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Pope Benedict XVI’s CUA Address: Reflections And Extensions For History Educators

April 18, 2008

Pope Benedict XVI met with Catholic educators yesterday at the Catholic University of America (CUA) in Washington, DC. He discussed topics that apply to all levels of education. Although many have reported on what was said, I want to highlight a few passages of his address that spoke to me. This means, of course, that I will eventually turn his address toward history education. Here are some progressive excerpts (starting from the beginning of the address)—with bolds and occasional commentary interspersed:

It is my great pleasure to meet you and to share with you some thoughts regarding the nature and identity of Catholic education today.

TL: Identity issues are touchy. Many Catholic schools worry about ~how~ to share their mission and philosophy.

Education is integral to the mission of the Church to proclaim the Good News.

TL: This firmly connects education with evangelization. To the Holy Father, education is not just about raising good Catholic citizens, but carrying the Catholic identity outward.

Countless dedicated Religious Sisters, Brothers, and Priests together with selfless parents have, through Catholic schools, helped generations of immigrants to rise from poverty and take their place in mainstream society.

TL: This is a nice balancing between the learning of one’s own culture and religion, and finding a way to integrate that identity with one’s surroundings.

Some today question the Church’s involvement in education, wondering whether her resources might be better placed elsewhere. Certainly in a nation such as this, the State provides ample opportunities for education and attracts committed and generous men and women to this honorable profession. It is timely, then, to reflect on what is particular to our Catholic institutions. How do they contribute to the good of society through the Church’s primary mission of evangelization?

TL: Well said. Although, in a multicultural society, there is no need to justify why a group should educate its youth about what is essential to their identity. Multiculturalism itself feeds that effort among each significant cohort. So the irony here is that Benedict is talking to Catholics about whey they should keep their own schools open!

A university or school’s Catholic identity is not simply a question of the number of Catholic students. It 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 (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 22)? Are we ready to commit our entire self – intellect and will, mind and heart – to God? Do we accept the truth Christ reveals? Is the faith tangible in our universities and schools? Is it given fervent expression liturgically, sacramentally, through prayer, acts of charity, a concern for justice, and respect for God’s creation? Only in this way do we really bear witness to the meaning of who we are and what we uphold. …Fostering personal intimacy with Jesus Christ and communal witness to his loving truth is indispensable in Catholic institutions of learning.

TL: This is a direct challenge. The Holy Father wants Catholic educators to get Christ explicitly on campus. This will be difficult. It’s one thing for faculty and administration to talk about God: even those at state schools can do this occasionally. But it’s another thing to explicitly and consistently address the life and teachings of Jesus. Why is this so hard? Well, historians, scientists, psychologists, classicists, philosophers, and literature professors all have specializations. It is difficult to explain, at times, how one’s particular work and one’s profession generally forward, or express, Christian ethics and values. It’s the same difficulty that one encounters in trying to explain how one’s research, say in the humanities, forwards a nation’s overall well-being. But one doesn’t have to always explain the ends: talking about the ethical way one does her or his task—the means—can also be Catholic or Christian. I think a Catholic educator can be Catholic in his or her means without always prejudicing the result.

The Church’s primary mission of evangelization, in which educational institutions play a crucial role, is consonant with a nation’s fundamental aspiration to develop a society truly worthy of the human person’s dignity. At times, however, the value of the Church’s contribution to the public forum is questioned. It is important therefore to recall that the truths of faith and of reason never contradict one another (cf. First Vatican Ecumenical Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith Dei Filius, IV: DS 3017; St. Augustine, Contra Academicos, III, 20, 43). The Church’s mission, in fact, involves her in humanity’s struggle to arrive at truth. In articulating revealed truth she serves all members of society by purifying reason, ensuring that it remains open to the consideration of ultimate truths.

TL: I think, after the “At times…” clause, that the Holy Father is addressing Catholics again. He’s trying to infuse them with the confidence that pursuing the Church’s mission is the same as serving all humanity.

