Ever since Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, educators at Roman Catholic colleges in the United States have been trying to figure out what his agenda would be for their institutions.
In a speech at the University of Notre Dame Monday, a senior Vatican official offered some predictions about what to expect: a strong emphasis on Catholic identity on their campuses and an increased role in reaching out to Catholic institutions in other countries. Archbishop Michael Miller, secretary of the Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education, told a packed audience at Notre Dame that the pope might favor "evangelical pruning," rather than maintaining ties to institutions that have become too secular.
As of last night, Notre Dame officials had not obtained a transcript of the talk, but they said an account  in The Observer, Notre Dame's student paper, was accurate. Experts on Catholic higher education said that the talk was consistent with ideas Archbishop Miller had discussed in a private meeting with a delegation of leaders of Catholic colleges in the United States this summer, after the papal transition.
In those talks, they said, he challenged American academics to come up with ways to measure their Catholic identity and to think broadly about what it means to be a Catholic institution. In many ways, these are not new issues -- for much of the papacy of John Paul II, Catholic colleges negotiated with the Vatican about how to carry out the ideals of Ex corde Ecclesiae, which the late pontiff issued in 1990 as a call for making Catholic colleges more Catholic. But while much of the debate over Ex corde focused on some specific issues -- such as who vouches for the authenticity of Catholic theologians -- the discussion Archbishop Miller is starting focuses on broader concepts of how identifiably Catholic an institution should be.
In his talk at Notre Dame, Archbishop Miller reviewed Pope Benedict's writings (from prior to being elected to his current position) and stressed that he was predicting actions based on that review, and that nothing was certain. Experts on the Vatican said that it was important to note those caveats, and that final say on these issues would rest with the pope. However, they agreed that when a top Vatican official gives a talk about Catholic higher education at an institution as significant as Notre Dame, his words matter.
According to the account in the student paper, Archbishop Miller said that the pope has "argued that it might be better for the Church not to expend its resources trying to preserve institutions if their Catholic identity has been seriously compromised," adding that "his writings show that a time of purification lies ahead, and this undoubtedly will have some ramifications for Catholic institutions."
The archbishop told the Notre Dame audience that the pope had a choice between "evangelical pruning" or being patient that institutions that have become too secular would reform themselves. The Observer quoted Archbishop Miller as saying that the patient approach was "less than ideal" and that the pope "appears to be more inclined to avoid scandal and lead a path of evangelical pruning, but we don't know."
Michael J. James, executive vice president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, said that the archbishop's Notre Dame talk was consistent with the ideas he raised in a meeting this summer with a delegation of American academics. He said that in those discussions in Rome, the archbishop raised the issue of increased involvement of American Catholic colleges with the rest of the world, and also raised the issue of how to "magnify Catholic identity."
James said that the discussions were respectful, supportive and friendly -- Archbishop Miller knows American higher education well, as he was president of the University of St. Thomas, in Houston, prior to being appointed to his current post. James said that the archbishop seemed to be challenging the American Catholic leaders to think themselves about approaches to these issues, something James said that they are doing. At the same time, he said, "it's part of the human condition that we fall short of those ideals and he's reminding us that we have to be vigilant, and that's a lesson worth listening to and reminding ourselves."
The archbishop, while not pushing any particular policy, was trying to be "provocative," James said, but putting ideas out there for the Americans to think about. For example, James said that the archbishop asked about "tools that could be developed that could measure our Catholic identity," but didn't endorse any specific tool.
James said that the idea could be problematic if reduced to "counting heads," such as reporting how many students attend Mass, or what percentage of the faculty is Catholic. But he said that given the way American colleges measure so many things, it could be a good idea to develop appropriate ways to measure religious identity.
The discussions indicated to him, James said, that the Vatican is taking a broad view of the ideals of Catholic higher education, and not focusing on any one single question. James said that this was appropriate, but he acknowledged that there could be controversies ahead. Many Catholic colleges are embroiled in debates over whether to recognize gay student groups or to allow speakers on campus who disagree with Catholic teachings. College presidents dealing with such situations tend to face criticism on all sides -- with students and many faculty members pushing for greater tolerance, especially on issues of sexuality, while traditionalist groups attack colleges that appear to deviate in any way from official teachings.
One "possible negative outcome" of the archbishop's talk, James said, was that "it could bolster conservative groups that are relatively small and isolated, but they will take this and say, 'we think you are not living up to your Catholic identity.' "
James stressed that his association and others are already working on a series of studies on how to "develop good practices" for maintaining Catholic identity, so the archbishop's questions do not create any crisis.
Rev. Charles L. Currie, president of the Association of Jesuit College and Universities, agreed. "He's making the point that these schools should be serious about their Catholic identity and the folks I work with -- Jesuit and non-Jesuit -- are serious. So we accept that challenge, and our schools are very actively pursuing their Catholic identity."
Father Currie in fact spoke from an airport while traveling to a meeting with the "mission and identity coordinators" of all of his member colleges. Tensions between scholars and the Vatican aren't new, and will never disappear, Father Currie said, but they must be seen in context.
"Obviously there have been points in the history of the Catholic church - the Galileo case for example -- that we are not proud of, but that's not the whole tradition," he said.
The Rev. Joseph A. O'Hare, the former president of Fordham University and currently associate editor of America magazine, warned against reading too much into any one speech. "A speech like this could mean a whole variety of things," he said.
He also said it was important to note that Pope Benedict -- whom some scholars feared would be dictatorial -- has "been reaching out to unify people," and has been gaining the confidence of more American Catholic leaders. In this context, he said, discussions about Catholic higher education can be healthy.
Father O'Hare said that many academics made unfair comparisons between the new pope and the pope he succeeded. "When John Paul II came in, we knew nothing about him, and with this pope, we knew too much about him."