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Benedict XVI on campus

AFTER A recent event at Boston College, its president, the Rev. William Leahy, led an open forum. A faculty member asked if there were implications for academic freedom to be read into the announcement that the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of America, the Jesuit-owned journal of opinion, had resigned under pressure from the Vatican. Leahy's position was clear: ''I know what the answer is for us at BC. We are not directly linked to the Vatican; we operate under principles of academic freedom."

Leahy's forthright statement was unsurprising. According to the Statutes of Boston College, ''All persons serving in instructional or research capacities," whether full or part time, ''are guaranteed the enjoyment of academic freedom." This entails a right and ''the duty, to participate fully in the search for and the communication of truth." The statute continues by encouraging ''full freedom in teaching, discussion, research, and publication" and it pledges that the university will ''protect members of the faculty, whether tenured or nontenured, against pressures and influences from within or from outside the University" that oppose academic freedom.

Similar statements are easily multiplied. For example, the bylaws of the university trustees include in the definition of the university's purpose a ''respect for truth as the primary concern of the academic community" as well as ''freedom of inquiry as indispensable for attaining truth."

It is telling, however, that the university president had to reassure a faculty member of the commitment to academic freedom. After all, the present situation is somewhat novel. Unlike most of his predecessors, the new pope does not take up his office as a relative unknown.

Benedict XVI held a very visible position during the previous pontificate, heading up a Vatican office involved in pronouncements on ''hot" topics and divisive decisions about the disciplining of theologians. Joseph Ratzinger came to the papacy as a man more worried about chaotic freedom and relativism than stifling uniformity and the lack of legitimate pluralism. He has not been seen as a supporter of ''full freedom in teaching, discussion, research, and publication."

Consequently, the early weeks of his papacy are being scrutinized. The removal of Reese is viewed as a defining moment: Benedict XVI, Bishop of Rome, remains Joseph Ratzinger the enforcer of orthodoxy. What may that portend for schools like Boston College?

Duly appointed leaders of the Catholic Church may wish on occasion to point out the errors in a theologian's work. The hierarchy of the church can even decide to discipline the theologian. While this should only be done by due process, it is a legitimate possibility. However, the academy is not the church, and the vast majority of Catholic colleges and universities are not under the direct control of church leaders. What happens in the church does not simply translate into what will or should happen in the university.

We may witness moments of tension during this papacy between ecclesiastic and academic leaders over the role of Catholic universities in general and theology faculties in particular. Due to the civil law dimension of university bylaws and statutes, however, the situation is not as perilous as some believe. Boston College, along with similar Catholic institutions of higher education, is firmly committed to academic freedom in principle and practice.

Academic freedom is not a perk for the professoriate but an important value that serves the common good. Societies are better off if they protect the freedom of scholars to engage competing views and refuse to allow any force outside the academy to make decisions about the hiring, promoting, disciplining, and firing of professors.

This principle secures the conditions for people to seek and advance the truth as best they can know it. Universities have procedures to address cases when a professor abuses academic freedom through incompetence, but those procedures are internal to the life of the academic institution.

Academic freedom benefits the church as well. It also allows free debate so that theologians can engage in mutual criticism and correction. It also provides the environment for theologians to be creative. Various teachings of the Catholic Church, especially in the area of morals, have undergone change over the course of time; for example, the teachings on slavery, religious freedom, and democracy. One engine driving such necessary change has been theological research and debate.

For good reasons, therefore, the bishops assembled at Vatican II affirmed in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church that ''all the faithful, clerical and lay, possess a lawful freedom of inquiry and of thought, and the freedom to express their minds humbly and courageously about those matters in which they enjoy competence." Academic freedom at Catholic universities makes those words a reality.

The Rev. Kenneth R. Himes is chairman of the theology department at Boston College.

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