The Pope on Academic Freedom

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Long before he became Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Jospeh Ratzinger had been caricatured as the Catholic Church's Grand Inquisitor, the fearsome guardian of orthodoxy — with an eye on America's Catholic colleges, which the Vatican since the 1960s was wary were becoming more like their secular counterparts. In 1986, Ratzinger officially silenced theologian Fr. Charles Currran of Catholic University in Washington D.C., leading to Curran's dismissal (and a subsequent re-tooling of the school along more conventionally Catholic lines). That apparently led to more obedience to Rome's dictates. In 1999 the American bishops mandated that if a college wanted to call itself Catholic, its theologians needed a bishop's good-housekeeping seal.

And yet, truth to tell, the majority of Catholic schools hadn't really toed the line. So Benedict's speech on Thursday afternoon at Catholic University to some 200 Roman Catholic school administrators was anticipated with some anxiety. A few months ago, the prevailing wisdom was that the Pope had called the meeting to take them to the woodshed. Patrick Reilly, president of the Catholic-education watchdog group, the Cardinal Newman society, was quoted in The Washington Post citing Vatican officials as saying the speech would "raise a lot of eyebrows." Some liberals worried that the Pope might force them to compromise their academic freedom.

The fears did not prove to be completely right. The practical part of Benedict's speech began with a definition of freedom that would warm even an atheist's heart: "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." But then he turned the corner. "Yet... any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and teaching of the Church would obstruct or even betray the university's identity and mission." He continued: "Divergence from this vision weakens Catholic identity and, far from advancing freedom, inevitably leads to confusion, whether moral, intellectual or spiritual." His prescription: "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 and upheld by the Church's Magisterium [the teaching authority of the Church], shapes all aspects of an institution's life, both inside and outside the classroom."

Both advocates of untrammeled academic freedom and obedience to orthodoxy could claim a victory. "We're thrilled," says the Newman Society's Reilly. "It's exactly what we expected. that's right at the heart of our concerns about higher education." But Patricia McGuire, the President of Washington's Trinity College, who has frequently taken issue with Reilly, says the Pope's message is consistent with a 1990 document by John Paul II. Says McGuire, "I do not hear a new message."

In fact, the message that expressed itself most urgently today was in the philosophical, rather than the policy-setting part of the talk, and it dealt with the definition of freedom, which is becoming a recurring theme on this trip, as Benedict repeatedly stresses that it is found only in faith. "While we have sought diligently to engage the intellect of our young, perhaps we have neglected the will," the Pope mused. Because free will, if rightly tutored and exercised, does not involve "an opting-out" of belief, "but an opting-in."

For those who think that definition of freedom may be fine for a priest but constricting for an academic whose findings contradict Church teachings, Benedict had an answer: it's time to reconsider what you mean by truth. "Truth means more than knowledge," he commented. "Only in faith can truth become incarnate and reason truly human." And "the truths of faith and reason never contradict one another." There may be some Catholic educators who have trouble with that simple equation. But for now, they're probably happy that the Pope is bandying words rather than taking action.