01/08/2016 01:39 pm ET Updated Jan 08, 2017

Open Eyes Require Open Ears

Pope Francis' recent and electrifying U.S. visit was memorable on many levels. But the Pontiff wasn't here to avoid politics or controversy - he had strong opinions and messages to share, and he spoke his mind in front of Congress and the president, at the United Nations and before millions of people around the world watching on television, or those lucky enough to get a seat at a mass, on the Mall, along a parade route or at other select sites.

Not everyone agreed with what he said, or supported the directions he's extolling for peace, environmental sanity, financial equality, women's rights, the role of the Catholic Church and many other important and topical subjects. But they listened - and what they heard may well have stimulated valuable follow-up conversations and debate, renewed convictions or even solidified opposition.

Debate and opportunities for expressing diverse opinions often serve as a catalyst for constructive action. Universities and colleges have long been a magnet for addressing
topics that may be controversial, polarizing or unpopular. In fact - when it involves contentious issues such as politics, religion, sexual anthropology, the environment, wars and other divisive agenda - we must provide a local stage for advocates and antagonists alike to come and make their stand. It is part of a liberal arts education, and it is very much a part of living the Catholic intellectual traditions.

As a Catholic institution of higher learning, Sacred Heart University embraces and champions certain ideals and beliefs. Young adults offer a passionate, idealistic, emboldened audience eager to absorb, debate and participate. But teaching our students about service to others - and providing a foundation to help them live successful, rewarding lives while making their contributions to the world - includes exposing them to differences of opinions.

A rigorous, multidisciplinary liberal arts education in the Catholic tradition provides students with the values-driven academic and moral framework needed to think critically, solve problems, better understand the diverse world in which they live and wrestle with the fundamental and enduring questions of humankind. Designed to engage students in a multidisciplinary understanding of the arts and sciences and the Catholic intellectual traditions, the common core classes incorporate aspects of history, English, political science, psychology, sociology, biology, physics, philosophy and religious studies.

We often provide a local stage for advocates and antagonists alike, believing that students are capable of carefully weighing the actions and beliefs that are right for them at this pivotal moment in their lives and will come away stronger and better informed as a result. Our energies are for dialogue and transformation, not indoctrination and fundamentalism.

Not everyone, of course, would agree with this perspective. Strong forces attract equally strong opposing forces, and some groups attempt to squelch discourse they find unpalatable, distasteful or contrary to their values and beliefs. We certainly have been at the receiving end of our share of complaints about our choice of speakers and honorees, as every university has. Some will always disagree, but we consider it our obligation to offer the full range of individuals' positions, rather than take a narrow slice of one position, and use that as a litmus test to cut them off from dialogue.

As with any Catholic university, we should be teaching our students to be good community and world citizens, to learn to examine issues from every perspective and to question. In our lifetimes, we each will be challenged philosophically and spiritually involving faith, choice and outcomes. It is our responsibility as leaders to prepare students to better understand the world we live in and to respect people's differences. To do less is to fail our children and limit future discourse, growth and progress. As Pope Francis addressed the Italian bishops, he reminded them that "Christian doctrine is not a closed system that's incapable of generating questions, doubts or interrogations. It is alive. It moves. It animates..." American church leaders--both clerical and lay--have yet to understand his words.