Pope Benedict XVI warned Catholic educators yesterday that scholarly pursuit should not contradict the church's teachings, and that the identity and mission of Catholic colleges and universities are inextricably bound with the church.
Speaking broadly on the nature and identity of contemporary Catholic education, Benedict told about 350 leading educators at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., that "each and every aspect of your learning communities reverberates within the ecclesial life of faith."
"In regard to faculty members at Catholic colleges universities, I wish to reaffirm the great value of academic freedom," Benedict said in a widely anticipated address attended by several leaders from Boston-area colleges and universities. "Yet it is also the case that 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 departure from Catholic doctrine, he said, according to a copy of his prepared remarks, "weakens Catholic identity and, far from advancing freedom, inevitably leads to confusion, whether moral, intellectual, or spiritual."
Benedict often struck a hopeful, uplifting tone and did not mention some of the most contentious issues on Catholic campuses, such as abortion, contraception, gay rights, and the role of non-Catholic students and faculty.
In a roughly 35-minute address, he praised the American network of Catholic schools as "an outstanding apostolate of hope" and urged Catholics to support them financially so that people of all backgrounds can benefit.
"No child should be denied his or her right to an education in faith, which in turn nurtures the soul of a nation," he said.
Benedict said that the truths of faith and reason are never contradictory, although secularist ideology seeks to divide them.
Mary Jane England, president of Regis College in Weston, a school with many students from low-income backgrounds, described Benedict's address as a heartfelt appeal for Catholic colleges to lift students out of poverty toward better lives.
"He gave a clear call that the mission of Catholic colleges is to serve the underserved," she said.
England and other university leaders who attended said they were pleased that Benedict emphasized the strengths and potential of Catholic institutions. There had been speculation that the pope would reprimand them for abandoning their Catholic roots in the face of growing secularism.
"Everyone was afraid we'd be admonished," she said. "Instead, he thanked us for our commitment."
Sister Janet Eisner, president of Emmanuel College, also praised the pope's speech.
"He was very affirming about Catholic education," Eisner said. "He basically said education is integral to the church, which to an audience filled with Catholic educators was just wonderful news. None of us heard anything that was the least bit scolding. It was about renewing our commitments."
Mathew Schmalz, a religious studies professor at the College of the Holy Cross, agreed that the pope's speech struck a middle ground between "stern rebuke and "enthusiastic pep rally."
"It's probably what most people expected," he said. "Bishops will feel encouraged to be more outspoken about aspects of Catholic institutions that run contrary to the church's teachings, but it's hard for me to see anything radical coming from this."