On American tour, pope puts his stamp on Catholic education
In a speech at Catholic University Thursday, he'll ask schools to strengthen their Catholic identity.
For decades, Catholic colleges and universities have been immersed in the church's doctrinal and theological battles – first the liberalizing reforms after the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, then the conservative resurgence spurred by Pope John Paul II.Skip to next paragraph
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Now, conservative Pope Benedict XVI gets the chance to put his stamp on the role that Catholic schools should play in the education of the young and in the broader culture – as well as how they should balance academic freedom with church orthodoxy. On Thursday in Washington, he is scheduled to speak to leaders of US Catholic colleges, universities, and school systems.
The pope values the university's intellectual dialogue with the culture, says the Most Rev. Timothy Broglio, archbishop for military services. "But if you're teaching under the label of 'Catholic,' it has to look like it to be worth anything."
The pope has his work cut out for him, since many American Catholics generally – and Catholic faculty and students specifically – hold views at odds with some church teachings. In recent years, American conservatives, including some bishops, have been highly critical of certain schools.
"Some colleges have become just another marketplace for ideas where Catholic teaching is actually a minority view," says Patrick Reilly, of the Cardinal Newman Society. "What is often presented as Catholic theology dissents from church teaching; and there are cases of speakers and honorees who are public opponents of Catholic moral teaching on issues like abortion and stem cell research."
Among those disenchanted conservatives is Domino's Pizza founder Thomas Monaghan, who is using his fortune to build brand-new Ave Maria University in Naples, Fla., which aims "to be faithful to the magisterium [authority] of the Catholic Church."
High on Pope Benedict's agenda will be encouraging educators to strengthen the Catholic identity of their institutions. How individuals interpret that identity varies widely, however.
A national study released last year, "American Catholics Today," revealed how parishioners themselves define Catholic identity. Asked to rank the importance of 12 elements of Catholicism, more than 75 percent chose four aspects: helping the poor, belief in the resurrection of Jesus, church sacraments, and the Virgin Mary, according to an article in America magazine, a Jesuit weekly.
In the same study, however, three-fifths of respondents said that one could still be "a good Catholic" and practice birth control, approve of abortion in some instances, remarry after divorce, cohabit in an unapproved marriage, and miss mass routinely.
To many, such responses reveal a failure of Catholic religious education to inculcate basic church teachings. Other studies have shown Catholic young people to be less knowledgeable about their faith than Protestant youths and less devout than previous generations.