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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.

By Marc Fisher |  April 16, 2008; 7:33 AM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

"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."

Marc, step foot on CUA's campus and talk to the students. You'll likely see that while, "of course" the "policies" may adhere to church standards, the student body is every bit as diverse in their beliefs and actions as just about every other college campus. Not to mention frustrated at the "policies" that have limited who can speak on campus.

Posted by: CUA_Alum | April 16, 2008 8:52 AM

The Pope should force Georgetown to play other local universities in basketball. JTIII would have a fit but it is necessary.
I will address this issue with him during my audience with him

GMU Class of 81

Posted by: Anonymous | April 16, 2008 9:00 AM

Much depends on whether or not "catholic" is capitalized. If "Catholic", it generally means the Roman Catholic church.
If "catholic", it suggests universality and less of a denominational meaning.
Even the Creed offered at each Mass uses the lower case version.

Posted by: jmsbh | April 16, 2008 9:22 AM

I would feel comfortable with Fr. Langan's perspective IF the university treated its accrediting agencies in the same manner--if for instance it was enough to read a Middle States report and "take it seriously." If Georgetown law took ABA mandates in the same way. When Catholic universities are required to do something by the various accrediting agencies, there is rarely a hew and cry--when the very institution that sponsors them merely suggests something, cries about academic freedom being trampled upon immediately arise. Let's just have equal expectations and equal responses in this regard.
Oh, and the Cardinal Newman Society IS NOT an accrediting agency for the Church--they are integrists of the worst sort who position themselves as guardians and keepers. Hardly.
There, I've managed potentially to offend both!

Posted by: mtclax | April 16, 2008 11:27 AM

Oh, and some of the co-eds on RC Church campuses (Boston College, Loyola of Baltimore, Georgetown, and even CUA) are often the wildest partyers you'll ever see.

Posted by: King Tuchas | April 16, 2008 11:41 AM

Speaking of Georgetown University, the Pope should bring back WGTB radio.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 16, 2008 12:20 PM

kingtuchas: don't forget the fine young lassies at Loyola's neighbor, the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, fondly known as CONDOM.

Posted by: JHU Grad | April 16, 2008 1:34 PM

"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."

The problem here is that the Catholic church (big C) still sees The Pope as some sort of "chosen" being sent from G-d. He is nothing more then a man (and in my personal view a Nazi who sides with child rapists). No other mainstream, western faith looks to one live person anymore to set policy. Why the Catholics? The "Truth" Mr. Reilly is alluding to is not from G-d but mortal men (Popes) who throughout the years have been racist, sexist, bigoted, and the list goes on. If you really want a Catholic-based higher eduction, go to the monastery, not the university.

Posted by: Da Plane Da Plane | April 16, 2008 2:14 PM

Da Plane Da Plane has wisely chosen a screen name: The ideas presented are as small-minded as the stature Tattoo, the character from Fantasy Island.

Posted by: mtclax | April 16, 2008 2:42 PM

It is sad that the Holy Father is in the city and is not visiting Georgetown, "the Alma Mater of all Catholic Colleges & Universities in the United States"---Paul VI's words addressing the University via Telstar on its 175th anniversary in 1964. If the Church's deeply intellectual and scholastic traditions are to be honored and faithfully tended, the Pope and Georgetown need to be together along the Potomac on these beautiful April days.

Posted by: F. Thomas Noonan | April 16, 2008 2:58 PM

F. Noonan, I agree that both catholic and non catholic institutes of higher learning owe a lot to Georgetown. However, if you look at the mission of CUA,it was established as a papally chartered graduate and research center. So it would be sad if the Holy Father did not go to CUA.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 16, 2008 4:04 PM

OK,this is off-topic but I was watching the White House greeting of the Pope. George Bush went through his spiel. The Pope was thoughtful (and hopeful)... then the Marine Corps band and Army chorus gave a rousing rendition of the completely militaristic Battle Hymn of the Republic?! I was stunned... this was a complete dishonor to the Pope and I don't know... a 'What Were They Thinking' moment to the Bush White House...

Posted by: Dave Moore | April 16, 2008 6:38 PM

Da Plane Da Plane,

Jesus Christ was Catholic and not a Christian. Catholic Church wrote the New Testament for the Bible and revised the Old Testament. Infallibility of the Bible please.

Take and trust the Pope over Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Oral Roberts, Rev Muse and Rev Wright.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 17, 2008 8:02 AM

Georgetown and many other Jesuit colleges and universities are no longer Catholic partly because the Jesuits are no longer Catholic. Fortunately, the Jesuits are dying out as an order. The Catholic future is in the seminaries and that future is traditional and conservative.

Posted by: D Leaberry | April 17, 2008 1:01 PM

Dave, do you know the lyrics of the Battle Hymn of the Republic? It's about fighting against slavery, and being willing to die for it. While not "Ave Maria," I hardly think that it is a song that would offend the Pope. Of course, once the Church put forth the theory of "just" wars, it sort of reduced its moral authority to codemn war. I don't know of any gospel stories in which Jesus Christ wears a military uniform. Not dissing the military, many folks in my family, myself included, have served in the Army.

Posted by: Alice | April 17, 2008 1:09 PM


Posted by: Adam | April 24, 2008 11:00 AM

Go Pope Benedict!

Posted by: Timothy | April 24, 2008 4:14 PM

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