- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 19, 2008


Before Pope Benedict XVI addressed Catholic educators at The Catholic University of America on Thursday, it seemed that everyone was predicting he would insist on greater orthodoxy in Catholic schools and colleges. He did that and more.

Pope Benedict called Catholic college presidents and diocesan school officials not only to fidelity, but to transform the lives of young people and evangelize the world.

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, the Pope said. In this way those who meet him are drawn by the very power of the Gospel to lead a new life sustained by all that is beautiful, good and true.

It’s an exciting vision for education that has been shared by popes and saints throughout the long history of the Catholic Church. Pope Benedict mentioned two who are familiar to American Catholics: Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton and Saint Katherine Drexel.

A growing number of Catholic educators today also share the Vatican’s interest in thoroughly Catholic schools and colleges. At the elementary and secondary levels, these include traditional parochial schools as well as independent lay-run schools (see NAPCIS.org) and home-schooling families. Every Catholic college established in the United States during the last 40 years is unabashedly Catholic, and many older colleges are taking serious steps to focus on their Catholic mission.

But Pope Benedict wasn’t just preaching to the choir on Thursday. There are many Catholic educators who have lost sight of the Church’s mission in education, and it was to them that it seemed many of the Pope’s remarks were addressed. No doubt he now has their attention.

In the style of the professor he once was, Pope Benedict clearly and convincingly made the case that steadfastly orthodox schools and colleges are not less dedicated to seeking and teaching the truth-as some critics contend-but are in fact more so. Instead of mimicking secular schools, which recognize only what we know by science and human reason with scant attention to morality, Catholic education embraces the whole truth about God and His creation.

Other key points from Thursday’s address include:

• Pope Benedict reaffirmed the importance of academic freedom, but noted 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.

• He emphasized the duty and privilege to ensure that students receive instruction in Catholic doctrine and practice. This would seem to challenge cafeteria-style curricula that often allow students to choose non-Catholic courses and graduate without any clear understanding of Catholic thought and tradition.

• The Pope insisted 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. The latter phrase is of particular importance to Catholic colleges, many of which struggle with such concerns as the decline of morality on campus, performances of the vile play The Vagina Monologues and campaign rallies or lectures by pro-abortion politicians.

Pope Benedict’s address was in many respects a challenge to Catholic educators, and one that is not always easy. He urged vibrant Catholicism at a time when the growing diversity of students, teachers and professors in this nation’s Catholic schools and colleges is often cited as a reason for backing off explicit Catholic teaching and morals.

Prior to the papal address, the new worldwide secretary of Jesuit higher education, Father Paul Locatelli, confessed that Pope Benedict has high expectations of universities, sometimes higher than we can deliver. That’s an astonishing admission, but the sentiment is probably shared by many school and college leaders.

On the other hand, for Catholic families yearning for authentic Catholic education, Pope Benedict’s address on Thursday was a great encouragement and nothing more than what should be expected from a Catholic institution. Similarly those Catholic educators who share the Pope’s vision must have been thrilled.

Dr. Timothy O’Donnell, president of Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia, believes that Pope Benedict’s visit should assure scholars and educators everywhere that they have nothing to fear from the Church. Mr. O’Donnell is reminded of Pope Benedict’s words during his 2005 installation Mass: This yoke of Christ does not weigh down on us.

History may mark Thursday’s address as the turning point for Catholic education in the United States, forging a new path that embraces the Church’s centuries-old teachings and traditions while facing modern challenges. The renewal has already begun.

Patrick J. Reilly is president of The Cardinal Newman Society (www.CardinalNewmanSociety.org) in Manassas, Virginia.

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