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Nuanced View of Academic Freedom

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."

The debate over academic freedom at U.S. Catholic colleges and universities has persisted for decades. In 1999, U.S. bishops mandated that theologians receive church certification that they are teaching in a "Catholic" manner. But educators disagree over how pervasive the Catholic perspective should be.

In his speech, Benedict addressed issues beyond academic freedom. He called on American church leaders to renew their commitment to maintaining Catholic schools, "especially those in poorer areas."

Since 1990, 1,300 U. S. Catholic schools have closed, according to a report published by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. In the District, financial pressures led the Archdiocese of Washington last year to propose converting seven of the city's 28 Catholic schools into secular charter schools.

But Benedict said church-affiliated schools can provide an academic bedrock for students in beleaguered neighborhoods, including non-Catholics. "In places where there are many hollow promises which lure young people away from the path of truth and genuine freedom, the consecrated person's witness to the evangelical counsels is an irreplaceable gift," the pope said.

The pope also met with Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and Jain leaders and said the Church is committed to interfaith dialogue.

Staff writer Megan Greenwell contributed to this report.

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