The Elephant in the Room: Mandate for Catholic colleges

Posted: April 10, 2008

Is Pope Benedict XVI coming to America to drop the hammer on the president for the Iraq war? You might think so if your gospel comes courtesy of the mainstream media.

It's more likely that the pope will speak about the war at the United Nations as he has in the past - as a church leader addressing the challenges of finding a pathway for dialogue between two faiths in conflict.

The pope's only official church meeting is with all 213 presidents of Catholic undergraduate colleges and universities. Given the traditional and orthodox educational philosophy of this former university professor, as well as the sad recent history of Catholic higher education in America, one might well expect fireworks.

Since Vatican II, most Catholic colleges have sought to reduce their relationship with Catholicism and the church to a one-word marketing pitch - Catholic. On most Catholic campuses across the country, you might be surprised to learn that most professors are not Catholic and that the Catholics are often nonpracticing. These Catholic colleges routinely host speakers and artistic productions that oppose core Catholic teaching when they're not blatantly anti-Catholic, and I'm not just talking about Barack Obama's appearance at Mercyhurst or Hillary Clinton's at King's College. Even the gold standard of Catholic colleges, the University of Notre Dame, will soon drop below 50 percent Catholics on its faculty and have on-campus performances of The Vagina Monologues.

Most core curricula, if that exists, provide little exposure to the Catholic intellectual tradition. Even in the theology departments, which are supposed to be certified as authentically Catholic by the local diocese, students have to search long and hard to find a professor who will provide faithful Catholic teaching.

As for campus life, most Catholic colleges have abandoned their mission and duty to help shape the moral and spiritual formation of its students. In loco parentis has been reduced to facilitating loco behavior. It is nearly impossible to distinguish a list of authorized student organizations at Georgetown from those at Penn.

Yes, there are some orthodox Catholic universities. The Cardinal Newman Society recently surveyed all Catholic colleges for its recent book Choosing a Catholic College and recommended only colleges that provided a quality education and "gave priority to their Catholic identity in most, if not all, aspects of campus life."

How many made the list? Only 20, including just one in Pennsylvania, DeSales University in Allentown.

The pope recognizes the importance of Catholic education in forming the next generation spiritually, morally and intellectually. He no doubt understands that Catholic universities in America have been at the intellectual center of dissent from the teaching of the magisterium. It is one thing for college professors from a secular university to offer moral arguments supporting abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, cloning, and same-sex marriage. It is another when these arguments are coming from theology professors at Notre Dame, St. Joseph's, Marquette and, until a few years ago, Catholic University.

The sad fact is that, during the last 40 years, Catholic higher education has not only failed to counter the forces of cultural decay across America, but has added to the rot as well.

Pope Benedict's speech is unlikely to break new ground next Thursday. His predecessor, Pope John Paul II, in his 1990 encyclical Ex Corde Ecclesiae, gave the bishops the mandate and the tools to bring colleges back into the intellectual fold with Rome. Since then, of course, other crises have made calls on their attention and, alas, cut into their credibility. Pope Benedict will remind them of the work that remains.

He's also unlikely to break any china. As he did in his seminal speech on faith and reason at the University of Regensburg, he'll elevate, not scold.

I am no stranger to sounding the warning sirens of cultural decay in America. Catholic higher education as well as primary and secondary education over the last 40 years could have been a healthy antidote to this trend. They were not. And at times, they contributed to it.

The Catholic Church has struggled and triumphed for more than 2,000 years. In good seasons and bad, however, it has made a rich and distinctive contribution to the intellectual foundations of Western civilization. That reality, the deep wisdom of scholars from Saints Jerome and Augustine to Aquinas and Catherine of Siena, who've brought intellectual, spiritual and moral guidance to generations upon generations, is being lost. America and the West are poorer from it.

Academic freedom and diversity have taken center stage on American campuses today. I believe Pope Benedict will encourage the 9 percent of the four-year colleges in this country to give students the ultimate in academic freedom, the pursuit of truth by providing something truly diverse in American higher education - an authentic Catholic education.


E-mail Rick Santorum at rsantorum@phillynews.com.

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