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THE PAPAL VISIT : Church Educators Warned by Pontiff : Can't Depart From Official Vatican Teachings, He Says in New Orleans

September 13, 1987|RUSSELL CHANDLER and DAVID TREADWELL | Times Staff Writers

NEW ORLEANS — Pope John Paul II, in a strongly worded speech Saturday night, told leaders of Catholic higher education that bishops should have a greater part in the academic affairs of Catholic colleges and universities and warned that Catholic theologians are not free to depart from official Vatican teachings.

"There is an intimate relationship between the Catholic university and the teaching office of the church," the Pope told 3,500 Catholic educators and guests during a meeting at Xavier University, the only black Roman Catholic college in the nation.

"The bishops . . . should be seen not as external agents but as participants in . . . the encounter between faith and science and between revealed truth and culture."

On a steamy and sometimes stormy day in this riverfront home to jazz and Mardi Gras, John Paul also:

--Deplored the "disproportionate share of economic deprivation" suffered by American blacks in a meeting with black Catholic leaders and declared that the "church can never remain silent in the face of injustice";

--Warned young people at a Superdome rally against drug use and premarital sex;

--Reinforced at a large outdoor Mass the church's prohibition against divorce;

--Used messages to teachers, priests and nuns to hammer home calls for responsible freedom, truth and traditional family values.

As a light rain fell on the Xavier University grounds, the pontiff, shielded by a white umbrella, asserted that there is room in reli gious faith for intellectual inquiry and that Catholics believe "there can be no contradiction between faith and reason."

But his remarks about the church hierarchy--not theologians--being the ultimate guardians of what may be taught at the nation's 235 Catholic universities and colleges raised the specter of the controversy surrounding Catholic University theologian Charles Curran. The priest's license to teach Catholic theology was revoked by the Vatican earlier this year because he deviated from official church doctrine on sexual ethics.

'Message of Christ'

"The bishops, united with the Pope, have the mission of authentically teaching the message of Christ," the pontiff said. "As pastors, they are called to sustain the unity in faith and Christian living of the entire people of God."

Many U.S. Catholic theologians and educators have feared that proposed worldwide guidelines for Catholic universities--pending at the Vatican--could stifle inquiry and jeopardize academic freedom at Catholic schools.

The issue centers largely on whether academic freedom applies in the same way at a Catholic university as it does at a secular university. The proposed decree--which John Paul did not mention in his speech here--would give the bishops added power to monitor the orthodoxy of theologians at all Catholic colleges and universities.

Although American bishops have general authority over academic institutions within their dioceses, most Catholic colleges exercise independence over their curriculum.

An association of U.S. colleges and universities as well as the presidents of all the U.S. Catholic universities have expressed strong dissent to the draft proposal, saying it would threaten the loss of federal funds to Catholic universities as well as inhibit academic inquiry by imposing outside control.

Prepared by the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education, the document says the Catholic university "exists within the church and is part of it" and cites several sections of church law that say, "No university, even if it is in fact Catholic, may bear the title 'Catholic University' except by the consent of competent ecclesiastical authority."

Presumably, that authority, according to the proposed guidelines, would be the bishops, who would be able to certify a college as Catholic and hire and fire theology professors.

'Tested and Validated'

The Pope, declaring that ultimate truth is something that is revealed to the official teachers of the church--the bishops and himself as pontiff--said the work of Catholic theologians must "ultimately be tested and validated" by the hierarchy.

In his speech, John Paul also criticized pluralism in the academic setting that fosters the view that "ultimate questions about human life and destiny have no final answers or that all beliefs are of equal value."

Truth "is not served in this way," the pontiff said, adding: "Pluralism does not exist for its own sake; it is directed to the fullness of truth."

The Pope's 30-minute speech was met with infrequent and restrained applause.

"I think it was in the manner of academics to be restrained," said Father Michael Scanlon, president of Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. "They wanted to make sure they had time to think about it before they responded too quickly."

Scanlon said he did not think the Pope meant that theologians could not do research, but "ultimately it's a matter of whether you submit your teaching to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church if you call yourself a Catholic."

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