WASHINGTON — From a professor’s point of view, Pope Benedict XVI’s address to Catholic college and university presidents and diocesan school superintendents April 17 “raised the bar” for what is expected of Catholic education.

The Holy Father insisted that all of a student’s school experiences should lead him to Christ, and that academic freedom was no excuse for contravening the Church’s teaching.

Andrew Abela was among 400 Catholic educators and administrators who heard the Holy Father’s address at the university’s Edward J. Pryzbyla University Center.

“Pope Benedict has given us a clearer — and higher — idea of what Catholic education should be,” he said. “For us teachers, it is not just about what we teach, but about who we are; for our students, not just about what they learn, but who they become — and, in particular, to what extent we help them to overcome their reluctance to entrust themselves to God.”

Catholic University’s president, Vincentian Father David O’Connell, called the Holy Father’s address “masterful.”

It was, he said, “a marvelous blend of gratitude, encouragement and guidance. The themes and emphases that he chose to present — Catholic education as an encounter with Jesus Christ, the sacrifices required to offer Catholic education at every level, truth, the dialogue between faith and reason, Catholic identity and mission, academic freedom and responsibility — these have all been very much on the minds of Catholic educators.”

The message wasn’t merely one of support, but also one of challenge.

“In regard to faculty members at Catholic universities, I wish to reaffirm the great value of academic freedom,” said Pope Benedict. “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,” said the Holy Father. “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.”

Ex Corde

Overall, university presidents appreciated the message.

“It was a message that was simple but profound,” said Tom Dillon, president of Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif. “Catholic identity requires a commitment.”

“The Pope’s address was a call to faithfulness and union to Christ the Logos — the Word of God,” added Dillon. “Ideology tries to drive a wedge between truth and faith, but there’s no contradiction because God is the author.”

Many were surprised that the address said nothing about Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Pope John Paul II’s apostolic constitution on Catholic higher education.

“He was mentioning themes that were certainly in harmony with Ex Corde, but he was approaching it from the overall theme of hope and freedom,” said Third Order Franciscan Father Terrence Henry, president of Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. “I think he used a different tack.”

“What he was saying was consistent with Ex Corde,” agreed Dillon. “Rhetorically, he was making a fresh start by remaking similar points, but in a positive point of view. It was an appeal to the minds, hearts and wills of those in the auditorium.”

It was a message that resonated not only with those in Catholic higher education, but also with those on the diocesan level.

“His address said many of the things that some of us hoped the Holy Father would say, but he said them with phrases that were a bit different,” said Ed McCarthy, director of education with the Diocese of Cheyenne, Wyo.

McCarthy said the Pope’s address will have a practical impact on his actions in the diocese.

“It will have an effect on how we review texts, train catechists and provide in-service for our teachers,” McCarthy said.

Students enjoyed the speech as well.

Catholic University senior Joanna Berry said that she was particularly struck by the attention the Pope paid to religious orders dedicated to serving the poor.

“I wish to make a special appeal to religious brothers, sisters and priests: Do not abandon the school apostolate; indeed, renew your commitment to schools especially those in poorer areas,” said Pope Benedict to exuberant applause.

“In places where there are many hollow promises which lure young people away from the path of truth and genuine freedom, the consecrated person’s witness to the evangelical counsels is an irreplaceable gift,” he said.

“I didn’t expect that,” said Berry, who hopes to join the Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matara — a missionary teaching order that works with the Institute of the Incarnate Word — after she graduates. “I wasn’t expecting the speech to be so pertinent for me. That was definitely inspiring.”

Tim Drake filed this story

from Washington, D.C.