Will the Pope Scold U.S. Catholic Universities?

Freshman Rebecca De La Garza isn't so different from many of her fellow students at Georgetown—and that may be the problem. Georgetown is the oldest Roman Catholic and Jesuit university in America and is meant to serve as a Catholic institution. "But I don't feel aligned with the traditional church," De La Garza confesses without much guilt. She's Catholic but not deeply devout, and she didn't come to Georgetown to deepen her faith; she came because she liked the location and its art history department. She says campus convenience stores don't sell condoms but that students drink and engage in premarital sex "like at any other college." Most of her peers don't go to mass every Sunday, but they must take two semesters of theology, including one required class, "THEO-001: The Problem of God," in which her class has debated such questions as whether it's reasonable to have faith in God and whether there is reason present in the Bible. She didn't come away with any firm answers, but she's sure of one thing: "I think the Vatican would take issue with things at Georgetown, and I think the pope would have some apprehension about things here."

She's right: on the eve of Pope Benedict's visit to the U.S., observations like hers are a hot topic in Catholic academe. According to the Web site of the Cardinal Newman Society, which promotes orthodoxy in Catholic higher education, there is need for serious change: "The Catholic identity of many Catholic institutions of higher education in the United States has become increasingly clouded and the essential elements of Catholic education have been discarded for the sake of a mistaken notion of academic freedom." Examples abound, from productions of Eve Ensler's "The Vagina Monologues" at Catholic institutions like the University of Notre Dame to the society's displeasure at Villanova University for providing "another example of a Catholic university hosting a pro-abortion political figure," when Michelle Obama recently spoke at a political rally there.

A leading voice of this concern is expected to be Pope Benedict XVI himself, who on Thursday will be making perhaps the most closely watched speech of his visit, an address to the heads of 250 Catholic colleges and universities and superintendents from the 195 Catholic dioceses in the United States. After all, asks George Weigel of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, "If Georgetown is simply Amherst on the Potomac, what's the point? It ought to bring—and I think he will affirm that it does bring—something distinctive to the mix of higher learning." But what else will Benedict say when he addresses educators on the campus of Washington's Catholic University of America, the only college in the United States operated by the U.S. Conference of Catholic of Bishops. Predictions range widely: a tongue-lashing for failing to adhere more strictly to church teachings? A pat on the back for educators working to maintain Catholic principles in trying times?

"We're not expecting a rebuke. That's not his style," says Father David O'Connell, president of Catholic University, who expects Benedict to challenge educators to search for a deeper sense of Catholic identity but not to demand or expect immediate results. "Actually, many have expectations of him they feel are not being filled. He had a reputation as being "the enforcer," and he has been anything but that over the past three years." As Chester Gillis, head professor of theology at Georgetown puts it, "We are not to the point of fear and trembling. But I'm not saying there is no concern."

The call for greater orthodoxy in Catholic education predates Benedict but may take on greater momentum during his papacy. Many observers describe Benedict as very comfortable in an academic milieu. "In a sense he's still a professor, only the classroom has broadened and the pulpit is much larger," says O'Connell. But Benedict is also respected as the man who can carry out the legacy of Pope John Paul II, who in 1990 issued "Ex Corde Ecclesiae," which is basically, as O'Connell describes it, the "Magna Carta of Catholic higher education" and calls on schools to focus and emphasize what makes them authentically Catholic. "Ex Corde Ecclesiae" also asserted a newer legal instrument called a mandatum, which called for teachers at Catholic colleges and universities to have a license from their local bishop to teach theology. The license is more a private letter of support from a bishop, say school officials, but the mandatum requirement raised concerns that there might be more punitive measures against theologians, or at least more extensive oversight. According to John Allen, a senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter and the author of two books on Pope Benedict, "Theologians got upset. University presidents got upset. The U.S. bishops were divided on the question." But then other events took over, Allen says. "The sex abuse crisis came along, so it blotted everything else out of the sky for about five years." Until now.

But how does a college affirm its Catholic authenticity? And what proof will be sufficient to satisfy someone like Pope Benedict, who spent two and a half decades as prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith—the Vatican congregation responsible for oversight of Catholic teaching and doctrine? "That Congregation used to be called by a different name: the Inquisition," says O'Connell. "It was the part of the Vatican that had oversight on teaching, doctrine and moral behavior." And it has the power to remove a professor from his post. In 1986, under a decision authored by then-Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict) and accepted by Pope John Paul II, the Vatican removed the Rev. Charles E. Curran from his professorship at Catholic University for straying from official church teachings on such subjects as homosexuality, divorce, abortion and birth control. Curran's case is the only one in which a professor lost his post, but other theologians have been given very clear warnings that they are being watched, too. Since 2000, says Allen, the Vatican has issued public critiques of the work of six Catholic theologians, a process that could drag on for years, if not decades.

One of them is American priest Peter Phan, a professor of theology at Georgetown, whose 2004 book "Being Religious Interreligiously" was heavily criticized by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and prompted a review notification by the Vatican. "I was surprised," says Phan. "What I wrote fell in line with the church, and I never set out to change doctrine. They asked me to make changes, and the matter is still open." Phan is still teaching at Georgetown as the review continues, but he doesn't know for how long. "Nothing is ever closed in Rome. There are steps they take to an investigation; you never face accusations like you would in a court of law." According to Phan the Vatican can directly remove a professor from a seminary or a pontifical college like Catholic University, where the degrees are granted by the Vatican.

The number rebuked under Benedict has been low, says National Catholic Reporter's Allen, in part because the Vatican now prefers that the cases be handled by local bishops conferences, and is also reluctant to impose disciplinary measures on a theologian. "The Vatican today typically restricts itself to a critical notice about a given book, the idea being to make clear that it's doctrinal errors, not people, that it's trying to combat." While the emphasis is for bishops or universities to handle the problem, the pope himself is still the ultimate arbiter. "It's not clear the pope directly has the authority to fire somebody," Allen says. "But if the Vatican makes a full-court press to get rid of someone, then ultimately that person is probably not long for this world."

Washington, D.C., Archbishop Donald Wuerl, who also serves the largely ceremonial role of chancellor of Catholic University, says there is general intellectual excitement on Catholic campuses, where students and professors are searching for a deeper sense of identity. Part of that search, Wuerl says, involves watching professors closely. "You couldn't have a good law class where the professor said, 'I'm going to teach you what I think the Supreme Court should have said, so forget all these rulings. I'll teach what the law should be.' I think after a while the university would say, 'We need to shape up this law school'." As Wuerl explains it, it's the same thing for Catholic universities. If the pope issues an encyclical, that should become an ordinary part of theology class. "And if someone rejects that, the university has to look the same way they'd look at a law professor that rejects the Supreme Court."

Georgetown student De La Garza might see things a bit differently. While she doubts that her theology class, with its devil's advocate challenges to faith and reason, would please the pope, she says that "only at Georgetown have I been able to explore religion on my own, something that wasn't available to me at my Catholic high school." And that open-ended exploration actually has her thinking more deeply about her beliefs than ever before. "I think it has enriched my faith. I don't think my relationship with the Vatican or the pope or the hierarchy of the church is really all that important. It has to do more with my relationship with God."