Pope On Campus: What's A Catholic College?
When Pope Benedict XVI meets with leaders of 200 Catholic colleges and universities at Catholic University Thursday, his words will settle nothing and start something.
Neither critics who believe that too many Catholic colleges have gone too far toward accepting the excesses of American secular society, nor leaders of those colleges, expect the pope to get tough and try to corral the colleges into conforming more strictly to church doctrine.
But both hope to find solace in the pope's message. On Raw Fisher Radio this week, Rev. John Langan, the Jesuits' representative at Georgetown University, and Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, which pushes for a more traditional definition of Catholic education at the faith's U.S. colleges, previewed the debate that is likely to follow the pope's remarks.
Both sides will examine Benedict's text and manner for signs of support in the decades-long culture war that pits liberal Catholic institutions such as Georgetown against more doctrine-based campuses such as Catholic University.
Running a Catholic college "is not a question of setting up a monopoly situation," says Langan, who is also a professor of philosophy at Georgetown. The university remains committed to its Catholic identity, but it neither asks nor especially wants to know if its applicants, students or faculty are Catholic. And Georgetown has decided to add a center for gays and lesbians next year, a move some critics see as condoning sexual acts of which the church disapproves.
"There has to be a very careful distinction that there's never any endorsement of a gay or lesbian culture that could lead to sexual relations that are clearly not condoned by the church's teachings," says Reilly.
But Reilly and Langan agreed in our interview that this pope is not the fire-breathing disciplinarian that he was caricatured as in his role as Defender of the Faith, his job before he became pope.
"This pope does not talk in a scolding tone," Reilly says.
Langan agreed, and said that whatever message the pope sends will be couched in a positive summation of the sweep of American Catholic education. So don't expect Pope Benedict to slap Georgetown on the wrist for incidents such as the decision by its law school to fund internships at abortion rights advocacy groups--a move that Langan, by the way, says he is "not at all happy about."
The Georgetown professor is frank about his university having "placed itself on the fault lines of this debate." The contrast is especially sharp between the Hoyas and crosstown Catholic University, which of course is extremely close to the Vatican and is much more traditional in its policies and adherence to church standards.
Georgetown is "both Catholic and pluralistic," Langan says, touting the school's "very effective Jewish ministry" and its place as the first major American university to hire an Islamic imam as a chaplain.
I asked Reilly whether the occasional flareups in the media about controversies such as the staging of "The Vagina Monologues" on Catholic campuses are really representative of the doctrinal dispute over Catholic education, and he said that indeed those cases are "symbolic indicators of more fundamental underlying problems with these institutions."
"The mission of the university should not change, and that is to discover truth and to do that from a Catholic perspective," Reilly says, "with the Catholic teachings as truth, given to us by God."
Langan, by contrast, talks about Catholic colleges as places where people of all backgrounds search for truth from many perspectives, even as the college maintains its Catholic identity by being a place where "religion is more salient" than at a secular institution.
If the pope does, even in the most subtle way, remind American colleges that they ought to do more to uphold church teachings on their campuses, "the university will take it quite seriously," Langan says. But, he quickly adds, "some of the faculty will resist."
For more on the pope's visit, check in with Pope Watch, the Post's all-pope, all-the-time blog. And if you're lucky enough to hold tickets for the Pope's Mass at Nationals Park, you'll want to stay with the Capital Weather Gang's PopeCast for the latest on the outlook for Thursday's conditions. And you can listen to the full interview excerpted above on Raw Fisher Radio--the show is available for listening here on the big web site anytime, or download the podcast to listen at your convenience.
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