In his latest address to American bishops visiting Rome, Pope Benedict XVI stressed that Catholic educators should remain true to the faith -- a reminder issued just in time for another tense season of commencement addresses.
No, the pope did not mention Georgetown University by name when discussing the Catholic campus culture wars.
Yes, he did mention the law requiring professors who teach Catholic theology to obtain a Canon 812 "mandatum" (mandate) document from their bishops to certify that they are truly Catholic theologians.
Many American bishops have cited a "growing recognition on the part of Catholic colleges and universities of the need to reaffirm their distinctive identity in fidelity to their founding ideals and the Church's mission. ... Much remains to be done, especially in such basic areas as compliance with the mandate laid down in Canon 812 for those who teach theological disciplines," said Benedict, who taught theology at the university level in Germany.
"The importance of this canonical norm as a tangible expression of ecclesial communion and solidarity in the Church's educational apostolate becomes all the more evident when we consider the confusion created by instances of apparent dissidence between some representatives of Catholic institutions and the Church's pastoral leadership: such discord harms the Church's witness and, as experience has shown, can easily be exploited to compromise her authority and her freedom."
Benedict's remarks to the bishops of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming came during the fourth of five Vatican visits by Americans reporting on life in their dioceses. His January address, to the bishops of Washington, D.C., Baltimore and the U.S. Armed Services, made news with its focus on threats to religious liberty. It came shortly before Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said the Obama administration would not withdraw its rules requiring the majority of religious institutions to cover all FDA-approved forms of contraception in health-insurance plans offered to employees, as well as to students.
Now, the pope has emphasized the need for Catholic educators to remain faithful in the same timeframe as Georgetown University's announcement that one featured speaker during its commencement rites will be none other than Sebelius -- a liberal Catholic who last year warned abortion-rights activists that "we are in a war" to protect women from conservatives.
Conservative Catholics protested -- see GeorgetownScandal.com -- claiming that the Jesuit school's invitation represented yet another violation of the 2004 U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops policy stating: "Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions." The University of Notre Dame ignited a 2009 firestorm by granting President Barack Obama an honorary doctor of laws degree.
While it's easy to focus on this new commencement controversy, Benedict's address represents another skirmish in more than two decades of conflict between Rome and liberal Catholics entrenched on many college and university campuses. At the heart of the conflict is a 1990 "apostolic constitution" on education issued by Pope John Paul II entitled "Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church)."
That document contains numerous statements that trouble American academics, including this one: "Catholic teaching and discipline are to influence all university activities, while the freedom of conscience of each person is to be fully respected. Any official action or commitment of the University is to be in accord with its Catholic identity."
"That captures pretty much everything," noted Patrick J. Reilly, president of the conservative Cardinal Newman Society.
Thus, in his address to the visiting American bishops, the pope stressed that Catholic universities are supposed to be helping the church defend its teachings, in an age in which they are constantly under attack.
The goal, said Benedict, is for Catholic schools to provide a "bulwark against the alienation and fragmentation which occurs when the use of reason is detached from the pursuit of truth and virtue. ...
"Catholic institutions have a specific role to play in helping to overcome the crisis of universities today. Firmly grounded in this vision of the intrinsic interplay of faith, reason and the pursuit of human excellence, every Christian intellectual and all the Church's educational institutions must be convinced, and desirous of convincing others, that no aspect of reality remains alien to, or untouched by, the mystery of the redemption and the Risen Lord's dominion over all creation."
Terry Mattingly is the director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and leads the GetReligion.org project to study religion and the news.
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