The pope and the universities


Pope Benedict XVI had barely left the Catholic University of America on April 17 when the Catholic higher education establishment's spin machine shifted into high gear.

One university president said that what most impressed him about the papal address to Catholic educators was what it was not: a dressing-down. Still another president cooed that she felt "affirmed." An administrator at yet another institution said that, as the pope hadn't cited Ex Corde Ecclesia, John Paul II's concerns about Catholic identity were clearly old hat.

One got the distinct impression from the spin that a lot of people thought they'd dodged a bullet — and were grateful they weren't going home to face irate alums and dubious donors. The "Benedict loves what we're doing" blah-blah has continued ever since.

The facts, to put it gently, suggest something rather more complicated. Consider these excerpts from the Holy Father's address:

"A university's or school's Catholic identity ... is a question of conviction — do we really believe that only in the mystery of the Word made flesh does the mystery of man truly become clear? Are we ready to commit our entire self — intellect and will, mind and heart — to God? Do we accept the truth Christ reveals?"

[What percentage of this year's Catholic college and university graduates could honestly answer those questions with a convinced "Yes?" What percentage would even understand the first question?]

"While we have sought diligently to engage the intellect of our young, perhaps we have neglected the will. Subsequently we observe, with distress, the notion of freedom being distorted. Freedom is not an opting out. Freedom is an opting in — a participation in Being itself. Hence authentic freedom can never be obtained by turning away from God."

[Might these sentences be printed, framed, and posted in co-ed dormitories on Catholic campuses?]

"A university's or school's Catholic identity ... is a question of conviction — do we really believe that only in the mystery of the Word made flesh does the mystery of man truly become clear? Are we ready to commit our entire self — intellect and will, mind and heart — to God? Do we accept the truth Christ reveals?"

"We observe today a timidity in the face of the category of the good ... an assumption that every experience is of equal worth and a reluctance to admit imperfection and mistakes. And particularly disturbing is the reduction of the precious and delicate area of education in sexuality to management of 'risk,' bereft of any reference to the beauty of conjugal love."

[How many freshman orientation programs and student life offices on Catholic campuses would have to examine consciences here?]

"....I wish to affirm the great value of academic freedom.... Yet ... 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; a mission at the heart of the Church's [teaching mission] and not somehow ... independent of it."

[Will the theologians at prestige Catholic universities who affirm Humanae Vitae's teaching on the morally appropriate means of regulating fertility, the Catechism's teaching on the disordered character of homosexual acts, and the teaching of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis on the inadmissability of women to Holy Orders please raise their hands?]

The spin machine notwithstanding, Benedict XVI put serious challenges before the nation's leading Catholic educators. To resolve any doubts that the pope has a different idea of what befits a Catholic college or university than a lot of the Catholic higher education establishment, however, I propose a simple test.

Whether or not to produce Eve Ensler's "Vagina Monologues" — a "play" that mocks the settled teaching of the Catholic Church — has become a tedious annual ritual on many Catholic campuses. Prominent among them is Notre Dame: to the public mind, the flagship among U.S. Catholic institutions of higher education. There, the university's president, Father John Jenkins, CSC, has allowed Ensler's "play" on campus, acquiescing to the demands of some Notre Dame faculty while rejecting the counsel of other distinguished faculty members and the arguments of the local bishop.

In the patristic period, disputes within and among local churches were submitted to the Bishop of Rome for adjudication. So here's my proposal and my test-case: let Father Jenkins send Pope Benedict XVI a copy of Ensler's "play," asking the pope whether he considers this material appropriate for production or useful for discussion on a Catholic campus.

The answer, I predict, will not please the spin machine.



George Weigel. "The pope and the universities." The Catholic Difference (May 23, 2008).

Reprinted with permission of George Weigel.

George Weigel's column is distributed by the Denver Catholic Register, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Denver. Phone: 303-715-3123.


George Weigel, a Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is a Roman Catholic theologian and one of America's leading commentators on issues of religion and public life. Weigel is the author or editor of eighteen books, including Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism: A Call to Action, God's Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church (2005), The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God (2005), Letters to a Young Catholic: The Art of Mentoring (2004), The Courage to Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church (2002), and The Truth of Catholicism: Ten Controversies Explored (2001).

George Weigel's major study of the life, thought, and action of Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (Harper Collins, 1999) was published to international acclaim in 1999, and translated into French, Italian, Spanish, Polish, Portuguese, Slovak, Czech, Slovenian, Russian, and German. The 2001 documentary film based on the book won numerous prizes. George Weigel is a consultant on Vatican affairs for NBC News, and his weekly column, "The Catholic Difference," is syndicated to more than fifty newspapers around the United States.

Copyright © 2008 George Weigel

Subscribe to CERC's Weekly E-Letter



Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.