Will Francis loosen academic reins? Education journal calls for it, but doesn't prove point

You can just imagine the buzz at the Chronicle of Higher Education: "Hey, Pope Francis is coming! And he's going to speak at Catholic University of America! Let's use that as a story hook!"

So the journal ran a piece on academic freedom at American Catholic colleges. Even though, as the article admits, Francis' Wednesday visit at the school in Washington, D.C., was only to canonize Father Junipero Serra -- and he planned no visits to any other Catholic universities on this tour. Note in particular, no visit to Jesuit Georgetown.

No matter -- off we go with 1,100 words on the tug-of-war between freethinking intellectuals and the church's push to keep "inculcating students in orthodoxy." But the story wanders around, making strong statements, then failing to support them -- and sometimes weakening them.

The main indictment here is that previous popes, especially John Paul II, tightened control over Catholic colleges and universities, thereby stifling the flow of ideas that is basic to good education. Francis, however, is a different kind of pope who warrants hope for change:

As the first Jesuit pontiff, Pope Francis emerged from a free-thinking religious society known to question Vatican directives and church teachings, giving him a much different perspective on the relationship between the Vatican and Catholic colleges than such institutions have operated under for 25 years. In response to a 1990 call by Pope John Paul II for closer ties between the church and Catholic colleges, the nation’s bishops had issued new rules that many such institutions chafed against.
The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a senior analyst at the National Catholic Reporter, says many academics at the nation’s more than 220 Roman Catholic colleges "felt their academic freedom was constrained" by the last two popes. Under Pope Francis, he says, they now "feel much freer" to openly discuss such matters as birth control or whether women should be allowed to become priests.
Noting that Pope Francis has encouraged bishops to express disagreement with him, Father Reese says that "even though he is not an academic, he is more open to the kind of academic discussions and freedom of debate which is very close to the heart of the academic community."

You’ve heard of a chilling effect? Well, Reese is suggesting a warming effect, in which debates among bishops may encourage freer discussions on college campuses. It's a hard hypothesis to prove, but at least the article gets it from a respected priest-journalist.

For evidence of church bullying, though, the journal reaches back to 1987, when Catholic University banned the Rev. Charles E. Curran from teaching theology there because he questioned church doctrine on matters like contraception: "Pope Francis has encouraged his bishops to express disagreement with him, but Catholic University remains under censure from the American Association of University Professors for its 1987 decision to bar there because he had questioned church doctrine on matters such as contraception."

But then, the journal quotes Reese that "other Catholic universities around the country have been less strict. "They have been more respectful of academic freedom and tenure and contracts." So where is this trend that the journal wants Francis to stem?

Then there's the touch of selective labeling, politics style, in this article:

Pope Francis is an outspoken critic of capitalism. But Catholic University’s business school has angered some liberal activists by this year awarding an honorary degree to Michael Novak, an outspoken critic of market regulation, and by accepting millions from conservative philanthropies such as the Charles Koch Foundation for research and teaching focused on reconciling capitalist and Catholic ideas.
Pope Francis has encouraged his bishops to express disagreement with him, but Catholic University remains under censure from the American Association of University Professors for its 1987 decision to bar the Rev. Charles E. Curran from teaching theology there because he had questioned church doctrine on matters such as contraception.

So Koch and Novak get that cautionary tagging as "conservatives" -- along with Catholic University's business school -- while the opposition amounts to unnamed "liberal activists." But the National Catholic Reporter and the American Association of University Professors get no labels.

Liberals are the norm, you see; it's those conservatives ya gotta watch out for.

In fairness, though, the story also quotes John Garvey, president of Catholic University, who protests that "his institution does in fact prize academic freedom, and that it is a mistake to assume the pope's broad statements on world affairs were meant to apply to specific controversies here."

But what's the evidence that Francis will loosen the reins on the schools? Well, um, because he talks about social issues like immigration, the poor and the environment, I guess. "His social-justice themes resonate enormously well with Catholic colleges and universities and with young adults in general," says a source with the U.S. Catholic bishops. But the journal article offers no evidence that the pope has changed the Vatican's relationship with Catholic schools.

Let's be blunt: Is this article hinting that Pope Francis plans to undercut the Ex Corde Ecclesiae document on Catholic education, from St. John Paul II? 

Oh well. To show his rapport with the young, the article ends with Francis' taste for selfies and social media. Even though, as I've said before, it was Benedict XVI who became the first pope on Twitter, in 2012. And even though Francis reportedly won't do Facebook.

At any rate, this article doesn't make clear how popularity with students will translate into more academic leeway. After all, John Paul II was immensely popular with the young (a campus minister as a young priest, in fact), and he's the one who ordered the oversight about which the journal is complaining.

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