DENVER — Pope Benedict XVI has left a lasting mark on Catholic education by showing how reason and knowledge can lead to an essential love of God, reflected scholars at leading Catholic universities.
“This is the chief idea of Pope Benedict about higher education: It isn’t our job just to provide information about God, but that the Catholic university should be a place where God is in our midst,” said John Garvey, president of The Catholic University of America, Feb. 14.
“In his writings, this emphasis on coming to the love of God is essentially connected to what universities do. ... For Benedict, there is this essential and intrinsic connection (between) knowing God and loving God.”
Garvey reflected that Pope Benedict has tirelessly taught that Catholic universities should be bringing their students “not just to know God, but to love God.”
That perspective is part of the vision shaping Catholic University of America, Garvey said. He noted that students are formed in virtue while there and that liturgical life is “essential ... not accidental” to the life and work of the university.
During his 2008 address to Catholic educators, which he delivered at the Washington-based university, the Pope emphasized the importance of Catholic identity at institutions of higher education.
This address, in concert with the efforts of American bishops, Garvey said, has had “real, noticeable effects on the attention that Catholic higher education pays to the Catholicism of our universities.”
He noted first a “lessening of suspicion” within the academic community about the role bishops play in connecting Catholic universities to “the life of the Church.” He also mentioned a “greater willingness” among Catholic universities to “be comfortable” in saying they are Catholic.
The final effect that Garvey thinks Pope Benedict has had on U.S. Catholic universities is an increase in efforts “to carry out their mission as Catholic universities” in the areas of “student formation” and in the intellectual life.
Another important point in the Pope’s thought about Catholic education, Garvey said, is that faith, alongside reason, is a path to knowledge of the truth.
“Benedict argues ... that faith has an essential part in what we come to know at universities.”
Garvey discussed Pope Benedict’s 2006 Regensburg address, in which he argued that theology does arrive at truth and therefore belongs in the academy and is not mere opinion or speculation.
Faith and reason “are not separate enterprises. ... A university which closes itself off to discussions of faith and the role of faith in coming to know is narrowing itself in an unacceptable way,” said Garvey. That universities must have a place for both faith and reason is one of Pope Benedict’s enduring gifts to the intellectual treasury of the Church, he explained.
Related to this point is Pope Benedict’s “wish to reaffirm the great value of academic freedom,” as he said at this 2008 address at Catholic University of America.
Counter to “unfair characterizations,” Garvey said, the Pope has upheld the necessity, and indeed goodness, of academic freedom.
Pope Benedict affirms that the human person can, with the use of both reason and faith, come to know the truth. “‘Academic’ freedom,” he wrote in his book The Nature and Mission of Theology, “is freedom for the truth, and its justification is simply to exist for the sake of the truth.”
Garvey said there is a tendency to mistake the belief that “there really are false and true ideas ... for a disbelief in academic freedom.” Pope Benedict’s writings, in contrast, highlight that truth is the only context in which academic freedom can arise and have meaning.
The value of academic freedom Garvey noted, is that it allows truth to win out over falsehood in any “free and open encounter” between the two, as the 17th-century English poet John Milton said.
Garvey reflected, “The idea that there are true and false ideas are themselves the original basis for protecting … academic freedom. To imagine that Benedict doesn’t believe in it, because he believes that there is a truth we can find about God, is both to misunderstand Benedict and to have a kind of funny notion of where academic freedom came from.”
A little-noticed document of Pope Benedict’s final months in the papacy will likely have a lasting effect on Catholic education.
Only two weeks before announcing his resignation, the Holy Father released a document motu proprio (on his own initiative) that drastically reduced the workload of the Congregation for Catholic Education.
The congregation was relieved of oversight on catechesis and seminary formation on Jan. 16, freeing it up for its primary mission of overseeing Catholic universities worldwide.
Garvey visited the Congregation for Catholic Education in October and said he was “blown away” by the “scope of their responsibility.” He noted that the congregation is left with the responsibility for ordering studies in philosophy and theology and that the priests working there will now have more time to devote to this since they have been relieved of extraneous tasks.
Susan Hanssen, a professor of history at the University of Dallas, also discussed the significant work of the Congregation for Catholic Education under the reign of Pope Benedict.
She found the Congregation’s 2011 decree reforming the philosophical departments of Catholic universities to be the clearest affirmation of the dignity of human reason since the Second Vatican Council.
She said Feb. 13 that the decree emphasizes there are “perennially valid” truths which are accessible by reason and shows that “an important part of being a Catholic is to affirm the dignity of human reason and what we can know by reason; and these are essential points for Catholic education.”
The affirmation of reason and its capacity for truth was a theme of Pope Benedict’s Regensburg address, Hanssen noted. This point is important, she said, because it allows Catholics to engage moral problems — such as abortion and contraception — in the public sphere on the basis not of “biblical truth,” but of “rational truth,” accessible to all persons.
Hanssen said the Regensburg address was important because it sought to engage the “academic establishment,” which, by and large, has “lost its faith in reason” and reason’s “capacity to actually arrive at truth.”
“Benedict XVI had a very clear grasp of the problems with Catholic education, and particularly with Catholic higher education, intellectual problems that had infected the universities,” she said.
“His understanding of academic freedom was always the freedom to pose questions about the ultimate things, about the origin and destiny of man, about religion and ethics,” Hanssen explained.
The dangerous notion of academic freedom as a refusal to raise questions of man’s origin and destiny, “lest we discover any truth about them,” Hanssen said, is what Pope Benedict referred to as “the dictatorship of relativism.”
She added that with his Regensburg address and his 2008 lecture at Catholic University of America, Pope Benedict “diagnosed the problem of secularization” in Catholic education.
His accomplishment, and what she believes will be his enduring legacy, was his “revitalizing the base” and “appealing directly to the laity,” alongside Blessed John Paul II.
She discussed how Pope Benedict has influenced parents who are helping their children to choose from among universities. His public ministry proclaiming the importance of Catholic identity and of both faith and reason is easily accessible online for parents and for prospective university students to inform themselves with.
“Parents are much more informed consumers after this decade,” she said. They “are no longer fooled by Catholic labels,” but are looking for “vibrantly Catholic” universities.
Hanssen described “roving bands of Catholic parents, well aware of their parental right to educate their children, determined to spend their money wisely, market-educated by listening to EWTN, reading up on colleges on the Cardinal Newman Society website, and combing through Catholic college websites, faculty webpages and university curricula for that rare commodity — a genuinely Catholic education worth its weight in gold.”
These well-informed parents, together with the proliferation of “smaller, newer, more vibrantly Catholic institutions” such as Wyoming Catholic College, “are the legacy ... of Benedict XVI,” she said.
Pope Benedict has assisted parents in the “pretty serious moral decisions” which “God has entrusted” to them, of guiding their children to make good decisions about their education, Hanssen reflected.
“Parents,” she concluded, “are much more alert than 10 years ago, and they do their homework. So that’s hopeful.”