The news that the next leader of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis I, is a Jesuit, a scholar, and an advocate for social justice was greeted with enthusiasm by Catholic-college presidents on Wednesday.
"This is a person who appears to understand the role of the university rather well," the Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, president of DePaul University, said of the new pope. "In the Catholic Church, intellectual life has always mattered greatly. You hope for someone who is really going to draw on the expertise of the scholars it has assembled and encourage them to make a powerful difference."
Father Holtschneider and other Catholic leaders admitted they didn't know much about Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, before he was elevated as pope on Wednesday. As they pored through online biographies, though, they liked what they saw.
He received a master's degree in chemistry from the University of Buenos Aires before deciding to pursue the priesthood. He taught literature and psychology at the University of El Salvador, in Buenos Aires. And he earned a doctorate in theology, eventually going on to run the seminary in Buenos Aires—the Philosophical and Theological Faculty of Saint Michael—from which he had graduated.
To some, Pope Francis's Jesuit background is a particular plus. "Working with the Society of Jesus and Jesuit leaders in the United States, I know there's an openness to new ideas. There's an openness to hearing the reality of what the world is all about and trying to address the issues," said the Rev. Gregory F. Lucey, president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, which includes Boston College, Georgetown University, Marquette University, and the University of San Francisco. "I really like that about our character, and I would hope that he would bring that to this incredible responsibility."
That's not to say that Pope Francis is liberal, however. He has distanced himself from the progressive Liberation Theology movement, according to the National Catholic Reporter, and is orthodox on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. Yet he has popular appeal, by living modestly and taking public transportation, for example. He has also been a staunch advocate for the poor, calling economic inequality a "social sin."
Given the many challenges facing the Catholic Church, it is unlikely that higher education will rise to the top of the new pope's agenda anytime soon. But in the United States, at least, college and church leaders say their relations have gotten significantly stronger during the past 20 years. That work began in 1990, when Pope John Paul II issued an apostolic constitution on Catholic higher education known as Ex corde Ecclesiae.
The document contained much that Catholic educators praised, including a vigorous defense of academic freedom and intellectual inquiry. But the ways in which American bishops were to apply Ex corde to colleges created a great deal of tension.
Among the most controversial elements was a requirement that theologians at Catholic colleges receive a mandate from their local bishops, essentially a seal of approval that they are teaching authentic Catholic doctrine. Ex corde also encouraged colleges to seek governing boards and faculties with a majority of Catholic members.
Catholic-college leaders of all stripes, though, have credited Ex corde with starting discussions on their campuses about what it means to be a Catholic institution—something that many agreed had taken a back seat over the years to more mundane issues, like balancing budgets, recruiting students, and hiring faculty members. The document also provided the impetus for presidents to have more regular, deeper conversations with their local bishops.
What the new pope will bring to that continuing work is unknown, of course. Some academics had feared that Pope Benedict XVI, a vigorous enforcer of Catholic doctrine before he rose to the papacy, might impose that orthodoxy on Catholic higher education. But he didn't.
During his one visit to the United States, in 2008, he reaffirmed "the great value of academic freedom." But he was quick to add that "any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and teaching of the church would obstruct or even betray the university's identity and mission."
Nearly two years ago, bishops and college presidents began reviewing Ex corde's impact since it was carried out 10 years earlier.
The initial mistrust over Ex corde "has moderated," said Father Holtschneider of DePaul. "The tone has become more respectful. The bishops have been pleased to see how much universities have done to strengthen their religious character. And presidents have welcomed bishops interested in partnership."
William J. Carroll, president of Benedictine University, in Illinois, said he is ready for the new pope to take those discussions to the next level. His campus, for example, is now 30 percent Muslim, he said, with growing contingents of Chinese, Hindu, African-American, and other students. The Catholic Church, too, he said, "is marked by an interesting sense of diversity." Pope Francis "needs to take that diversity and continue to create this wonderful fabric, the church. But he has to move it into the 21st century."
Correction (3/14/2013, 9:07 a.m.): This article originally misstated the date of Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the United States. It was in 2008, not 2005. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.