By Daniel Burke
c. 2008 Religion News Service
WASHINGTON — Pope Benedict XVI’s address to Catholic educators on Thursday (April 17) has become one of the most anticipated moments of his first U.S. trip as pontiff.
Already there is debate over how strict Benedict — himself a former university professor — should be in insisting that Catholic scholars and educators toe the line on church teachings.
As president of Catholic University, which was founded by the U.S.bishops,the Very Rev. David O’Connell offers special insight into the address. Not only is he a Catholic educator, but he helped draw up talking points for Benedict’s address.
Q: Some have suggested Pope Benedict may use his speech before Catholic educators to read them the riot act. Do you think that will happen?
A: No. Aside from the fact that I don’t think he has a reason to do that, it’s never been his style as pope to act that way.
Q: I’ve heard that you helped prepare a briefing on Catholic education in the U.S. for the pope. Broadly speaking, what did you tell him?
A: We emphasized the importance of Catholic identity, of institutions being authentic in their expression of Catholic identity, so that fidelity to the Christian message comes through; the importance of responding to contemporary culture and society, especially in forming the religious morals of young people today; and we acknowledged the
(financial) sacrifice it takes for parents to send their children to Catholic schools.
Q: Why do you think the pope asked to speak to Catholic educators?
A: This man lived his life within a largely academic environment. This is the third time a pope has asked to speak with leaders of Catholic colleges and universities (in the U.S.). He recognizes the importance of Catholic education within the broader agenda of the church.
Q: The pope is here at a time when Catholic elementary and secondary schools, particularly parish-based schools in cities, are shutting down. Should, or will, he address that?
A: I believe in my heart that this entire speech will be a shot in the arm for educators across the board. I know the pope is very much aware of the situation in our country and that the church faces difficulties in keeping its schools open. The issue there, however, is not the same one that confronts Catholic higher education. Quite frankly, it’s a matter of dollars and cents … and an inability to staff themselves.
Q: We’ve heard a lot of talk about “academic freedom” on Catholic campuses. Do Catholic colleges have a right to determine what is presented on campus?
A: Within Catholic institutions, academic freedom has a very specific meaning: The ability of professors and students to engage their subject with full and free inquiry and with due regard, however, for truth as it is revealed through the church. To suggest that faith compromises freedom and reason is really to only understand half of the search for the truth.
Q: As president of the Catholic bishops’ college, is it particularly difficult to hold freedom of inquiry and revealed truth in tension?
A: There will always be a tension in Catholic universities and colleges around the notion of freedom of inquiry. That tension, however, does not have to be mutually destructive. That tension can be healthy and creative. You have to push the envelope a little to get the deepest and the broadest and the most complete understanding of a subject. But that does not require one to deny a more fundamental and profound truth that comes to us based not on evidence from science but from the mysteries of the faith.
Q: I read where the Cardinal Newman Society (a Catholic watchdog
group) says that only 20 out of 230-something Catholic colleges and universities are “sufficiently orthodox.” Does that sound right to you?
A: The society in its principles has the right idea, namely that Catholic colleges should be authentically Catholic and honest about their identity and mission. Sometimes, its approach can go a little bit beyond what I think is appropriate. To say that only 20 or so Catholic colleges or universities are authentically Catholic, I fear, compromises the solid and significant efforts of (the other schools) to do and be the right thing.
Q: Some years ago there was controversy over theology professors needing to get a mandatum (or a stamp of approval) from their local bishop in order to teach. What has happened to that?
A: The idea of a theologian seeking and receiving a mandatum is not the end-all and be-all of Catholic identity. It is one small part of the process. People have widely misunderstood what the mandatum is and requires. The mandatum is an expression of a personal relationship between a bishop and professor of theology or related discipline, which indicates that the professor teaches in communion with the church. A professor is under no obligation to seek it from his or her bishop.
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