It’s Not Your Fault, Koko Bear

With another commencement season behind us, we look back to a column written in 2008, shortly after Pope Benedict XVI visited the US and spoke about the challenges facing Catholic higher education.

Emancipation from religious authority produced in its wake a litter of thumb-sucking books ostensibly designed to help children deal with the consequences of their parents’ brave quest for self-fulfillment, most notably the anguish of divorce. We are meant to picture the four-year-old nestled in mommy’s lap while she reads from, say, Dinosaurs Divorce, and non-judgmentally explains why it is that daddy dyed his hair, left home, and is shacking up with his tennis coach. The text communicates two key messages: the comforting truth that the child is not to blame (“It’s not YOUR fault, Koko Bear”), and the comforting falsehood that, in spite of their separation, mommy and daddy love each other more than ever. The real point of the book is to assuage the parents’ guilt, not the child’s.

We’ve all seen self-deception of this kind on display in the reaction of Catholic educators to the address delivered at Catholic University by Pope Benedict. Having effectively divorced themselves from the Church with the 1967 Land O’Lakes Statement, American Catholic universities are obliged to explain to confused and wounded parties, most notably donors and alumni, how it is that—while they may provide The Vagina Monologues for their students but no course in St. Augustine—they love the Catholic Church more than even their founders did.

Pope Benedict’s address to educators contained a minimum of happy talk and was in deadly earnest. Conceding that there is a contemporary crisis of truth rooted in a crisis of faith, the Pope said that “fostering personal intimacy with Jesus Christ and communal witness to his loving truth is indispensable in Catholic institutions of learning.” Of course it’s this communal witness that the Land O’Lakes universities repudiated when they opted for divorce.

Hard words about the crisis of truth, the crisis of faith, and the indispensability of communal witness to Christ are potentially distressing to donors and alumni of Catholic institutions, and the engines of official reassurance have been up and running at full steam. In anticipation of the Pope’s address, Phil Lawler of Catholic World News, and editor emeritus of CWR, predicted: “Every word the Pope utters in praise of the Catholic schools will be repeated incessantly; every subtle criticism will be buried beneath a mound of exculpatory prose.” Phil was right. Whereas Pope Benedict urged Catholic educators to bear witness to the hope which is Christ Jesus, the commonest spin is that the Pope was encouraging the institutions to be hopeful about the trajectory they have already chosen for themselves.

Studied inattention

Here is just one flagrant example of Dinosaur Divorcemanship, which was put forward as a summary of the Pope’s address, although in fact it shows a studied inattention to the thrust of the Pontiff’s remarks:

Benedict’s message was one of affirmation and encouragement for the important contributions that Catholic education offers to our country. The Pope emphasized that, with its mission of combining faith and reason and its constant pursuit of the truth, Catholic education will continue to play a vital role in preparing students for lives of compassionate leadership and service.

Pope Benedict makes no mention of leadership in his address, much less “compassionate leadership and service.” He does make frequent mention of Jesus—and more importantly structures his argument around Him as its keystone—yet in this summary Jesus rates no mention. Instead we get the comfortable and familiar bromides about “preparing students for lives of leadership,” etc. Compare the superficial chirpiness of the prose in the passage above with this paragraph from Benedict’s talk:

All the Church’s activities stem from her awareness that she is the bearer of a message which has its origin in God himself: in his goodness and wisdom, God chose to reveal himself and to make known the hidden purpose of his will. God’s desire to make himself known, and the innate desire of all human beings to know the truth, provide the context for human inquiry into the meaning of life. This unique encounter is sustained within our Christian community: the one who seeks the truth becomes the one who lives by faith. It can be described as a move from “I” to “we,” leading the individual to be numbered among God’s people.

The intellectual gulch that separates Pope Benedict from your standard mercenary academic may be expressed in these terms: that for Benedict the search for truth is a delight because the truth has, in part, already been found. Referring to St. Augustine, he said during an Angelus address in 2005, “the more we enter into the splendor of divine love, the more beautiful it is to proceed with the search, so that amore crescente inquisitio crescat inventi—in the measure in which love grows, let the search for Him who has been found grow the more.” Yet no upwardly-mobile American academic—certainly no administrator with an eye on his career—dares speak of truth in this way. Safer to discharge some harmless room-temperature Argon about truth as our unattainable goal and keep up the prattle about preparing students for lives of service. And just in case you have any lingering doubts in the matter, daddy loves Mother Church today more than ever—even though they live apart.

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