Pope Benedict XVI told a group of U.S. bishops that educating young Catholics in the faith is “the most urgent internal challenge” facing the Catholic Church in America.
He emphasized that responding to the challenge requires schools to have a strong Catholic identity and for theology professors to teach in unity with the Church.
“(T)he question of Catholic identity, not least at the university level, entails much more than the teaching of religion or the mere presence of a chaplaincy on campus,” Pope Benedict said May 5 in an address to U.S. bishops from Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah. The bishops were at the Vatican for their ad limina visit.
“All too often, it seems, Catholic schools and colleges have failed to challenge students to reappropriate their faith as part of the exciting intellectual discoveries which mark the experience of higher education.”
Pope Benedict said many new college students find themselves disassociated from their family, school and community support systems that previously helped transmit the Catholic faith to them. This fact should “continually spur Catholic institutions of learning to create new and effective networks of support,” he said.
The Pope said in his English-language address that many U.S. bishops have noted the need for Catholic colleges and universities to “reaffirm their distinctive identity in fidelity to their founding ideals and the Church’s mission in service of the Gospel.”
He specifically called on Catholic universities to comply with canon law and the 1990 apostolic constitution “Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” which both require theology teachers to receive a mandate from the “competent ecclesiastical authority.” The mandates, which usually are given by the local bishop, ensure that the teachers are in agreement with the Church’s teachings.
This requirement, the Pope said, shows ecclesial communion and is especially important in light of “the confusion created by instances of apparent dissidence between some representatives of Catholic institutions and the Church’s pastoral leadership.”
This “discord” harms the Church’s witness and “can easily be exploited to compromise her authority and her freedom,” Pope Benedict warned the bishops.
His remarks also stressed the positive aspects of Catholic education.
It is inspired by “an intellectual charity” which recognizes that leading others to truth is “ultimately an act of love.” Faith recognizes the “essential unity” of all knowledge and protects against the “alienation and fragmentation” of reason detached from “the pursuit of truth and virtue.”
The Pope praised the “great progress” in improving catechesis and reviewing texts for conformity with the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
He also lauded efforts to preserve the “great patrimony” of America’s Catholic elementary and high schools, many of which face problems because of changing demographics and increased costs.