With regard to the educational forum, the diakonia [service] of truth takes on a heightened significance in societies where secularist ideology drives a wedge between truth and faith. This division has led to a tendency to equate truth with knowledge and to adopt a positivistic mentality which, in rejecting metaphysics, denies the foundations of faith and rejects the need for a moral vision. …With confidence, Christian educators can liberate the young from the limits of positivism and awaken receptivity to the truth, to God and his goodness. In this way you will also help to form their conscience which, enriched by faith, opens a sure path to inner peace and to respect for others.
More and more people – parents in particular – recognize the need for excellence in the human formation of their children. …The Church shares their concern. When nothing beyond the individual is recognized as definitive, the ultimate criterion of judgment becomes the self and the satisfaction of the individual’s immediate wishes. The objectivity and perspective, which can only come through a recognition of the essential transcendent dimension of the human person, can be lost. Within such a relativistic horizon the goals of education are inevitably curtailed. Slowly, a lowering of standards occurs. We observe today a timidity in the face of the category of the good and an aimless pursuit of novelty parading as the realization of freedom.

TL: This is the Holy Father fighting his lifelong battle against Western cultural relativism. There’s obviously a bit of “slouching toward Gomorrah” here.

How might Christian educators respond? These harmful developments point to the particular urgency of what we might call “intellectual charity”. This aspect of charity calls the educator to recognize that the profound responsibility to lead the young to truth is nothing less than an act of love. Indeed, the dignity of education lies in fostering the true perfection and happiness of those to be educated. In practice “intellectual charity” upholds the essential unity of knowledge against the fragmentation which ensues when reason is detached from the pursuit of truth. It guides the young towards the deep satisfaction of exercising freedom in relation to truth, and it strives to articulate the relationship between faith and all aspects of family and civic life. Once their passion for the fullness and unity of truth has been awakened, young people will surely relish the discovery that the question of what they can know opens up the vast adventure of what they ought to do. Here they will experience “in what” and “in whom” it is possible to hope, and be inspired to contribute to society in a way that engenders hope in others.

TL: After the initial question, this passage could’ve been written by the Dalai Lama. I mean this as a compliment, for “intellectual charity” is an intriguing way to think about how education, and higher education in particular, can work toward social justice. The Holy Father is expanding our vocabulary. In the history profession we sometimes talk about “professional service,” but he is calling for something more intense and personal. The Holy Father used a great deal of universal language here. This is why religious leaders can speak about the ends of education in a meaningful way. They remind us of the necessary moral dimension. And now on to the controversial part of the Holy Father’s address: academic freedom.

In regard to faculty members at Catholic colleges universities, I wish to reaffirm the great value of academic freedom. In virtue of this freedom you are called to search for the truth wherever careful analysis of evidence leads you. 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 mission at the heart of the Church’s munus docendi and not somehow autonomous or independent of it.
Teachers and administrators, whether in universities or schools, have the duty and privilege to ensure that students receive instruction in Catholic doctrine and practice. This requires that public witness to the way of Christ, as found in the Gospel and upheld by the Church’s Magisterium, shapes all aspects of an institution’s life, both inside and outside the classroom. Divergence from this vision weakens Catholic identity and, far from advancing freedom, inevitably leads to confusion, whether moral, intellectual or spiritual.

I don’t feel compelled to critically comment on these last points. Thus far I’ve felt no restrictions on my academic freedom at the Catholic institutions where I’ve taught. And I’ve also, in turn, never been in a situation where I wanted to teach something contrary to the faith. Matters of faith don’t arise often in history courses, at least in ways where they can be substantially challenged by instructors. Besides, normally we historians let the opposition speak for themselves. I suppose a historian could be subversive at a Catholic institution by emphasizing too much those who are opposed to Catholic dogma. But I haven’t felt that need.

Any other thoughts on the Holy Father’s address? Did I miss anything important? Did I forget any important extensions with regard to history educators? – TL

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  1. I surely have my problems with the “enforcement background” of this Pope, but I think he generally tried to walk a reasonable line here. I might note that an address of this sort would likely be critiqued more harshly in Europe than it will be here, but, I am certain Benedict is fully aware of that fact.

    I only wonder, if I was a medical researcher, or even an educational researcher, at a Catholic University, would the phrase, “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,” make me nervous?

    Probably not deeply, because I know the independence of all the great Catholic Universities in America, but it might stick uncomfortably in the back of my head.


  2. (Unrelated – to this post – Note) The “Protestant” metaphor is one consistently used in examining this philosophy, because the form of school that we know arises – to a great extent – from Calvinist clergy, but I'd love to talk about alternate ways to describe it. Can we email?


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