WASHINGTON – After years of Vatican frustration over what it views as the failure of many U.S. Catholic colleges to adhere to church teachings, school leaders are intently watching for a rebuke from Pope Benedict XVI during his Washington visit next month.
Benedict requested the meeting with more than 200 top Catholic school officials from across the country. The gathering will come amid debate over teachings and campus activities that bishops have slammed as violating Catholic doctrine: a rally by pro-abortion rights Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio; a Georgetown University theologian’s questioning whether Jesus offers the only road to salvation; a performance of “The Vagina Monologues” at the University of Notre Dame.
This will be the first papal address in the United States on Catholic education in more than 20 years, and some Vatican watchers predict that it will be the most enduring part of Benedict’s visit. Before becoming pope, Benedict was known as “the enforcer” of church orthodoxy, and since taking office, he has said Catholic education must bow to Catholic “truth” and the “rule of life.” Such comments have some educators keyed up.
“With people expecting his address on these issues, hopes and concerns are beginning to resurface,” said Mathew Schmalz, a religious studies professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., who has researched and lectured about Catholic identity in higher education.
The Rev. Timothy Broglio, archbishop of the U.S. military services, who served in Rome for a dozen years, said Benedict’s speech will be direct. “It’ll be very clear and distinct ideas,” Broglio said. “There will be no mistaking what he wants to say.”
A drumbeat for greater orthodoxy in Catholic colleges has been heard since 1990, when Pope John Paul II issued a call for Catholic colleges and universities to refocus on their religious identity.
Now educators are waiting to see how tough Benedict, a former theology professor in Germany, will be at the April 17 lecture at Catholic University and how his message will be interpreted and carried out by the bishops after he leaves.
Church officials won’t give details about the content of the speech, but conservative Catholics are predicting – and hoping for – shock waves from Benedict, who before becoming pope was associated with public reprimands of Catholic theologians and blocked appointments of university faculty members he thought were too liberal.
“This is something that’s been simmering for so long that it’s reached a boiling point,” said Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, which works to promote orthodoxy in Catholic higher education. In its recommendations to students, the society says 20 of the 235 U.S. Catholic colleges and universities are sufficiently orthodox. Reilly said a number of bishops and Vatican officials say privately that the speech will “raise a lot of eyebrows.”
As pope, Benedict has not been as explicit about the limits of academic freedom as some had expected him to be, and some educators predicted that the talk next month will have a pastoral tone. However, they said, it will make clear that the pope thinks change is necessary.
“One thing the pope will emphasize is the importance for all (Catholic) schools to realize that they aren’t independent contractors, they are part of the church,” said the Rev. David O’Connell, Catholic University’s president.
Catholic University is the only U.S. Catholic college founded by the nation’s bishops, and it follows the Vatican line more closely than do many other schools. O’Connell said Rome is concerned about the lack of Catholic faculty at Catholic universities and about rampant “moral relativism” – the belief that there is no objective right or wrong – on campuses.
Last fall, Worcester Bishop Robert McManus objected to a conference on teen pregnancy held on the campus of the College of the Holy Cross that included speakers from Planned Parenthood and NARAL.
And last month, San Antonio Archbishop Jose Gomez complained about the Clinton rally at St. Mary’s University; St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke said St. Louis University basketball coach Rick Majerus should be disciplined for his comments in support of abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research; and Catholic bishops moved a theological seminar off Notre Dame’s campus to protest an on-campus performance of the play “The Vagina Monologues.”
School presidents insist that truth-seeking is part of their institutional purpose.
But David Gibson, the author of a Benedict biography, said the pope will ask, “If you’re not going to be an authentically Catholic, orthodox institution, why should you exist?”
The lecture will be attended by presidents of most U.S. Catholic colleges and universities. All 195 diocesan education directors are also invited, although the Vatican’s focus has been on countering relativism in higher education.