For Many U.S. Catholic Colleges, This Pope May Be a Blessing

Susan Walsh, AP Images

President Obama greets Pope Francis on Tuesday at Joint Base Andrews. Even though the pope is not an academic, says one close observer, "he is more open to the kind of academic discussions and freedom of debate which is very close to the heart of the academic community."
September 23, 2015

Having been reined in under the last two popes, the nation’s Roman Catholic colleges are witnessing the arrival here of a pontiff viewed as comfortable with the direction in which most of them are headed.

When Pope Francis appears at the Catholic University of America on Wednesday, it will be to celebrate a Mass and canonize a saint, the American missionary Junípero Serra. Unlike his two immediate predecessors, Pope John Paul II, who spoke here in 1979, and Pope Benedict XVI, who spoke here in 2008, Pope Francis does not intend to talk at length about Catholic higher education and how its mission imposes limits on academic freedom.

As the first Jesuit pontiff, Pope Francis emerged from a free-thinking religious society known to question Vatican directives and church teachings, giving him a much different perspective on the relationship between the Vatican and Catholic colleges than such institutions have operated under for 25 years. In response to a 1990 call by Pope John Paul II for closer ties between the church and Catholic colleges, the nation’s bishops had issued new rules that many such institutions chafed against.

The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a senior analyst at the National Catholic Reporter, says many academics at the nation’s more than 220 Roman Catholic colleges "felt their academic freedom was constrained" by the last two popes. Under Pope Francis, he says, they now "feel much freer" to openly discuss such matters as birth control or whether women should be allowed to become priests.

Noting that Pope Francis has encouraged bishops to express disagreement with him, Father Reese says that "even though he is not an academic, he is more open to the kind of academic discussions and freedom of debate which is very close to the heart of the academic community."

Pope Francis also appears to have lent encouragement to many of the nation’s Catholic colleges with his efforts to broaden the church’s reach, and speak out on matters such as inequality, social justice, and hazards to the environment. His actions are in keeping with steps taken by such colleges to remain viable in an increasingly secular society, such as seeking to enroll more diverse populations and teaching social justice more than inculcating students in orthodoxy.

Pope Francis, whose perspective was shaped by his work with Argentina’s poor as the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, has "broadened the landscape of conversation" beyond topics such as opposition to abortion, says Barbara H. McCrabb, assistant director for higher education for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. "His social-justice themes resonate enormously well with Catholic colleges and universities and with young adults in general," Ms. McCrabb says, adding that his visit represents "an opportunity to affirm some of the work they’re doing."

Although Pope Francis has not issued major pronouncements specifically about higher education, "the issues that he has spoken of are issues that animate our mission every day," says Patricia A. McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, which has revived itself in recent decades by focusing on the education of financially disadvantaged African-American and Latina women.

A Wariness in Some Quarters

It may be telling that the Catholic University of America, a papally chartered institution with bishops heavily represented on its governing board, has taken several stands that reflect religious or political conservatism that Pope Francis has not shown.

Pope Francis is an outspoken critic of capitalism. But Catholic University’s business school has angered some liberal activists by this year awarding an honorary degree to Michael Novak, an outspoken critic of market regulation, and by accepting millions from conservative philanthropies such as the Charles Koch Foundation for research and teaching focused on reconciling capitalist and Catholic ideas.

Pope Francis has encouraged his bishops to express disagreement with him, but Catholic University remains under censure from the American Association of University Professors for its 1987 decision to bar the Rev. Charles E. Curran from teaching theology there because he had questioned church doctrine on matters such as contraception.

William P. Loewe, an associate professor of historical and systematic theology at Catholic University, says that in many of its decisions the institution "represents a sector of the Catholic Church that has been quite wary of some of the positions the pope has been espousing."

Father Reese of the National Catholic Reporter says "other Catholic universities around the country have been less strict. They have been more respectful of academic freedom and tenure and contracts."

John Garvey, Catholic University’s president, argues that his institution does in fact prize academic freedom, and that it is a mistake to assume the pope’s broad statements on world affairs were meant to apply to specific controversies here. "Americans, we like to think of ourselves as the center of the universe," Mr. Garvey says, but trying to place popes within the context of our nation’s political debates "is an ill fit."

Pope Francis, Mr. Garvey says, is "most interested in preaching the Gospel" to the world’s Catholics "and not in winning the next election."

Patrick J. Reilly, founder and president of the Cardinal Newman Society, an advocacy group that urges Roman Catholic institutions to abide by traditional church teachings, believes that Pope Francis "would be quite enthusiastic about the business school and general direction" of Catholic University.

"I don’t think Catholic University is an institution with a real overt agenda aside from integrating the Catholic faith with its teachings," Mr. Reilly says. "Catholic University very much fits into his approach to the faith."

Looking Beyond Academe

Catholic University is the only university on Pope Francis’s itinerary in the United States, which also includes appearances in New York and Philadelphia. The Rev. Michael J. Sheeran, president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, says he suspects Pope Francis is bypassing Jesuit colleges to make the point that his teaching "is for all Catholics, not just those associated with Jesuit schools and parishes."

Among the leaders of Catholic colleges making plans to honor the pope during his visit, Ms. McGuire, the president of Trinity Washington University, says Pope Francis "has captured the imagination of students" in ways that his predecessors did not.

"Pope Francis is with it," she says. "He takes selfies. He knows how to use social media — or, at least, his staff does."

"He talks about issues," she says — such as mercy, justice, and the environment — "that my students at Trinity really, really care about a lot."

Peter Schmidt writes about affirmative action, academic labor, and issues related to academic freedom. Contact him at