Reflections on a Papal Visit

April 21, 2008

"Clearly, then, Catholic identity is not dependent upon statistics. Neither can it be equated simply with orthodoxy of course content. It demands and inspires much more: namely that each and every aspect of your learning communities reverberates within the ecclesial life of faith. Only in faith can truth become incarnate and reason truly human, capable of directing the will along the path of freedom."
--Pope Benedict XVI

In an address on Catholic education characterized by a positive tone Thursday, Pope Benedict XVI challenged presidents to consider their colleges' distinctive roles in the face of moral relativism, the fragmentation of knowledge, and positivism, or the pursuit of empirical knowledge in the absence of metaphysical or spiritual considerations. The pope also restated the church's complex position on academic freedom, both reaffirming its value in Roman Catholic institutions while also adding that "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," as an institution springing from the heart of the church.

"Catholic identity is not a question of numbers [of Catholic students], it’s not a question of orthodoxy, it’s much more complex than that," the Rev. Charles L. Currie, president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, said in paraphrasing one main point of the pope’s speech.

"You're trying to have a great respect for diversity, but you’re trying to maintain your own identity, but part of that identity is being diverse. That’s easier to say than do. So Catholic identity is a work in progress," Father Currie said.

The pope's visit and his reflections on Catholic higher education will mean different things to different people, depending on their points of view and the prisms through which they look. To try to capture at least some of those perspectives, a reporter spent Friday, the day after the pope's speech, interviewing staff, faculty and students at Loyola College in Maryland, a Jesuit institution in Baltimore.

"What Benedict was affirming is the Catholic confidence in the congruity of faith and reason, that the Christian faith is consistent with human learning, that you’re not going to find something through learning that undermines Christian belief," said the Rev. Brian F. Linnane, Loyola's president. “That's why Catholics have schools and colleges – is because we’re not afraid of learning. What we have to be afraid of is not pursuing questions to their ultimate ends."

Father Linnane described, for instance, an encounter with a physics professor who said he could teach his students to build a nuclear bomb but lacked the expertise to broach the ethical issues inherent in the task. The professor -- Catholic or not -- has an "intellectual obligation," Father Linnane said, to reflect on the ethical questions. "If you’re in a discipline and you begin to ponder the human situation … and if you say we can't go beyond the issue because it's outside my discipline, I think that's an intellectual failure,” he said. “One of the most exciting developments on college campuses is the opportunity for interdisciplinary teaching."

"It seems that's what we do. We keep asking questions, we keep asking why."

"In the pursuit of truth, you should have a wide variety of subjects to explore," said Jennifer Vigario, a sophomore comparative culture and literary studies major at Loyola. "Your search should take you in a lot of different directions."

"And also the direction it would take you would be different for every student," Vigario added. “In a diverse world, to not have a means to pursue [a variety of subjects] as well as pursuing your faith interests, it would be very limiting for students."

On Friday, Loyola students expressed varying degrees of interest in the pope’s visit to nearby Washington. While it seems fair to say that Vigario probably was unusual in having read the text of Thursday evening's papal address to college presidents by Friday morning, students interviewed said that some were following the papal visit closely, some not so much, and everything in between. Nina Camaioni, a freshman, said she’d wanted to head to the nation's capital, but she couldn’t do so without skipping one class too many: "I didn’t save my 'skips' properly," she said with a sheepish smile.

"I also am aware that there are going to be other opportunities, if I go to Rome" for study abroad, as planned (she was studying Italian in the spring sun Friday at lunchtime).

Mary Carney, a sophomore math major, was one of 10 Loyola students who got tickets to the papal mass at Washington’s baseball stadium Thursday. "We left Loyola at 5 [a.m.]," she said. "We were seated at the ballpark by about 7 or 7:30."

Sitting right-field, second-level, "There were just thousands and thousands of people but everyone was so into the mass," Carney said. "Hearing everyone say 'Our Father' or 'Amen' all at once was really cool."

Speaking of the pope's speech to Catholic educators that took place the afternoon after the en masse morning mass, the Rev. John J. Conley, a professor of philosophy and theology at Loyola, said one topic that stood out to him was "the insistence that one thing Catholic universities have to confront is moral relativism."

In his speech, the pope used the phrase 'intellectual charity' to describe teaching the truth as an act of love. "I think by intellectual charity," Father Conley said, "he thinks the role of the university is to address some of the problems posed by relativism or the positivism that's sort of in the air we breathe."

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