The young pope was friendly, but blunt, as he faced the 240 college leaders from across the nation who gathered at Catholic University to hear his thoughts on faith and academic freedom.
"Every university or college is qualified by a specific mode of being," said Pope John Paul II, who was only 57 on that day in 1979. "Yours is the qualification of being Catholic, of affirming God, his revelation and the Catholic Church as the guardian and interpreter of that revelation. The term 'Catholic' will never be a mere label, either added or dropped according to the pressures of varying factors."
It is especially crucial, he said, for theologians to realize that they do not teach in isolation, but are part of a body stretching from the local pews to the Vatican. Working with their bishops, theologians are charged with preserving the "unity of the faith," said John Paul, sending a shock wave through many Catholic schools that lingers to this day.
"True theological scholarship, and by the same token theological training, cannot exist and be fruitful without seeking its inspiration and its source in the word of God as contained in Sacred Scripture and in the Sacred Tradition of the Church, as interpreted by the authentic Magisterium throughout history," said John Paul.
While embracing "true academic freedom," he stressed that the work of truly Catholic theologians must take into "account the proper function of the bishops and the rights of the faithful. ? It behooves the theologian to be free, but with the freedom that is openness to the truth and the light comes from faith and from fidelity to the Church."
It was a word of encouragement and warning. A few years later, the Vatican revoked Father Charles E. Curran's authorization to teach theology at Catholic University, after public debates about his views on birth control, abortion and homosexuality. The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith noted that this censure was the result of his "repeated refusal to accept what the church teaches."
That public letter was signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a theology professor from Germany who, nearly two decades later, would become Pope Benedict XVI. And now, Benedict has called the leaders of more than 200 Catholic institutions of higher learning back to the Catholic University of America to hear another address about the state of Catholic education.
The pope will almost certainly use this forum next month in Washington, D.C., to discuss the further implementation of "Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church)," John Paul II's urgent 1990 call for reform in Catholic colleges and universities. It took the U.S. bishops nine years -- amid fierce protests by many academics -- to approve any guidelines seeking to enforce this Vatican document.
"To understand what all of this means, you have to look at the whole sequence of what has happened in the past few decades," said Patrick Reilly of the Cardinal Newman Society, a pro-Vatican think tank on education. When John Paul II made his 1979 visit, "Catholic University was known as a center of dissent. Now, we see Pope Benedict coming to a campus that -- from the viewpoint of Rome and the bishops -- has completely turned around. Catholic University will greet him with open arms."
Meanwhile, many Catholic campuses keep making headlines.
There was, for example, that University of Notre Dame performance of "The Vagina Monologues" and the teen pregnancy conference at the College of the Holy Cross featuring speakers from Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Rights Action League. On some campuses it's easier to find free condoms these days than it is to obtain guidance on how to become a nun or a priest.
During a recent meeting of the Congregation for Catholic Education in Rome, Pope Benedict included five clear references to current and future educational reforms in his speech -- making it clear these issues are on his mind.
"Today, the ecclesiastical disciplines, especially theology, are subjected to new questions in a world tempted on the one hand by rationalism which follows a falsely free rationality disconnected from any religious reference, and on the other, by fundamentalisms that falsify the true essence of religion with their incitement to violence and fanaticism," he said. "Schools should also question themselves on the role they must fulfill in the contemporary social context, marked by an evident educational crisis."