After saying Mass yesterday, Pope Benedict XVI spoke to Catholic educators from around the country. His speech was not easy to write about, as it was long on philosophy and theology. Still, reporters should have done more than treat his speech almost exclusively in terms of the culture wars. Don't get me wrong: the culture-wars angle is legitimate. The pope devoted several passages of his speech to it. And Paul Schwartzman of The Washington Post summarized the pontiff's remarks about academic freedom properly and with perspective:
In a speech long anticipated by Catholic educators, Benedict said church-affiliated colleges and universities must "evoke among the young the desire for the act of faith, encouraging them to commit themselves to the ecclesial life."
Academic scholars, Benedict said in the late afternoon talk at Catholic University, "are called to search for the truth wherever careful analyses of evidence leads you."
However, in a pointed message to scholars who stray from church teachings, the pope stressed that Catholic doctrine is paramount. "Any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and the teaching of the Church would obstruct or even betray the university's identity and mission," he said.
Schwartzman also quoted from two authorities on Catholic education:
Responding to Benedict's speech, the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown, said Catholic educators "will be pleased to see and hear him express his respect for academic freedom. That's extremely important in the academic context."
Equally significant, Reese said, is that the pope did not call for universities to dismiss theologians who disagree with church teachings. "At the same time, he says freedom can be abused by people who don't teach the truth or who don't teach Catholic teachings," Reese said. "In a sense, he's exercising his own academic freedom to criticize people he disagrees with, and that's fine."
George Weigel, a theologian, said the pope's message was a "sharp reminder that Catholic intellectual life operates within boundaries as does any intellectual life."
"What he's saying is that a Catholic college and university that is a pale imitation of prevailing fashions in the broader culture is of no use in itself or to the broader culture," Weigel said. "It's a good thing for American intellectual life to have a number of perspectives in play."
The two men interpret Benedict's speech differently. That's a fair summary.
Also, the Post's story mentioned the importance the pope gave to making Catholic schools affordable. Yet the heart of the pope's speech was a meditation on the meaning of Catholic education. Indeed, Benedict referred to a "crisis of truth," which he said was "rooted in a crisis of faith." He summarized the goal of Catholic education as distinctive:
With regard to the educational forum, the diakonia of truth takes on a heightened significance in societies where secularist ideology drives a wedge between truth and faith. This division has led to a tendency to equate truth with knowledge and to adopt a positivistic mentality which, in rejecting metaphysics, denies the foundations of faith and rejects the need for a moral vision. Truth means more than knowledge: knowing the truth leads us to discover the good. Truth speaks to the individual in his or her the entirety, inviting us to respond with our whole being. This optimistic vision is found in our Christian faith because such faith has been granted the vision of the Logos, God's creative Reason, which in the Incarnation, is revealed as Goodness itself. Far from being just a communication of factual data - "informative" - the loving truth of the Gospel is creative and life-changing - "performative" (cf. Spe Salvi, 2). With confidence, Christian educators can liberate the young from the limits of positivism and awaken receptivity to the truth, to God and his goodness. In this way you will also help to form their conscience which, enriched by faith, opens a sure path to inner peace and to respect for others.
The Post could have done their readers a service: Benedict's vision for Catholic universities departs from those of many secular universities, such as the mission of Harvard's core curriculum.
Yet the Post did summarize the pope's position on academic correctly. The same cannot be said of The Los Angeles Times. Reporters Tracy Wilkinson and Rebecca Trounson's synopis of the pontiff's remarks were, uncharacteristically for them, inaccurate:
A former university professor, Benedict reiterated his earlier statements of support for academic freedom, calling it a "great value," but suggested that it might also have some limits at a Catholic college.
"In virtue of this freedom you are called to search for the truth wherever careful analysis of evidence leads you," he told the educators at Catholic University. "Yet it is also the case that any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and the teaching of the church would obstruct or even betray the university's identity and mission."
The pope suggested that academic freedom might have limits? Not quite; read the pope's statement on this topic:
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. Yet it is also the case that any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and the teaching of the Church would obstruct or even betray the university's identity and mission; a mission at the heart of the Church's munus docendi and not somehow autonomous or independent of it.
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 upheld by the Church's Magisterium, shapes all aspects of an institution's life, both inside and outside the classroom. Divergence from this vision weakens Catholic identity and, far from advancing freedom, inevitably leads to confusion, whether moral, intellectual or spiritual.
Granted, a meditation on the meaning of Catholic education is not a sexy topic for reporters. But that doesn't mean the topic should be ignored.