology major Peter Osgood, won an essay contest and was among the handful of Catholics who were introduced to the pope yesterday before his speech. The pope blessed the hand of Mr. Osgood, who plans to become a doctor.

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