Catholic universities encouraged by papal remarks

  • May 1, 2008

{mosimage}TORONTO - Pope Benedict XVI’s recent comments on academic freedom during his speech on Catholic education has come under close scrutiny from Canada’s university presidents and teachers.

After the April 17 speech at Catholic University of America, they wanted to know whether the Pope would try to crack down on dissent on college campuses. To most, though, it appeared that he was encouraging Catholic universities, not criticizing them.

“I thought he gave an excellent speech,” said Dr. Terrence Downey, president of St. Mary’s Catholic University College, a small degree-granting liberal arts college in Calgary, Alta.

“This is an excellent statement that any university in the world, including any Catholic university, should celebrate.”

Pope Benedict used the occasion to encourage American Catholic university presidents and school administrators to remain true to the pursuit and presentation of truth.

“Truth means more than knowledge; knowing the truth leads us to discover the good,” he said.

The Pope observed that secular society seeks to limit the definition of truth, to “drive a wedge between truth and faith.” It is the role of the Catholic educator to challenge such limits.

The Pope touched a raw nerve, however, when he talked about academic freedom. The nature of academic freedom in a Catholic university has been subject to heated debate in the United States, and to a lesser extent in Canada. Most disputed has been a requirement, implemented under the 1990 apostolic exhortation Ex Corde Ecclesiae, that every theologian must have an official mandate from his or her bishop.

“In regard to faculty members at Catholic colleges and universities, I wish to reaffirm the great value of academic freedom,” the Pope said. “In virtue of this freedom you are called to search for the truth wherever careful analysis of the 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.”

As part of this task, “teachers and administrators, whether in universities or schools, have the duty and privilege to ensure that students receive instruction in Catholic doctrine and practice,” he said. “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.”

Downey said these comments are reminders that academic freedom comes with responsibilities. He pointed out that the Pope recognized that this freedom allows scholars to follow where their research leads.

“What it suggests to me is that you don’t hide behind academic freedom to slam the church,” he said.

Dr. Michael Higgins, president of St. Thomas University in Fredericton, N.B., feared that some scholars would be displeased by the Pope’s limitations on academic freedom.

“Although many academics in Catholic institutions of higher learning in Canada will agree with his thinking on matters such as the unity of knowledge, the essential compatibility of faith and reason, the knowability of truth, and the ‘transcendent dimension of the human person,’ it is also true that many will dispute the metaphysics behind his thinking and see in his less than total endorsement of academic freedom the imposition of extra-academic considerations that compromise or dilute the very freedom he advocates,” Higgins said.

Non-theologians, non-Catholic professors, faculty associations and unions, as well as many Catholic scholars who subscribe to a different set of philosophical suppositions and professional methodologies, will see in Benedict’s statement on academic freedom a provisional and not comprehensive advocacy on behalf of this essential feature of university life.”

Dr. David Perrin, OMI, president of St. Jerome’s University, a Catholic liberal arts college at the University of Waterloo, said the Pope was providing principles for the universal church that needed to be implemented in light of local situations.

“While the norms stated by the Pope are articulated for the universal church, it is the local church that needs to find its way within its own time and place,” Perrin said. “Every local situation has ‘signs of the times’ that must be carefully read. Adaption does not mean disloyalty, but rather means that the people of God are being faithfully serviced within the unique challenges life brings in their local context. Local adaption does not mean independence from the principles that inform the local response.”

Perrin said the Pope was really talking about theological faculties in his references to academic freedom. “It is primarily within theological faculties where one could potentially encounter difficulties with respect to the encounter of academic freedom and dogmatic principles of faith,” he said.

But Perrin also observed that academic freedom is “never permission to do anything one wants. This is true in any secular faculty such as chemistry or economics, as well as it is in any theological or faith-based faculty. Regardless which area one studies within, there is a framework that keeps the honest researcher honest.”

But the Pope was also outlining a vision of a Catholic school or university that encompassed all life within its walls. Fr. Raymond de Souza, a chaplain at the Newman Club at Queen’s University in Kingston and a columnist in the National Post, said the Pope proposed that educators adopt the principle of “intellectual charity.”

“He is saying we need to lead young people to the truth as an act of love,” he told The Register in an interview in New York.

“I think to leave that as a message to teachers is really quite extraordinary. It could be both an aspiration or a call to an examination of conscience.”

De Souza said Benedict was arguing that “the Catholic university exists to hand on the richness of the Catholic intellectual tradition and hand on the truth of the faith. The Catholic university that doesn’t seek to hand on the intellectual richness of the faith or marginalizes the faith or sets it aside for other purposes is betraying its mission.”

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