Pope Francis and the Idea of a Catholic University

If you’re looking for a Christian historian-blogger to cover Pope Francis’ visit to the United States, John Fea is probably your go-to source. But let me share a brief post on an easy-to-overlook dimension of the event: what Francis means for Catholic colleges and universities.

Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception at the Catholic University of America, where Pope Francis will hold an outdoor mass today – Creative Commons (AgnosticPreachersKid)

While Francis’ first public mass in the U.S. will be held today at the Catholic University of America (CUA), there’s no indication that the pope plans to address the topic of higher education while he’s in Washington, New York, or Philadelphia. Nonetheless, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a piece today on the meaning of Francis for Catholic higher ed:

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….

Pope Francis in Brazil, 2013
Pope Francis during an earlier visit to the Western Hemisphere: World Youth Day 2013 — Creative Commons (Agência Brasil)

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.”

For some context on this, see my post on “Notre Dame and the Idea of a Catholic University,” which surveyed some of the debates in Catholic higher ed over academic freedom, the role of theology and philosophy in the curriculum, and the relationship of the Church to the university. Notably, as the Chronicle points out, Catholic University of America is a favorite of conservatives that “has taken several stands that reflect religious or political conservatism that Pope Francis has not shown.”

Indeed, its president is not among the 169 leaders of Catholic institutions of higher learning around the world — 96 from the U.S. — who last week signed a pledge to address the concerns raised in Francis’ ecological encyclical, Laudato Si’. And that points to another significance of this pope for many in Catholic higher ed: as Barbara McCrabb of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops told the Chronicle, “His social-justice themes resonate enormously well with Catholic colleges and universities and with young adults in general.”

Beebe & Senkewicz, Junípero SerraOf course, that’s not true of all Catholic educators. And conversely, Francis has courted controversy for using today’s mass at CUA to canonize the 18th century missionary Junípero Serra. As Emma Green asked this morning at The Atlantic, “In 2015, is it possible to see a white European who came to a foreign land with the express purpose of converting native peoples as anything but an evil cultural imperialist?” Fortunately, Green offers a typically nuanced answer to that question, with a lot of help from Bob Senkewicz, a professor at Santa Clara University — a Jesuit school in California.

See Inside Higher Ed for some other ways that Catholic colleges and universities are responding to Francis’ visit.

3 thoughts on “Pope Francis and the Idea of a Catholic University

  1. I have appreciated all these posts on academic freedom, CCCU, and football. Thanks. You are a great “reporter” and analyst. I’m thankful we have you at Bethel. – Andy

  2. A rebuttal, or at least a caveat.


    FTR, Catholic University IS a Catholic university.* Most others are only nominally Catholic, who obey or disobey their local bishop as they will [I suspect the latter, often].

    *Mission Statement
    As the national university of the Catholic Church in the United States, founded and sponsored by the bishops of the country with the approval of the Holy See, The Catholic University of America is committed to being a comprehensive Catholic and American institution of higher learning, faithful to the teachings of Jesus Christ as handed on by the Church. Dedicated to advancing the dialogue between faith and reason, The Catholic University of America seeks to discover and impart the truth through excellence in teaching and research, all in service to the Church, the nation and the world.

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