When the Vatican began drawing up new guidelines for Catholic higher education more than a decade ago, there was reason for unease in many Catholic colleges and universities in this country. How far would the Vatican want to push its authority over these institutions, which must function in a country where intellectual freedom is a prerequisite to academic respectability?
As it turns out, the guidelines issued last week strike a generall conciliatory tone. The paper calls on Catholic schools to stay faithful to church teaching and to their religious character. But it does not include provisions in earlier drafts that could have asserted the authority of the Vatican or local bishops over university decisions. That is welcome news to administrators of this country's 230 Catholic colleges and universities.
By their nature, academic pursuits push the frontiers of knowledge and ideas -- a process that can create tension with authority, as it did in the case of the Rev. Charles Curran, who in 1986 was removed by the Vatican from his post as a theologian at Catholic University. In most cases, however, Catholic education has managed to walk this tightrope successfully, providing this country with colleges and universities that have become an indispensable part of the rich diversity of American higher education. To the extent that the Vatican's new guidelines contribute to the strength of these institutions without damaging their academic freedom, they will enrich not just Catholic schools, but higher education in general.