In a summons that is prompting both anticipation and unease, Pope Benedict XVI has asked the presidents of all U.S. Catholic colleges and universities, along with Catholic school superintendents from across the country, to meet with him this week during his East Coast visit.
Will Benedict, who was viewed as the Vatican's "enforcer" of Roman Catholic orthodoxy before he became pope, chastise American educators for not adhering more strictly to traditional church teachings? Or will he celebrate the historic strength of the church's schools in the United States, home to the largest collection of Catholic colleges and universities in the world?
For the most part, Catholic education leaders say they do not expect the pope, a former university professor, to rebuke educators or seek to impose tough new restrictions.
"He understands universities, and I think he really understands how Catholic universities serve the church," said Father Stephen A. Privett, president of the University of San Francisco. "He will be very comfortable with this group."
Privett and others interviewed pointed to recent speeches and informal comments in which the intellectual Benedict has emphasized the importance of reason in the practice of faith and has spoken positively of universities as arenas where faith and the wider culture engage.
But Privett and others planning to attend the Thursday meeting at Catholic University say they expect the pope to challenge them to promote a stronger Catholic identity for their institutions, some of which have been criticized by local bishops for allowing speakers and activities that the critics say are at odds with Catholic teachings.
A number of Catholic colleges have, for instance, hosted candidates and graduation speakers who favor abortion rights, and some, including the University of Notre Dame, have allowed performances of such controversial works as "The Vagina Monologues."
"I think he'll urge us to try to foster a strong Catholic identity in our institutions and also a rigorous fidelity to what the church teaches, a sort of affirmative orthodoxy," said Father David M. O'Connell, president of Catholic University, who will host the pope during his campus visit. "This is a pope who wants to put forward the best of the Catholic intellectual tradition and hold it up as something to be emulated."
O'Connell said he also expected the pope to use his visit to underline a favorite theme: the need for practicing Catholics to confront the idea of "moral relativism," the belief that there is no objective standard of right and wrong.
Some traditionalist Catholics are hoping Benedict will directly criticize what they consider a continuing secular shift at many prominent Catholic campuses.
"We consider it very important for these institutions to be Catholic in the curriculum and in everything they do," said Patrick J. Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, which works to strengthen Catholic identity in the colleges. A 2007 guidebook published by the group for prospective students and parents said only 20 of the nation's 225 Catholic colleges met its standards for orthodoxy.
"Many Catholic colleges have embraced a view of academic freedom that contradicts their Catholic identity," Reilly said. "We argue, and we think the pope would argue, that a Catholic institution by definition would understand Catholic teachings to be true."
Playwright George Bernard Shaw is said to have joked that the phrase "Catholic university" was an inherent contradiction, that it was impossible to combine church teachings with a university's need for intellectual inquiry.
"There is real tension between those two cultures, and it's never going to be resolved," said Privett. "But part of the energy of a Catholic university comes from that tension. So I think we need to live with it."
Said Jacqueline Powers Doud, president of Mount St. Mary's College in Los Angeles: "First and foremost, we're a school. We're not a church. We have a responsibility for truth-seeking, and truth is always developing."
In 1990, after a long liberalizing trend in Catholic education and the wider church, Pope John Paul II issued a document, "Ex Corde Ecclesiae," which contained his views of what a Catholic university should be.
John Paul called on the institutions to strengthen and renew their Catholic identity. In 1999, the U.S. bishops voted on ways to implement the initiative, including a requirement, known as a "mandatum," that local bishops must certify that theology professors are following Catholic teachings.
A reference by Benedict to the certification issue in his speech could be controversial, several educators said.