Against a backdrop of institutionalised opposition to Catholic teaching in much of American Catholic academia, Pope Benedict XVI told visiting US bishops in May that Catholic colleges need to return to being bastions of orthodoxy against an increasingly hostile and aggressive secular world.
While improvements have been made, Pope Benedict said, "much remains to be done," particularly in "such basic areas" as compliance with Canon 812 of the Code of Canon Law. That section mandates that theology professors at Catholic universities be faithful to the teaching of the Church.
Canon 218 says, "Those who are engaged in the sacred disciplines enjoy a lawful freedom of inquiry and of prudently expressing their opinions on matters in which they have expertise, while observing due respect for the magisterium of the Church."
This lack of progress, the Pope said, has created confusion by "instances of apparent dissidence" between academics and the bishops. "Such discord harms the Church's witness and, as experience has shown, can easily be exploited to compromise her authority and her freedom."
The issue of religious freedom is at the top of the American bishops' agenda at the moment, in the midst of their fight against the Obama administration's attempt to mandate coverage of artificial birth control by Catholic institutions.
Even as the US bishops have fought the Obama mandate, prominent Catholic organisations have expressed their support, undercutting the efforts of the bishops. Most recently Georgetown University, a Catholic Jesuit university, invited as a commencement speaker Kathleen Sebelius, who as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services was the architect of the birth control mandate.
The Pope called the need to reform Catholic academia the "most urgent internal challenge facing the Catholic community" in the US: "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. All too often, it seems, Catholic schools and colleges have failed to challenge students to reappropriate their faith."
In the decades since the 1960s, most Catholic universities and colleges in the US, and around the world, have shifted their focus from being bastions of Catholic orthodoxy against the outside world's secularism, to playing along with the zeitgeist, especially in areas of sexual morality. Most critics agree that this shift in Catholic academia was the source and engine of the more general shift in the same direction throughout the Church's institutions and among the laity.
The scramble of American Catholic academia away from Church teaching on sexual matters began to be seen in public in 1967 when Fr Charles Curran, a former theological advisor or peritus at the Second Vatican Council, was reinstated at his tenured professorship at Catholic University of America (CUA) after having been sacked by his Bishop for opposing Catholic teaching on contraception.
Fr Curran, who was eventually barred by the Vatican from teaching Catholic theology and now teaches at a Methodist university, became a herald of the new, updated and heavily secularised version of Catholicism when in 1968, he, together with 600 other theologians, authored an open letter formally dissenting from Pope Paul VI's teaching on contraception in Humanae Vitae.
This new, and increasingly popular version of Catholicism became highly fashionable, first at CUA, the American Catholic Church's flagship educational institution, then throughout most of the Church's most prominent colleges, seminaries and convents. From there, the idea of the "loyal dissenter" in the Catholic intellectual establishment spread out into the political world, leading finally to the advent of the "pro-choice" Catholic politicians who now represent the majority of Catholics in US public life.
In the current, highly politicised climate since the reaction of the US bishops against the Obama administration's contraception mandate, some Catholic colleges are starting to pull back from full support for the secularist agenda.
In an address to Catholic academic loyalists at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Cardinal Newman Society (CNS) President Patrick J. Reilly said that a return to Catholic orthodoxy, far from being a retreat to the "Catholic ghetto," would create a strong line of defence for religious liberty in the US.
"There is little question that the apparent hypocrisy of some Catholic colleges, charities, schools and other entities - which may dissent from church teachings, or may have watered down their religious identity in search of state and federal funds - reduces public sympathy for groups whose rights are threatened," Reilly said.
Reilly's remarks are in line with Benedict XVI's previous messages to visiting American bishops this year. Speaking to the bishops of Baltimore and Washington in January, the Pope said, "The legitimate separation of Church and State cannot be taken to mean that the Church must be silent on certain issues, nor that the State may choose not to engage, or be engaged by, the voices of committed believers in determining the values which will shape the future of the nation."
He noted that the founding American political "consensus" of political, social and religious liberty, "has eroded significantly in the face of powerful new cultural currents" that are "directly opposed to core moral teachings of the Judeo-Christian tradition" and "increasingly hostile to Christianity as such".
With acknowledgement to LifeSite News. Hilary White is the LifeSite News Rome Correspondent.