The New Pope

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI Tuesday, has a history of clashes with Catholic colleges and theologians.
April 20, 2005

For many Roman Catholic theologians and educators, the election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI made life a little more complicated.

For more than 20 years, Cardinal Ratzinger has been in charge of enforcing church doctrine -- and in that role he has urged Catholic colleges and theologians to adhere more closely to traditional church teaching. That record scares many. But others, who think Catholic colleges have been too loose, are thrilled. And still others note that the Pope's biography includes years teaching at German universities that could give him an appreciation of higher education, and that it is impossible to predict what Pope Benedict will do.

"There's anxiety among some theologians and elation among others," said the Rev. Charles L. Currie, president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities. "But as Jesuits, we are committed to supporting the Pope and we just have to wait and see what happens."

The anxiety Father Currie referred to comes from a series of statements and policies by Cardinal Ratzinger over the years about the appropriate role of thinkers and educators. At the Vatican, he ran the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which issued statements calling on theologians to respect church teachings, especially on matters of sexuality and gender. In that role, he led efforts in the 1980s to force Catholic University of America to bar the Rev. Charles E. Curran from teaching theology because Father Curran has offered dissenting views on some topics.

And Cardinal Ratzinger is associated with efforts by Pope John Paul II, through Ex corde Ecclesiae, to make Catholic colleges more Catholic. Ex corde was issued by Pope John Paul II in 1990 and sparked lengthy debates between American educators and Vatican officials. He has also opposed changes in traditional church teachings on sexuality, the role of women, and biomedical research. And in Latin America, he has cracked down on liberation theology.

While the debate over Ex corde has quieted down, Catholic colleges are still regularly divided over how they balance their commitment to faith with the expectations of American students and faculty members -- including many committed Catholics -- for a diversity of views and broad anti-discrimination laws at academic institutions.

Every graduation season features debates over whether Catholic colleges can have speakers who support abortion rights. And gay rights issues have been prominent on many campuses this year, with controversy at Duquesne University over whether to recognize a gay student group and at Boston College over whether to add sexual orientation to the institution's anti-bias rules.

When pressed on the conflict between academic and church values, Cardinal Ratzinger has argued that they need not conflict.

In a 1999 press conference covered by the National Catholic Reporter, Cardinal Ratzinger said, "As you see with a medical faculty, you have complete academic freedom, but the discipline is such that the obligation of what medicine is determines the exercise of this freedom. As a medical person, you cannot do what you will. You are in the service of life."

He went on to apply this idea to theology, saying: "So theology also has its inner exigencies. Catholic theology is not individual reflection but thinking with the faith of the church. If you will do other things and have other ideas of what God could be or could not be, there is the freedom of the person to do it, clearly. But one should not say this is Catholic theology."

Father Curran, who is now the Elizabeth Scurlock University Professor of Human Values at Southern Methodist University, issued a statement Tuesday saying that he was "disappointed" with Cardinal Ratzinger's election. But he said it was "unrealistic" to expect a dramatic change in church policy in this election. Over time, Father Curran said, teachings on sexuality have changed and they will change again, regardless of what Pope Benedict does.

Since being forced out of Catholic University, Father Curran has of course not held back on his criticisms of Cardinal Ratzinger. But some theologians who are still working at Catholic institutions are wary of speaking out. One, who spoke on the condition that he not be named, said of the new Pope: "His concern in the job he's had has been to oversee doctrine and theology and he's been quite repressive in that regard."

This theologian said that "9 out of 10 colleagues would be totally appalled" by the election.

Frank Flinn, a Catholicy layperson who teaches religious studies at Washington University in St. Louis, which is a secular institution, agreed that tough times are ahead for American theologians. "If you are a Catholic theologian teaching at a Catholic university, run for cover," said Flinn, who is currently working on an encyclopedia of Catholicism that will be published next year, without church backing.

"This is not good for free thought and discussion," said Flinn. "He is not collegial. He is dogmatic."

Others who study Catholicism and religious higher education say that concerns over the new Pope are being overstated.

Dennis Doyle, a professor of religious studies at the University of Dayton, a Catholic institution, predicts "a lot of continuity." He said that he did not anticipate any more scrutiny of Catholic colleges than already takes place.

As for the new Pope's reputation, Doyle said: "I think his reputation as a conservative and as someone who could have addressed controversial issues more empathetically and with more respect for his opponents, I think that's true. At the same time, I think people have managed to go beyond what are truly his drawbacks to demonize him, and that's unfair."

Others noted that he selected a name -- Benedict -- of past leaders of the church who were conciliatory and tried to embrace a variety of views.

That was the theme of The Shrine of the Holy Whapping, a blog about Catholic issues by students at the University of Notre Dame. Comments there suggested that the new Pope made a good choice on his name and may have a bad reputation for simply doing his old job -- a position in which officials aren't supposed to make new theology, but to enforce existing standards.

Another Notre Dame student's blog features photos and video of students and faculty there watching the announcement on television.

Father Currie, of the Jesuit college group, said that amid the excitement and tension over a new Pope, people shouldn't assume that they can predict what he will do. "He's definitely a strong supporter of orthodoxy, but he's also been fair and a good listener," he said. "We certainly hope he will unite us."


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