The following is adapted with permission from a talk given by Dr. Timothy O’Donnell, president of Christendom College, on Feb. 26, 2013. He reflects on Pope Benedict XVI’s address to Catholic educators 10 years ago this month.
I will never forget Pope Benedict XVI, in his historic address to Catholic educators at The Catholic University of America on April 17, 2008. He gave a calmly reasoned presentation of the fundamental importance of the Catholic faith to the mission of Catholic education at all levels.
The Holy Father began his address by referring to those present as “bearers of wisdom,” immediately signifying the august nature of their calling and mission of service within the Church. Rather than seeing the college and university as something separate and distinct from the Church, he placed this educational mission right at the heart of the mission of the Church: “Education is integral to the mission of the Church to evangelize.” A Catholic school is first and foremost “a place to encounter the living God, who in Jesus Christ reveals His transforming love.”
Here, the Holy Father immediately pointed out the absolute centrality of faith in Catholic higher education. This encounter with the living God is meant to “elicit a desire to grow in knowledge and understanding of Jesus Christ.” Those who encounter Christ within the Catholic school are drawn by the Gospel to begin to live a new life and to pursue seriously the true, the good, and the beautiful.
Education in truth must guide both the teacher and the student toward objective truth, which transcends the particular and the subjective and points the student out of his narrow world towards the universal and absolute. For it is only when the student comes into contact with universal and absolute truth that he will be able to proclaim the Christian message of hope. This is especially crucial, the Pope observed, when dealing with today’s secular mindset, which struggles constantly with moral confusion and the fragmentation of knowledge and lacks the unified vision that only the Catholic university can give.
Unfortunately, in the wake of the chaos of the 1960s and ’70s—and the confusion following the Second Vatican Council—the uniqueness of Catholic higher education was compromised by an effort to imitate secular models. In the 1967 Land O’ Lakes Statement, a number of influential Catholic educators proclaimed that, in the name of academic freedom, no Catholic institution of higher learning could acknowledge any authority outside itself. (In practice, however, the only authority from which the universities could claim independence was the Church herself, not accrediting agencies and the like.)
Tellingly, Pope Benedict clearly pointed out that the Catholic identity of a university is “fundamentally… a question of conviction.” He then asked five radically fundamental questions:
- Do we really believe that only in the mystery of the Word made flesh does the mystery of man become clear? (Gaudium et Spes, 22.)
- Are we ready to commit our entire self—intellect, will, mind, and heart—to God?
- Do we accept the truth Christ reveals?
- Is the faith tangible in our universities and schools?
- Is it given fervent expression liturgically, sacramentally, through prayer, acts of charity, concern for justice, and respect for God’s creation?
Only when all these questions can be answered in the affirmative is a college or university truly Catholic: “Only in this way do we really bear witness to the meaning of who we are and what we uphold.”
Those teaching in the Catholic university have a particular responsibility “to evoke among the young the desire for the act of faith, encouraging them to commit themselves to the ecclesial life that follows from belief.” It is precisely in making the act of faith and living that faith within the Church, the Pope stated, that “freedom reaches the certainty of truth.” Rejecting the relativism which portrays religious faith as a purely subjective matter, the Pope continues, “In choosing to live by that truth, we embrace the fullness of the life of faith which is given to us by the Church.”
The Holy Father then made what I believe is the central point of his address:
Clearly, then, Catholic identity is not dependent upon statistics. Neither can it be equated simply with orthodoxy of course content. It demands and inspires much more: namely, that each and every aspect of your learning communities reverberates within the ecclesial life of faith. Only in faith can truth become incarnate and reason truly human, capable of directing the will along the path of freedom (Spe Salvi, 23). In this way our institutions make a vital contribution to the mission of the Church and truly serve society. They become places in which God’s active presence in human affairs is recognized and in which every young person discovers the joy of entering into Christ’s ‘being for others’ (ibid., 28).
Addressing the false understanding of academic freedom, the Holy Father stated:
I wish to reaffirm the great value of academic freedom. In virtue of this freedom you are called to search for the truth wherever careful analysis of 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 teaching of the Church would obstruct or even betray the university’s identity and mission, a mission at the heart of the Church’s munus operandi and not somehow autonomous orindependent of it.
I firmly believe that Pope Benedict XVI’s inspiring message and the radical challenge of this address will remain central to any future discussion concerning the purpose and direction of Catholic education in this country.
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