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.
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.
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.
"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.