Often, these attacks are not against particular moral teachings, they are instead against the religious foundations of those teachings. Many academicians and institutions enthusiastically ridicule people of faith, and religion in general. And many in the media are happy to carry water for them, give them favorable coverage, and characterize people of faith as knuckle-dragging Neanderthals.
A false dichotomy is being erected by some to pit faith against reason. The implication is that those advancing faith are somehow anti-scientific, or anti-intellectual, or opposed to the acquisition of knowledge and understanding.
Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, was the first American university to take a public oath to remain faithful to its Catholic calling. They do not see a competition between being academically challenging and passionately Catholic. Franciscan, Catholic University, and others — whose goals are to be authentically Catholic — are in sharp contrast to the likes of Georgetown University.
Pope Benedict should seize this opportunity as a teachable moment. Faith and reason do not have to be at odds. Far from it.
The purpose of universities is to pursue truth. In fact, the word “university” means a place where the universe and all within it is studied. And the Catholic Church has a rich history of higher education that has informed many leaders throughout the world — among them, Secretary of State Rice, and King Abdullah II of Jordan.
Religion, at least in the Judeo-Christian model, claims to be truth. In addition to questions of death and the hereafter, it has relevance for everyday life. It establishes norms and standards for individual behavior and for society as a whole.
So if religion claims to proclaim truth and universities are dedicated to pursuing truth, these two need not be at odds. The tension between faith and reason tension is artificial, which Pope Benedict should expose.
But by creating a false dichotomy, unnecessary conflicts are created. Often those pressing these conflicts are militant secularists or advocates of lifestyles, practices or activities that are generally considered immoral by Judeo-Christian standards. They are intended to discredit people of faith, reducing their impact in the public square.
Pope Benedict is a theologian and scholar who is not afraid to engage popular culture. During his visit, he will not tell university leaders to abandon scientific endeavors. His call for Catholic institutions to be true to Catholic doctrine should not in any way interfere with their academic mission.
Instead, Pope Benedict will challenge these academic leaders to follow a Franciscan University-like model that extols the unity of faith and reason. Fervent faith and studious academic research can go hand-in-hand. If one is about truth and the other is about searching for truth, faith and reason can both be advanced on American campuses of Catholic institutions of higher education.