By Kevin M. Clarke

SAN MARCOS, California, FEB. 11, 2010 ( In April 2008, Benedict XVI summed up the task ahead for the reform of Catholic higher education in America with two words: "intellectual charity."

During his apostolic visit to the United States, Benedict XVI issued a strong call to the heads of Catholic institutions in America. In his diagnosis of the crises facing Catholic religious education in America, the Pope made it abundantly clear that failing to orient the whole curriculum toward Christ, and indeed the whole life of the university, "weakens Catholic identity" and "inevitably leads to confusion." He spoke compassionately, kindly; he spoke with authority.

His words certainly will be reexamined this fall by America's Catholic colleges and universities as they question the place of Catholic mission and identity on their campuses this year. What is worth noting here is how well these two words -- "intellectual charity" -- encapsulate the fullness of the Pontiff's teaching on the nature of Catholic education, especially considering charity's intrinsic link with truth in the Holy Father's magisterium.

So will universities respond with the type of charity for which Benedict XVI has called? That question may actually be more complex than at first sight.

Two conceptions of academic freedom

In addition to the Pope's words to educators, Catholic higher education officials will also revisit two Church documents of the past century -- one originating in the United States, and one issued by the Vatican. And yet one more document, which seems to have become established as authoritative itself, looms in the background.

In 1967, many leaders in Catholic higher education gathered in Wisconsin to speak on the notion of the modern Catholic university. What followed was the Land O'Lakes Statement on the Nature of the Contemporary Catholic University, signed by 26 presidents, theologians, and other higher education officials.

In word, the Land O'Lakes document may not have seemed an outright rejection of the role of the Church in academia, but many have observed that in action the statement has become a veritable carte blanche for academic license. The Land O'Lakes authors wrote, "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."

And so, indeed, a great chasm has opened between Catholic theology and the type of theology, or religious studies, at today's Catholic colleges and universities. The transference of Catholic schools' authority to governing boards, many of whom are comprised of non-Catholics, may further hinder progress toward a renewal of Catholic academia.

In 1990, Pope John Paul II signed off on the apostolic constitution "Ex Corde Ecclesiae." In the constitution, the exercise of academic freedom was linked inextricably with the quest for truth (cf. "Ex Corde Ecclesiae," 1, 4). The themes of truth and fidelity to the Church -- absent from Land O'Lakes -- weave throughout the Papal text, describing not only the need for the university's institutional commitment to truth itself, but also its courageous zeal to "speak uncomfortable truths" ("Ex Corde Ecclesiae," 32).

Moreover, many Catholic colleges and universities have for years neglected to implement the canonical norms called for in "Ex Corde Ecclesiae." What had become apparent to the Church in the decades following the 1960s was that the severance of educational inquiry from apostolic authority had distanced academia from its primary task: that of uniting "two orders of reality that too frequently tend to be placed in opposition as though they were antithetical: the search for truth, and the certainty of already knowing the fount of truth" ("Ex Corde Ecclesiae," 1). 

In 2001, a document from the U.S. bishops, "The Application of 'Ex Corde Ecclesiae' for the United States," went into effect for Catholic colleges and universities in the United States. The document was meant to implement "Ex Corde Ecclesiae," but many question the eagerness of academia to embrace these documents.

In a Washington Times article last May, Msgr. David O'Connell, the outgoing president of the Catholic University of America, expressed frustration that so many Catholic institutions were clinging to Land O'Lakes as "an alternative" to "Ex Corde Ecclesiae." He stated that Land O'Lakes had "introduced confusion into the Catholic higher education community."

The respective impacts these three documents -- the Land O'Lakes Statement, "Ex Corde Ecclesiae," and "The Application of 'Ex Corde Ecclesiae' for the United States" -- will have on the future of Catholic education will determine whether Catholic institutions turn toward a renewal of catholicity or continue on a path of increased secularization.

A justification, a betrayal

Benedict XVI told Catholic educators, in an address at the Catholic University of America during his 2008 visit to the United States, that "any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and the teaching of the Church would obstruct or even betray the university's identity and mission; a mission at the heart of the Church's 'munus docendi' [task of teaching] and not somehow autonomous or independent of it."

