Benedict XVI and Education

BOOK REVIEW of Benedict XVI’s A Reason Open to God: On Universities, Education and Culture


On Universities, Education and Culture

By Pope Benedict XVI
The Catholic University of America Press, 2013

336 pages, $24.95

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In May comes graduation days. Commencement time offers a moment for reflection on the purpose of higher education — especially in our Catholic universities.

And every year we watch the Catholic universities to see who the commencement speakers are, and we dissect the ways they honor or detract from a university’s mission.

What a Catholic university’s mission should be is an oft-debated topic, but we needn’t look far to find a guide to measure our critique.

All three of our most recent popes, from Blessed John Paul II to Pope Francis, have had extensive experience in higher Catholic education as professors. Indeed, John Paul may well be considered the finest philosopher in the history of the papacy, and Pope Benedict XVI certainly ranks high as a theologian, particularly in his work of the ongoing rediscovery of the Fathers of the Church. In one way or another, we could refer to them as “university men.”

The Catholic University of America Press has done us a great service by publishing A Reason Open to God, with Pope Benedict’s teachings during his pontificate. The book has a foreword by the president of Catholic University, John Garvey, who has continued the fine work of his predecessor (now-Bishop David O’Connell of Trenton, N.J.) in reconstructing CUA into a truly Catholic university.

This collection is of particular value to Catholic Americans, as one of our finest boasts was that we had by far the largest collection of Catholic universities in the world, at least through the decade of the tumultuous ’60s. The majority of these universities were staffed by thriving religious congregations, both male and female.

Then, out of the blue, a revolution took place in 1967 that changed Catholic higher education radically, but we hope not forever. It was known as the Land O’ Lakes Conference, for that is where a group of Catholic college presidents and academics undertook a revolution in Catholic education that hopefully will someday (soon) be rolled back.

The Land O’ Lakes document began this way:

“The Catholic university today must be a university in the full modern sense of the word, with a strong commitment to and concern for academic excellence. To perform its teaching and research functions effectively, the Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself. To say this is simply to assert that institutional autonomy and academic freedom are essential conditions of life and growth and indeed of survival for Catholic universities, as for all universities.”

Now compare this with Pope Benedict’s address to Catholic educators at Catholic University in Washington on April 17, 2008:

“It is the case that any appeal to the principle of academic freedom to justify positions that contradict the faith and the teaching of the Church would obstruct or even betray the university’s freedom and identity and mission: a mission at the heart of the Church’s munus docendi and not somehow autonomous or independent of it.”

The contrast is clear. We can only hope that our bishops in each diocese with at least a nominally Catholic college or university will address the matter under the leadership of our new Pope Francis.

This book contains all of Pope Benedict’s talks on the subjects mentioned in the title, with the great majority being given in the context of pastoral visits throughout the world. I found most interesting those talks in England, on the occasion of his trip to beatify Blessed John Henry Newman, with whom Pope Benedict had a special relation as a fellow theologian. In his homily, Pope Benedict used Blessed John Henry’s own words to describe the goal of Catholic university professors:

“I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious — but men who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it.”

Would that all of our universities yielded such young men and women, the earth would be ablaze with the truths of our faith!

All in all, this book deserves a place on the bookshelves of every Catholic teacher, student and parent — and its words a place in their hearts.  

Father C.J. McCloskey is a Church historian and research fellow

at the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington.