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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.

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Many denominations, of course, face difficulties in holding on to young people and adults. American Catholics, however, have experienced a particular cultural transformation over the past 60 years.

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"We've gone through the transition from an immigrant church to the mainstream and assimilating into a pluralistic setting," says Anthony Cernera, president of Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn. "A Catholic born 75 years ago could have spent most of his or her life in a Catholic subculture. That's not the pattern today, and it presents an opportunity and a challenge."

Pope John Paul II addressed the challenge with unprecedented steps to bolster Catholic identity. In 1990, he issued Ex Corde Ecclesiae – the Magna Carta for Catholic higher education – and made all educational institutions subject to canon law for the first time. It said Catholic identity involves Christian inspiration in the university; reflection and research on human knowledge in the light of the Catholic faith; fidelity in conformity with the magisterium of the Church; and institutional commitment to serving others.

When US bishops applied it in 1999, an uproar ensued over the "mandatum," a requirement that theology faculty obtain certification from local bishops.

The outcries died down when it became clear schools did not have to monitor the requirement. (In the 1980s, a prominent theologian was removed from his post at Catholic University of America for opposing church teaching on birth control.)

The debate has continued over academic freedom and what constitutes a genuine Catholic identity.

"The sense is that it's following church dictates consistently in an institutional setting and loyalty to Catholic teaching," says Chester Gillis, a theology professor at Georgetown University in Washington. "But Catholicism includes a lot of diversity, and that makes it difficult to say 'This is Catholic and nothing else.' "

The task has been complicated by the virtual disappearance of nuns and priests from university campuses with the decline in numbers in religious orders.

"Most Catholic content in courses came from priests, brothers, and sisters," says John Piderit, head of Catholic Education Institute and co-author of a recent study of 33 colleges and universities. "We have to find a way for [lay faculty] to become familiar with the Catholic intellectual tradition in their disciplines."

Educators anticipate a positive message from the pope, who is eager to reengage them in the discussion on what makes a university authentically Catholic.

"The need for a vibrant Catholic intellectual tradition and keeping the universities' Catholic nature is on everyone's mind," says Greg Tobin, of Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J.