By John Norton
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Pope Benedict XVI gave a strong plug for Catholic education in the United States, calling it integral to the mission of the Church and saying its “long-term sustainability must be assured.”
In a widely anticipated speech Thursday to Catholic university presidents and diocesan directors of education, the pope said the measure of a school’s Catholic identity is not the orthodoxy of its coursework or the percentage of Catholics in the student body or faculty, but whether it “reverberates within the ecclesial life of faith.”
“While we have sought diligently to engage the intellect of our young, perhaps we have neglected the will,” he said.
The pope also said Catholic schools needed to combat “distressing” modern distortions of the meaning of freedom. In an educational setting, he said, “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; a mission at the heart of the Church’s munus docendi (teaching role) and not somehow autonomous or independent of it.”
Somewhat surprising, however, was the fact that in his prepared text the pope nowhere mentioned Pope John Paul II’s 1990 apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae, which was intended to promote the teaching of authentic Catholic doctrine and to strengthen Catholic identity in the Church’s institutions of higher learning.
The pope made his remarks at The Catholic University of America, the only papally chartered U.S. university, to 200 presidents of Catholic universities and colleges and nearly 200 diocesan directors of Catholic education. He departed by popemobile through the university’s campus, where thousands of students cheered him and waved American and white-and-yellow papal flags.
He praised the work of Catholic educators in America over the past two centuries and the sacrifice of religious orders in helping “generations of immigrants rise from poverty and take their place in mainstream society.”
“This sacrifice continues today. It is an outstanding apostolate of hope, seeking to address the material, intellectual and spiritual needs of over 3 million children and students,” he said. The pope also urged Catholic Americans to continue to “contribute generously to the financial needs of our institutions.”
The pope spent less time talking about the importance of intellectual life on a Catholic campus than the need for addressing a “crisis of faith” that he said was at the root of a “crisis of truth.”
Catholic identity “is not dependent upon statistics,” he said. “It demands and inspires much more — namely, that each and every aspect of your learning communities reverberates within the ecclesial life of faith.”
“Is the faith tangible in our universities and schools?” he asked. “Is it given fervent expression liturgically, sacramentally, through prayer, acts of charity, a concern for justice, and respect for God’s creation? Only in this way do we really bear witness to the meaning of who we are and what we uphold.”
Fostering personal intimacy with Christ is “indispensable” in Catholic schools, the pope said, especially in a cultural climate in which people today have “difficulty or reluctance” in entrusting themselves to God.
“It is a complex phenomenon, and one which I ponder continually,” he said.
The answer, he suggested, lies in working to restore a true sense of freedom. “Freedom is not an opting out. It is an opting in — in participation in Being itself,” he said.
“A particular responsibility therefore for each of you, and your colleagues, is to evoke among the young the desire for the act of faith, encouraging them to commit themselves to the ecclesial life that follows from this belief,” he said.
“It is here that freedom reaches the certainty of truth. In choosing to live by that truth, we embrace the fullness of the life of faith which is given to us in the Church.”
The lack of any mention of Ex Corde Ecclesiae caught some by surprise. The 1990 document created enormous controversy and debate when it was issued.
The constitution sought to foster a dialogue between the bishops and the leaders of Catholic colleges and universities, and included a requirement for all teachers of theology in Catholic colleges and universities to receive a mandatum (or formal approval) from ecclesiastical authorities. The mandatum has been described as an acknowledgment that a Catholic professor of a theological discipline is in full communion with the Catholic Church. In November 1999, the Catholic bishops of the Unites States approved the application of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, implementing the constitution in this country.
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