When Pope Benedict XVI arrives in Washington next week, he will confront the continuing fallout from sexual abuse scandals and America’s prosecution of the war in Iraq, which has been opposed by the Catholic Church since its outset. We welcome the Holy Father’s attention to all of these issues. But another event on the Pope’s schedule is of even greater interest to Georgetown students, Catholic or not: his meeting with the presidents of Catholic universities. While he may be coming to chastise, the Pope could learn from our model of Catholic education.
Some conservative American Catholics, like Patrick Reilly, the president of the Cardinal Newman Society, are using the meeting to stir up controversy. They’ve suggested that the Pope, an academic theologian and formerly the top Vatican official charged with enforcing doctrine, will reprimand administrators of Catholic universities for straying from the Church line on topics ranging from theology and academic freedom to abortion and homosexuality.
Georgetown, which is among the more liberal Catholic schools—and the home of Fr. Peter Phan, a professor the Church reprimanded for writings that suggested other religions may offer salvation—might be a specific target.
But in a recent interview, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the Vatican ambassador to the U.S., suggested that the speech will not be confrontational and criticized those who would use the Pope’s visit for their own political aims.
Conservative American Catholics, including the Cardinal Newman Society, which does not even consider Georgetown a Catholic university, would do well to listen.
Whatever the tone of the Pope’s address, Georgetown and President John DeGioia must continue to advocate for our approach to Catholic identity, one that balances the values of faith with the goals of excellent higher education and a commitment to diversity.
Catholic values must engage and exist in context, not cloister themselves away in monasteries disguised as colleges. To follow a conservative path and compromise the freedom of our faculty and students to express themselves, or to cut ourselves off from the wider worlds of academia and society, would be a fool’s errand. The Pope and the Church at large would do well to consider that lesson.