Register readers have seen story after story about the debate over the identity of Catholic colleges.

The terms surrounding the debate can be confusing at times — Canon 812, mandates, Title XII — but the issue is one of the most important for the Church in American society.

It's not hard to understand why. Pope John Paul II has called for a new evangelization and a recommitment to Christ by every Catholic in time for the Jubilee Year 2000. From these efforts will bring forth a new springtime of the faith, he says. The signs are already emerging: more vocations, more evangelization efforts, the return to authentic tradition by many people, and numerous other hopeful signs.

Maintaining that momentum will require the cooperation of Catholic scholars. Theologians, in particular, will be able to help the Church in its ever deepening understanding of Revelation. Experts in other fields also have a part to play; their assistance is invaluable in helping the Church dialogue with a new brave world of technologies and shifting values. If Catholic universities sidestep this Jubilee spirit, however, the Church's efforts at evangelization will suffer.

Mindful of that, the U.S. bishops are set to vote in November on how the Church's vision of higher education — as spelled out in the Holy Father's apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae — will be implemented in the United States.

Fortunately, more Catholic university presidents are willing to see that the bishops' cooperation should be welcomed, not feared. As we reported last week, nine presidents of Chicago-area Catholic colleges are moving to strengthen the implementation proposal that their fellows nationwide have made to the bishops.

Unfortunately, there are still many Catholic college presidents who fear the bishops' role — particularly as regards theologians who need an OK from the bishop to teach.

They ought not fear this. The bishops' function is to guard the faith, not run campuses. They would be like the accrediting agencies that monitor a school's other subjects; they would not be like trustees who can hire and fire.

To understand what's at stake, it is helpful to recall the power of ideas and universities to shape the world in this century. The world is very different than it was last century. It has been ravaged by ideologies that first thrived in universities.

In the past, German philosophies of power fueled the Nazis, and economic theories developed in European universities emerged as communist totalitarian systems in the East.

Closer to home, in the last 30 years, relativistic thinking and materialist conceptions of man came to full bloom in American universities and American society. Slogans such as “There is no absolute truth” and “It's my body, I can do what I want” are road signs that helped to point us to a culture of death.

The world was transformed through the universities, and by students who applied those ideas in the fields of the media, education, medicine, and law, and in workplaces of all kinds.

What will it take to transform it through Christ?

The Catholic faith has an enormous and rich body of responses to today's trouble spots.

It shows how self-giving rather than radical individualism can save the family. It explains sin and its psychological consequences. It places the value of every person at the center of medical ethics. It gives us the motives, as stewards, to protect the environment. It speaks love to a culture of violence. And it defends human dignity against racism and other offenses.

These teachings become even more convincing when they are subjected to rigorous study. Our Catholic universities can apply them to our culture with vigor and inventiveness. The failed ideologies of the past took a long time to change the culture. The truth should take far less.