With Pope Benedict XVI visting Washington, DC this week, Townhall.com had the opportunity to talk to Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, an organization dedicated to renewing and strengthening Catholic identity at America’s 213 Catholic colleges and universities.
TH: What is the Vatican’s vision for higher education? Does Catholic education in America differ from that around the world?
Reilly: Few Americans realize that the very first universities in Europe were established or supported by the Catholic Church. So the Church has a long and distinguished history in higher education with a proven commitment to the best scholarship. The Catholic colleges and universities established in the United States – which now number about 225, the largest number of any nation in the world – are somewhat different from European universities because of the American context, which places greater emphasis on student life outside the classroom and on an absolutist version of academic freedom.
Despite the Church’s long history in higher education, it was not until 1990, with the release of the apostolic constitution “Ex corde Ecclesiae”, that Pope John Paul II formally defined Catholic higher education. He explained that a Catholic university is fully an academic institution, dedicated to the search and teaching of truth in all disciplines, and that mission is enhanced by the recognition of the truths of faith which come to us through Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church. The Vatican, then, desires that American Catholic colleges and universities enthusiastically embrace Catholic teaching as truth – a conviction that during the past 40 years has been compromised by some Catholic college leaders and faculty who fear that being faithfully Catholic somehow diminishes their academic prestige.
TH: What is the Cardinal Newman Society and what is its mission?
Reilly: The Cardinal Newman Society is a national organization that works to renew and strengthen the Catholic identity of America’s Catholic colleges and universities. Later this spring, we will launch the Center for the Study of Catholic Higher Education to produce research and publications on key issues and “best practices” in Catholic higher education. Our Love and Responsibility Project seeks to renew student life on Catholic campuses to support chastity. Our Campus Speaker Monitoring Project tracks lecturers, commencement speakers and honorees whose public actions and statement oppose Catholic moral teaching. We have opposed performances of the vile play, “The Vagina Monologues,” on Catholic campuses.