Pope Benedict XVI's highly anticipated address today to more than 200 leaders of U.S. Catholic colleges has renewed a debate that is as old as their origins: How do Catholic institutions of higher education balance their religious identity with academic freedom?
Catholic colleges were founded upon the principle that faith and reason are essential in the pursuit of knowledge. But at times, the two ideals have clashed, with conservative Catholics condemning some curricula and opposing such campus activities as gay student groups, commencement speakers who support abortion rights, and stage productions of The Vagina Monologues.
Some critics say today's Catholic colleges, no longer run predominantly by clergy, are suffering an identity crisis, caving to secular society and veering from their religious missions. They hope that Pope Benedict, a conservative scholar who was close to Pope John Paul II, will reaffirm the traditional role of Catholic education when he addresses college and secondary school educators at Catholic University in Washington.
Others assert that Catholic universities must encourage the open exchange of ideas, even when positions diverge from traditional church teachings. They too, are eagerly-awaiting the pope's remarks - the first papal lecture to educators in two decades - hoping for a message that embraces the complexity of Catholic education in a changing America.
"It has always been a delicate balance, and there are tensions at times," said the Rev. Charles Currie, president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities. "I think he will be encouraging the good work that Catholic schools are doing and at the same time he will be challenging us to pursue an identity and balance the complex nature we are immersed in. We are doing a good job, but we're not perfect."
Before becoming pope three years ago, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger earned a reputation as a vigorous "enforcer" of Catholic orthodoxy. In the past year, the former theology professor from Germany has spoken of an "educational emergency," noting a failure of society to teach young people the truth of the faith.
While many observers expect the pontiff to challenge educators, it is unclear what approach he will take.
Some point to the late 1960s as the time when colleges, with more laypeople on their boards and faculties, began departing from what some view as traditional Catholic values. With fewer nuns and priests setting the religious tone, the character of colleges began to change, said Melanie M. Morey, senior director of research and consulting at the Catholic Education Institute and the author of Catholic Higher Education: A Culture in Crisis.
"They began to disappear, and we do not have a pipeline of people equally prepared to take that place," she said. "People have lots of concerns about that."
In 1990, John Paul II issued Ex Corde Ecclesiae, which Currie calls "the Magna Carta for Catholic universities," describing his view of Catholic higher education. Many read the document as a call for colleges to strengthen their religious identity.
In recent years, conservative Catholics have taken aim not only at student activities on campuses, but also academia. They argue that religious instruction has become too broad and that students can fulfill a theology course requirement with a class on Buddhism instead of Catholicism.
"There is serious concern about the decline of the curriculum," said Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, which advocates Catholic orthodoxy. "Catholic universities exist for the very purpose of seeking truth and the belief that Catholic teachings are given to us by God. Any Catholic university that would knowingly confuse students about Catholic teaching is, in fact, violating its mission."
Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity College in Washington,maintains that banning controversial plays, gay student organizations or speakers with views contrary to Catholic doctrine stifles intellectual debate.
"There are groups that are not affiliated with the church, who take it upon themselves to say they know better than us what Catholic teaching is and how we should apply it to our campuses," she said, referring to the Cardinal Newman Society. "The knee-jerk reaction that we should kick out the people who disagree is anti-intellectual."
Last year, when Trinity alumna Nancy Pelosi was sworn in as House speaker, the college held a Mass in her honor. The event attracted protesters objecting to Pelosi's support of abortion rights.
"We allow every alumna who asks for Mass in our chapel to have Mass," said McGuire. "Mass is not a political act; it's a sacred act."
McGuire takes issue with the notion that laypeople have contributed to a crisis in Catholic education.
"Many people who equated Catholicism with a Roman collar or a nun's veil had a very hard time seeing somebody like me, a layperson, as a leader of a Catholic institution," she said.
"Frankly, when I took the job, I didn't see myself as a religious leader. I am an academic leader with religious responsibilities. I think people who call this a crisis have a hard time seeing change in a new world."
Clashes on university campuses are not new. Perhaps the best-known incident took place in the late 1980s, when the Vatican ordered the removal of the Rev. Charles E. Curran, a Catholic University theologian who disagreed with the church's position to birth control. The church official who signed his papers of removal was Cardinal Ratzinger.
Catholic University, established by the Vatican 121 years ago, is unlike other Catholic colleges and must adhere strictly to church doctrine. Curran's firing embroiled the campus in turmoil, dividing the faculty, said James F. Brennan, provost and professor of psychology at Catholic University.
Nevertheless, the boundaries were clearly drawn after Curran's firing. For example, the university would consider inviting to its campus a supporter of abortion rights as a speaker, in the context of a debate on abortion. But Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton would not be invited to give a rally on campus, because of her stance, Brennan explained.
"We accept that there are two paths to truth," he said. "We have to continually ask ourselves, is there something our students could possibly miss out because the mission is restricting us too much? We are very sensitive to that. At the same time we are trying to protect the image of the church."