Unless you're living on Mars or in West Hollywood, you probably know that the Pope is in America this week. On his itinerary is a talk to Catholic educators. My colleague, Thomas S. Hibbs, in this morning's National Review Online, offers some reflections on "Benedict and the Catholic Universities." Here is an excerpt:
Ironies abound — the most dramatic being the way that leading Catholic universities, desperately afraid of being identified with “official” Catholic teachings on sexuality, have abandoned the Catholic intellectual tradition save for some small portion of the Church’s teaching on human sexuality. We see this in the Catholic campus debates over the official recognition of gay and lesbian groups, pro-choice groups, and the performance of The Vagina Monologues, the result of which at a place like Notre Dame seems to have been to confer on a mediocrity the stature of James Joyce’s Ulysses.
Another painful irony is that this is precisely the wrong time for Catholic universities to slavishly mimic top-ranked secular schools. Former Harvard dean Harry Lewis, author of Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education, contends that at elite universities the “ideal of liberal education lives on in name only.” The libertarianism of the faculty who want to be left alone to do their research complements the laissez-faire attitude of students. Instead of being "immersed in the life of the mind," students act like the good consumers universities increasingly conceive them to be — maximizing upscale pleasures and opportunities for career advancement. Complaints like these, for which Allan Bloom was once reviled, are now common in secular higher education. The failure to offer an integrated liberal education, to raise big questions about the common good and to foster a genuine community of learning among students and faculty are matters on which religious universities ought to have a distinct advantage.
We are better served in these matters by diversity, rather than homogeneity, in institutions of higher education. But to set out on a different path will mean a willingness to buck the purportedly self-evident claims about what academic excellence means. Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI have made us acutely aware that many Catholic universities are in trouble not simply because they are no longer Catholic, but because they are no longer universities — arenas for the communal pursuit of truth in a range of disciplines.