Freedom and Faith on Campus

Trinity College faculty process into Notre Dame Chapel.
Trinity College faculty process into Notre Dame Chapel. (Trinity College)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Patricia McGuire
Sunday, April 13, 2008

Mindless dogmatism is not part of the Catholic intellectual tradition. As stewards of that tradition, Catholic colleges and universities engage in the robust "dialogue of faith and reason" that the church expects of us, exploring the complex mysteries of God, the profound meaning of human life, the social-justice imperatives of the Gospel.

Critics of Catholic higher education, however, seem to expect us to be submissive disciples of some lesser religion, obedient to a doctrinaire laundry list of "Thou Shalt Nots" -- e.g., "Thou Shalt Not" stage a play about women's body parts ("The Vagina Monologues"), allow gay students to form clubs or allow speakers whose political views diverge from church teachings.

When Pope Benedict XVI visits Washington this week, he will have a special meeting to address the presidents of Catholic colleges and universities. Critics have swung into full smackdown mode, predicting that the pope will lambaste the presidents for failing to prohibit activities the critics deem offensive.

The image of us presidents as wayward boys and girls assembled before the pope for chastisement feeds into the most pernicious anti-Catholic stereotype of mindless adherence to theocratic rulers. For Catholics to encourage the kind of actions that bolster such banal stereotypes is the real scandal.

The pope and the presidents have more serious and urgent business to consider together in the name of our faith. Civilization itself is beset by profoundly consequential choices among radical forms of religious and political beliefs, creating deep chasms within the global community and threatening long-term war and violence that undermine the peace essential for true human dignity.

Ours is a world with extreme economic disparities in which a small percentage of the planet's inhabitants consume almost all of the resources while billions lack even the most fundamental sanitation, shelter, food or education. The mission of Catholic higher education is to educate citizen leaders to enable them to address these grave moral and social challenges with conscience, conviction and intellectual strength.

The seminal Vatican document on Catholic higher education, known as Ex Corde Ecclesiae, posits a remarkably contemporary view of the purpose of Catholic higher education. The document reflects the lively intellectual life of its author, Pope John Paul II, who had long experience as a university professor before moving into the hierarchy. Ex Corde Ecclesiae embraces the fundamental nature of a university as a place of free research and true higher learning leading to the discernment of truth, which is the heart of our faith. To suggest that Catholic universities are not places where intellectual freedom can flourish betrays the very teaching of the church itself, which is respect for our academic freedom.

Nothing in Ex Corde Ecclesiae expects Catholic universities to diminish our identity as normative institutions of higher learning. On the contrary, Ex Corde calls us to an active life as real universities with the additional distinctive dimension of taking the dialogue of faith and reason into the culture, with all of the complex problems that may pose.

Of course, church leaders, including institutional presidents, also expect Catholic colleges and universities to manifest clear respect for the church and its moral teachings across the spectrum of issues in human life and moral conduct. How we manage that expectation within our respective communities of diverse scholars and students exercising their free-speech rights is at the white-hot center of many controversies. Controversy itself is sometimes the most fruitful way to teach about our faith.

The critics would have us ban plays, speakers, student clubs, faculty members and alumni guests whose words or deeds run contrary to the most orthodox interpretation of Catholic teaching. A great silence would descend on most Catholic campuses if we did that. Rather than being afraid of the expression of contrary ideas, we should leverage the teaching opportunities inherent in the free and open exchange of ideas that is essential to university life. If our faith is as strong as we claim it to be, we should not fear the cacophony that emerges during the struggle of learning.

Pope Benedict will be doing his job when he addresses Catholic university presidents Thursday on our obligation to be faithful stewards of the Catholic intellectual tradition and the moral teachings of our faith. We academics are doing our job when we engage in critical analysis of those teachings in light of our Gospel tradition, contemporary research and cultural context.

A church with a brain is not afraid to ask itself the hard questions about the role of faith, moral teachings and theological exploration in contemporary life. This is what Ex Corde Ecclesiae calls us to do; this is what the pope will remind us is essential and what we will continue to do in our mission in Catholic higher education.

The writer is president of Trinity College in Washington.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company