Pope to Notre Dame U.: Continue to defend church teachings

Pope Francis has told University of Notre Dame officials he hopes the school will  "continue to offer unambiguous testimony" in defense of the church's moral teaching and freedom.

His brief remarks at the Vatican on Thursday are being interpreted in various ways, often to the university's detriment. See what you think. Here is the key passage:

This commitment to “missionary discipleship” ought to be reflected in a special way in Catholic universities (cf. Evangelii Gaudium, 132-134), which by their very nature are committed to demonstrating the harmony of faith and reason and the relevance of the Christian message for a full and authentically human life. Essential in this regard is the uncompromising witness of Catholic universities to the Church’s moral teaching, and the defense of her freedom, precisely in and through her institutions, to uphold that teaching as authoritatively proclaimed by the magisterium of her pastors. It is my hope that the University of Notre Dame will continue to offer unambiguous testimony to this aspect of its foundational Catholic identity, especially in the face of efforts, from whatever quarter, to dilute that indispensable witness. And this is important: its identity, as it was intended from the beginning. To defend it, to preserve it and to advance it!

It seems to me that the pope's use of the word "continue" (emphasis added) makes it hard to interpret this as a rebuke of the school, although that has not stopped people from trying. There is no doubt Francis is setting out expectations for Notre Dame and other Catholic universities, but that's as far as he goes. "Continue" sounds like another way of saying, "Keep up the good work." Perhaps what this boils down to is that Francis prefers encouragement to condemnation as a management tool. A lot of management experts would agree.

Compare the encouraging tone of his remarks with the rhetoric of the scores of bishops who assailed the university in 2009 for granting an honorary degree to President Obama. For example, Phoenix Bishop Thomas Olmsted, who wrote to Notre Dame's president that this was "a public act of disobedience to the Bishops of the United States."

Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

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