The Pope and the Universities

Published May 21, 2008

Benedict XVI had barely left the Catholic University of America on April 17 when the Catholic higher education establishment’s spin machine shifted into high gear. One university president said that what most impressed him about the papal address to Catholic educators was what it was not: a dressing-down. Still another president cooed that she felt “affirmed.” An administrator at yet another institution said that, as the Pope hadn’t cited Ex Corde Ecclesia, John Paul II’s concerns about Catholic identity were clearly old hat. One got the distinct impression from the spin that a lot of people thought they’d dodged a bullet — and were grateful they weren’t going home to face irate alums and dubious donors. The “Benedict loves what we’re doing” blah-blah has continued ever since.

The facts, to put it gently, suggest something rather more complicated. Consider these excerpts from the Holy Father’s address:

“A university’s or school’s Catholic identity…is a question of conviction — do we really believe that only in the mystery of the Word made flesh does the mystery of man truly become clear? Are we ready to commit our entire self — intellect and will, mind and heart — to God? Do we accept the truth Christ reveals?” [What percentage of this year’s Catholic college and university graduates could honestly answer those questions with a convinced “Yes?” What percentage would even understand the first question?]

“While we have sought diligently to engage the intellect of our young, perhaps we have neglected the will. Subsequently we observe, with distress, the notion of freedom being distorted. Freedom is not an opting out. Freedom is an opting in — a participation in Being itself. Hence authentic freedom can never be obtained by turning away from God.” [Might these sentences be printed, framed, and posted in co-ed dormitories on Catholic campuses?]

“We observe today a timidity in the face of the category of the good…an assumption that every experience is of equal worth and a reluctance to admit imperfection and mistakes. And particularly disturbing is the reduction of the precious and delicate area of education in sexuality to management of ‘risk,'” bereft of any reference to the beauty of conjugal love.” [How many freshman orientation programs and student life offices on Catholic campuses would have to examine consciences here?]

“….I wish to affirm the great value of academic freedom….Yet…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 [teaching mission] and not somehow…independent of it.” [Will the theologians at prestigious Catholic universities who affirm Humanae Vitae’s teaching on the morally appropriate means of regulating fertility, the Catechism’s teaching on the disordered character of homosexual acts, and the teaching of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis on the inadmissability of women to Holy Orders please raise their hands?]

The spin machine notwithstanding, Benedict XVI put serious challenges before the nation’s leading Catholic educators. To resolve any doubts that the Pope has a different idea of what befits a Catholic college or university than a lot of the Catholic higher education establishment, however, I propose a simple test.

Whether or not to produce Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues — a “play” that mocks the settled teaching of the Catholic Church — has become a tedious annual ritual on many Catholic campuses. Prominent among them is Notre Dame: to the public mind, the flagship among U.S. Catholic institutions of higher education. There, the university’s president, Father John Jenkins, CSC, has allowed Ensler’s “play” on campus, acquiescing to the demands of some Notre Dame faculty while rejecting the counsel of other distinguished faculty members and the arguments of the local bishop.

In the patristic period, disputes within and among local churches were submitted to the Bishop of Rome for adjudication. So here’s my proposal and my test-case: let Father Jenkins send Pope Benedict XVI a copy of Ensler’s “play,” asking the Pope whether he considers this material appropriate for production or useful for discussion on a Catholic campus.

The answer, I predict, will not please the spin machine.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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