WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Roman Catholic schools and universities that ignore Church teachings in the name of academic freedom betray their identity and risk causing moral confusion among students, Pope Benedict said on Thursday.
Catholic dogma must shape “all aspects of an institution’s life, both inside and outside the classroom,” the former German university professor told over 400 heads of U.S. Catholic universities, colleges and schools.
Benedict, 81, said he supported academic freedom but argued that teachers at Catholic institutions could not contradict Catholic doctrine because it taught the ultimate truth.
“Divergence from this vision weakens Catholic identity and, far from advancing freedom, inevitably leads to confusion, whether moral, intellectual or spiritual,” he said at Catholic University of America in Washington.
U.S. Catholic educators are debating the identity of institutions that have taken in many non-Catholic teachers and students and challenged Church teaching by allowing gay student clubs or hosting speakers who advocate abortion rights.
Critics ask why the Church should educate three million students — in about 7,500 primary and secondary schools and about 250 colleges and universities — if what they learn hardly differs from what state schools teach.
Instead of rebuking the educators, as some reports had suggested he might, Benedict thanked them for their “dedication and generosity.”
But he made clear he wanted teachers and administrators to put a firm Catholic stamp on their institutions.
“A university or school’s Catholic identity is not simply a question of the number of Catholic students. It is a question of conviction,” he said. “Do we accept the truth Christ reveals? Is faith tangible in our universities and schools?”
Catholic education may have stressed secular knowledge more than faith, he suggested. “We observe today ... an aimless pursuit of novelty parading as the realization of freedom.”
He expressed concern about “the reduction of the precious and delicate area of education in sexuality to management of ‘risk,’ bereft of any reference to the beauty of conjugal love.”
To university faculty, Benedict said: “I wish to reaffirm the great value of academic freedom ... you are called to search for the truth wherever careful analysis of evidence leads you.”
But, he said: “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.”
The pope specially appealed to orders of nuns, brothers and priests not to quit teaching. “Indeed, renew your commitment to schools, especially those in poorer areas,” he said.
Catholic schools have been closing in U.S. inner cities, where changing demographics meant students’ families are often less able to pay tuition. Some 212 closed or merged with others in the 2006-2007 academic year alone.
The schools also face higher costs because they must employ lay teachers to replace lower-cost staff from religious orders. Some lay teachers in New York, which Benedict visits from Friday to Sunday, are striking for better pay and benefits.
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