Nuanced View of Academic Freedom

In a speech before a gathering of Catholic educators at The Catholic University of America, Pope Benedict XVI said children of all social and economic backgrounds must have access to an education in faith. Video by AP
By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 18, 2008

Pope Benedict XVI extolled the virtues of academic freedom yesterday, but he cautioned that scholarly pursuits and the search for truth must not undermine church doctrine.

In a speech long anticipated by Catholic educators, Benedict said church-affiliated colleges and universities must "evoke among the young the desire for the act of faith, encouraging them to commit themselves to the ecclesial life."

Academic scholars, Benedict said in the late afternoon talk at Catholic University, "are called to search for the truth wherever careful analyses of evidence leads you."

However, in a pointed message to scholars who stray from church teachings, the pope stressed that Catholic doctrine is paramount. "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," he said.

"Teachers and administrators," the pope continued, "whether in universities or schools, have the duty and privilege to ensure that students receive instruction in Catholic doctrine and practice."

Benedict's speech was the first papal address on U.S. soil to focus on Catholic education in 20 years. Vatican leaders have long expressed frustration over what they say is the failure of many American Catholic colleges and universities to follow church teachings.

Conservative Catholics had expressed hope that the pope would deliver a stern message in yesterday's speech. Long before he became pope, Benedict was known as a strict adherent to church orthodoxy who blocked faculty appointments of academics he deemed too liberal.

Since taking office, the pope has reaffirmed his reputation by saying that Catholic education must conform to Catholic "truth" and the "rule of life."

Responding to Benedict's speech, the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown, said Catholic educators "will be pleased to see and hear him express his respect for academic freedom. That's extremely important in the academic context."

Equally significant, Reese said, is that the pope did not call for universities to dismiss theologians who disagree with church teachings. "At the same time, he says freedom can be abused by people who don't teach the truth or who don't teach Catholic teachings," Reese said. "In a sense, he's exercising his own academic freedom to criticize people he disagrees with, and that's fine."

George Weigel, a theologian, said the pope's message was a "sharp reminder that Catholic intellectual life operates within boundaries as does any intellectual life."

"What he's saying is that a Catholic college and university that is a pale imitation of prevailing fashions in the broader culture is of no use in itself or to the broader culture," Weigel said. "It's a good thing for American intellectual life to have a number of perspectives in play."

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