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.
TH: Are there concrete steps that the Vatican is taking to ensure the continued growth of Catholicism in America?
Reilly: A recent Pew study found that large numbers of Catholics had left the Church, and many self-identified Catholics are confused about Catholic teaching. At the root of these concerns are dissent and confusion, often spread by dissident theologians and other professors at Catholic colleges over the past four decades. The renewal of Catholic higher education is key to restoring fidelity and cohesion in the Catholic Church. The Vatican and the U.S. bishops have been working toward that goal for at least 20 years, and we are seeing great signs of renewal, such as the faithfully Catholic colleges established in the U.S. in recent years. We identify 2o of these colleges in our “Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College” (www.TheNewmanGuide.com).
TH: How is the Church responding to the apparent shortage of priests in the United States?
Reilly: Again, dissent and confusion are at the root of the problem, and faithful Catholic education is the solution. Who wants to devote their life to the Church, to the Eucharist, when their faith is shaken or undeveloped? We are seeing large percentages of students at the most faithful Catholic colleges like Christendom (in Virginia), Thomas Aquinas (in California) and the Franciscan University of Steubenville (Ohio) becoming priests and nuns in the most enthusiastically traditional religious orders and dioceses. These priests and religious are the future of the Church in America.
TH: What can Catholics do, in a modern sense, to live a more pious lifestyle?
Reilly: It’s certainly more difficult today, in American society, to hold on to traditional Catholic morality and piety. But increasingly parishes and campus ministries are expanding opportunities for confession, Eucharistic adoration, and similar ways of growing closer to Christ. If one takes a moment to listen, God is sending out a clear call for Catholic faithfulness and leadership in the U.S. In that sense, it’s a very exciting time to be Catholic.
TH: Are Catholic universities growing, and what are Catholic organizations doing to recruit more students?
Reilly: Catholic colleges and universities, for the most part, are doing well. But they face increasing competition among private colleges and universities, as public funding helps Catholic students attend a wide variety of non-Catholic institutions, and public universities become even more attractive with vast resources and facilities. The time is coming when Catholic colleges and universities will be hard-pressed to clearly demonstrate what is so special about them, and bland secularism and political correctness won’t attract students. Having a clear mission to develop students spiritually and personally is certainly much more than a crass ploy for students, but the reality is that truth in advertising and a genuine Catholic mission are going to be essential for the survival of many Catholic colleges.
TH: Do you see the European Union (and European unification) as potentially detrimental to Catholic universities in Europe, or as an opportunity to spread even further?
Reilly: The European universities have always attracted students from across the continent, so I don’t think that European unification can have a detrimental effect. What is of great concern to the Vatican, however, is the dramatic secularization of Europe. This could increase pressure on Catholic universities to secularize. Of course, because faithful Catholic universities are so important to the Church’s efforts to keep faith alive in Europe, and because increasingly Catholic higher education shines forth in stark contrast to the bland materialism and relativism of the West, it could be that they thrive under the pressure – much as we are beginning to see here in the U.S.
TH: Has the Pope’s role transformed from that of the leader of the world’s second largest religion to that of an worldwide ambassador?
Reilly: He certainly has an ambassadorial role, but hardly more than the popes had when the Church was heavily involved with the governance of Europe. It does give him a worldwide platform to explain the teachings of the Catholic Church and their relevance to all people. He’s an ambassador, a celebrity, a world leader – but most importantly, he’s an apostle of Christ in the tradition of Saint Peter, trying to bring hope and meaning to a modern world that greatly lacks both. This is why Catholics are almost giddy about the Pope-professor to is coming to teach us the truth that Wall Street, Hollywood and the Ivory Towers are incapable of providing.
Chris Regal assisted contributed to this interview.
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