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Pope’s visit spurs discussions of Catholicism

Katie Kohler | Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Only days after Pope Benedict XVI made his first trip to the United States, Catholic educators at Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s are pondering what it means to “witness truth and professionalism” in their institutions.

On April 17, University President Fr. John Jenkins and Saint Mary’s College President Carol Ann Mooney were among those in attendance at the pope’s address in Washington D.C. regarding academic freedom and Catholic identity.

“It was a reaffirmation of that commitment [to truth and reason],” Jenkins said in a statement to the South Bend Tribune.

Benedict made no specific references to any college or university in the address, but encouraged Catholic educators to seek the truth and uphold Catholic teachings.

The pope addressed between 300 and 400 people, adding an intimate quality to the speech, Mooney said.

“This was not a large crowd. We were only about nine rows deep,” she said. “We were all anxiously awaiting and when he came in, it was electrifying.”

For those not in attendance, however, the message resonated through both campuses.

For theology professor Timothy Matinova, the William and Anna Jean Cushwa Director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism, the Pope’s message was not one of directed change, but more of advice on how to improve the current status of Catholic institutions.

“As I heard it, he wasn’t saying do X, Y, and Z. it was an admonition to pay attention and continue to do the good work … But you’re never finished. You can always do better to guard the Catholic character and identity in universities,” Matinova said.

As president of a Catholic college, Mooney heard Benedict’s message as one of hope for the future of Catholic institutions.

“The primary thing I took away from it was his encouragement to all of us to realize what important work we’re doing and his gratefulness to all of us for doing that work,” she said. “It was an eloquent and uplifting experience.”

Mooney, along with other educators, did not know what to expect from the speech.

“At one point, he said that being a Catholic institution isn’t dependent on statistics or orthodoxy. It is more about the spirit of the place where people encounter the living God … it was a kind of optimism that our faith gives us and the hope we can communicate to others because of our faith,” she said. “I think he was absolutely right … it is a spirit that infuses [the institution] and leads people to hopefulness.”

Defining Catholic identity

Lawrence Cunningham, the John A. O’Brien Professor of Theology at Notre Dame, was surprised with Benedict’s encouraging words amidst recent criticism of Catholic institutions for recent conflicts between Catholic identity and academic freedom.

“I think the most interesting thing about the talk is the encouragement that he gave to Catholic educators. You have to remember he was speaking not only to university and college presidents, but also to all people in Catholic education,” he said. “I very much admire encouragement for priests and sisters and brothers to continue important ministry in the church.”

Cunningham also noted the importance of recognizing and defining a school’s Catholic identity.

“[Benedict] said that schools ought to be very firm in the identification of schools as Catholic. And I think that, of course, goes without saying. I think for example, what is singular about Notre Dame? It is a Catholic university,” Cunningham said. “That gives further encouragement to kind of reflect upon, how we best articulate that idea.”

Cunningham also echoed Benedict’s point that universities are more than just statistics.

“You cannot measure a Catholic university purely by reason of numbers. For example, the demographics of the student body at Notre Dame according to the books is 85 to 87 percent Catholic. Georgetown is 50 percent of a little less. Sophia University in Tokyo is less than 10 percent. Does that make it less Catholic than Georgetown or Notre Dame?”

Numbers, while important to the composition of the institution, cannot be the sole determinate in its Catholic identity.

“You can’t use numbers to equate with ideals.”

Rev. Richard McBrien, a theology professor at Notre Dame, said it’s the responsibility of the members of a Catholic institution to maintain its Catholic identity.

“The point is that a particular number of Catholic faculty and students does not itself make an institution Catholic. At the same time, there must exist a critical mass of faculty, students and administrators to sustain and enhance Catholic character,” he said. “There must exist a commitment that permeates all aspects of life of the institution – not just the academic, but also the liturgical and spiritual.”

Academic freedom

In light of the performance of the “Vagina Monologues” at Catholic colleges across the country, including Notre Dame, and the recognition of pro-choice clubs and other actions deemed anti-Catholic at colleges and universities across the country, Pope Benedict articulated his stance on academic freedom and the place it holds in university life.

“He reaffirmed academic freedom and in affirming it, said faculty has the freedom to pursue truth through careful analysis that leads them to find it,” College president Carol Ann Mooney said. “He emphasized that if we’re Catholic, we have a particular mission and obligation to give students Catholic doctrine as well.”

While the Pope did not target any specific violations of Catholic doctrine for the sake of academic freedom, Cunningham said he worries about the relationship between the Vagina Monologues and Notre Dame

“Not that I was much in favor of the Vagina Monologues … My biggest objection-it becomes kind of code word to identify Notre Dame. In the big scheme of things, the Vagina Monologues are basically minor league.”

During his address, Pope Benedict asserted that Catholic values trump academic freedom, however, academic freedom should not be ignored.

“I think that’s probably an overly generous way – making a much more subtle point, and the subtle point was this – you cannot make academic freedom an absolute value,” Cunningham said. “It always has to be seen in the context of the pursuit of the truth and the larger truth that the Catholic faith holds. Academic freedom has to be understood in the context not only in the larger pursuit of truth, but in Catholic institution, the truth as it comes out of both our encounter of faith and reason … There are no limits to academic freedom.”

McBrien focused not on the competition between Catholic identity and academic freedom, but their similarities.

“There is no inherent opposition between the teachings of the Church and academic freedom. If there is any discrepancy at all, it is between the requirements of academic freedom and particular interpretations of church teachings,” McBrien said. “In other words, the differences are matters of theology, not faith.”

Implications of the visit

Pope Benedict’s visit to the United States had many important implications for the future of Catholicism, McBrien said.

“It was a great success. The Pope showed himself to be a non-threatening, warm and engaging person, contrary to the impression that many Catholics have had of him because of his many years as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith,” he said. “His talk to Catholic educators was, as predicted, free of scolding, warnings, or harsh demands. It was essentially a positive address with which few Catholic university faculty or administrators could take serious issue.”

Matinova, too, saw both the speech and the visit as an unexpected surprise to many Catholics.

“It is a great boost forward, a moment of encouragement. It is a good positive effect, a shot in the arm for Catholicism in the United States.”

Bill Brink contributed to this report.