Many academics invoke "academic freedom" over and against questions of Church Tradition and even Christian ethics. On the other hand, the words above give insight into the Pope's thought on the nature of the Catholic university. He taught that "intellectual charity" illumines instruction and helps maintain the unity of knowledge, avoiding the "fragmentation" that occurs within the disciplines when reason and the drive for truth depart from the same course.

In the academic world filled with all its research grants, distinguishing titles, honors and glory, what is often lost is the dignity of the student and his or her right to be led not to what is merely novel or popular but to truth in all things. Through intellectual charity the young can experience the "deep satisfaction" of freedom lived in relation to truth.

In a September 2009 address to educators in Prague, the Pontiff spoke again of many similar themes. The fragmentation of knowledge leads reason far from truth, he explained. "The relativism that ensues provides a dense camouflage behind which new threats to the autonomy of academic institutions can lurk." Ironically, the very "freedoms" for which many academics clamor are the very means by which freedom is lost.

This thought is not something new for the Pontiff. In "Nature and Mission of Theology" (Ignatius, 1995), he treated the topic of academic freedom: "'Academic' freedom is freedom for the truth, and its justification is simply to exist for the sake of the truth, without having to look back toward the objectives it has reached" (37). Freedom is united with truth, which then leads to reverence of truth, or worship.

Many Catholic institutions have made the case that in order to keep with the times and compete with secular and other private institutions they must remain unchecked by ecclesiastical authorities and Church Tradition. Academic inquiry and the vast possibilities of the student life must be up to speed with the competition, after all. 

Yet before becoming Pope he wrote that the choice of modern times is between freedom of production and freedom of the truth: "But the freedom to produce, unchecked by truth, means the dictatorship of ends in a world devoid of truth and thus enslaves man while appearing to set him free. Only when truth has value in itself and a glimpse of it outweighs every success, only then are we free; and this is why the only authentic freedom is the freedom of the truth" (Nature and Mission, 37).

He echoed these words in his address to educators at the Catholic Univ ersity of America: "A university or school's Catholic identity is not simply a question of the number of Catholic students. It is a question of conviction -- do we really believe that only in the mystery of the Word made flesh does the mystery of man truly become clear? (cf. "Gaudium et Spes," No. 22) Are we ready to commit our entire self -- intellect and will, mind and heart -- to God? Do we accept the truth Christ reveals? Is the faith tangible in our universities and schools?"

Identity crisis and wisdom

These questions present a real examination of conscience for the nation's Catholic institutions. Controversies have been no less common since the Pope's apostolic visit. The renewal of Catholic higher education has yet to be fully actualized as shown by a somewhat slowing stream of pro-abortion lecturers, honorees, and commencement speakers across the nation; the federal government's January finding that Manhattan College (a New York Catholic institution) has a secular, nonreligious purpose; and the presence of institution-approved student groups contrary to the Catholic faith at many schools.

The above can hardly be pinned upon those well-intentioned authors of the Land O'Lakes Statement. Nevertheless, Land O'Lakes is a necessary cause for much of the distress afflicting many Catholic institutions today. In other words, although Land O'Lakes does not necessarily lead to anti-Catholic theatrical productions such as "The Vagina Monologues" at Catholic institutions, there would be no such performances at Catholic institutions without a Land O'Lakes.

And so, the nation's Catholic colleges and universities face a question by which its very identity is inextricably bound: Land O'Lakes or "Ex Corde Ecclesiae"? Because of the inner disharmony between the two, to choose one is to reject the other. Furthermore, will the institutions themselves cleave to Land O'Lakes and its notion of academic freedom, or will they find the pearl of great price that is the Pope's April 2008 address? 

There may be those in the academic community who -- "in the face of authority of whatever kind" -- will resist the Pope's words as "external." But would they not in professional deference consider words from an eminently accomplished academic? He is, after all, "the theologian pope," an academic through and through. 

No one should forget that these words "intellectual charity" come from one who has himself been a lifelong professor. For this expert member of the academic community, intellectual charity is the very exercise of academic freedom. 

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Kevin M. Clarke has a master's degree in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville, and teaches religion at St. Joseph Academy in San Marcos, California. He is the author of a chapter on Benedict XVI's Mariology in "De Maria Numquam Satis: The Significance of the Catholic Doctrines on the Blessed Virgin Mary for All People" (University Press of America, 2009), and is a recent contributor to the New Catholic Encyclopedia.