Pope tells university to seek truth and goodness instead of presumption and division
It is a great joy for me to meet the community of "La Sapienza - Università di Roma" on the occasion of the inauguration of the academic year. For centuries, this university has marked the progress and the life of the city of Rome, bringing forth intellectual excellence in every field of study. Both during the period when, after its foundation at the behest of Pope Boniface VIII, the institution was directly dependent upon ecclesiastical authority, and after this, when the Studium Urbis became an institution of the Italian state, your academic community has maintained a very high standard of scholarship and culture, which places it among the most prestigious universities in the world. The Church of Rome has always looked with affection and admiration at this university centre, recognising its sometimes arduous and difficult efforts in research and in the formation of the new generations. There has been no lack, in recent years, of significant instances of collaboration and dialogue. I would like to recall, in particular, the worldwide meeting of university rectors on the occasion of the Jubilee of Universities, which saw your community take the responsibility not only for hosting and organising the meeting, but above all for making the complex and prophetic proposal for the development of a "new humanism for the third millennium".
I am moved, on this occasion, to express my gratitude for the invitation extended to me to come to your university to deliver an address to you. In this perspective, I first of all asked myself the question: What can a pope say on an occasion like this? In my lecture in Regensburg, I indeed spoke as pope, but I spoke above all in the guise of a former professor of the university, seeking to connect memory and the present. But at the university "La Sapienza", the ancient university of Rome, I have been invited as "Bishop of Rome", and so I must speak in this capacity. Of course, "La Sapienza" was once the pope's university, but today it is a secular university with that autonomy which, on the basis of its founding principles, has always been part of the nature of the university, which must always be exclusively bound to the authority of the truth. In its freedom from political and ecclesiastical authorities, the university finds its special role, and in modern society as well, which needs institutions of this nature.
I return to my starting question: What can and should the pope say in meeting with his city's university? Reflecting on this question, it has seemed to me that it includes two more questions, the clarification of which should by itself lead to the answer. It is necessary, in fact, to ask: What is the nature and mission of the papacy? And again: What is the nature and mission of the university? It is not my intention here to belabour either you or myself with lengthy examinations of the nature of the papacy. A brief summary should be enough. The pope is, first of all, the bishop of Rome, and as such, in virtue of apostolic succession from the Apostle Peter, he has Episcopal authority in regard to the entire Catholic Church. The word "bishop"—episkopos—, which in its immediate meaning refers to "supervision", already in the New Testament was fused together with the biblical concept of the shepherd: he is the one who, from an elevated point of observation, surveys the whole landscape, making sure to keep the flock together and on the right path. This description of the bishop's role directs the view first of all to within the community of believers. The bishop—the shepherd—is the man who takes care of this community, the one who keeps it united by keeping it on the path toward God, which Jesus points out through the Christian faith—and He does not only point this out: He himself is the way for us. But this community that the bishop cares for as large or small as it may be—lives in the world; its conditions, its journey, its example, and its words inevitably influence the rest of the human community in its entirety. The larger it is, the more its good condition or eventual decline will impact all of humanity. Today we see very clearly how the situation of the religions and the situation of the Church—its crises and renewals—act upon the whole of humanity. Thus the pope, precisely as the shepherd of his community, has increasingly become a voice of the ethical reasoning of humanity.
But here there immediately comes the objection according to which the pope does not in fact truly speak on the basis of ethical reasoning, but instead draws his judgments from the faith, and therefore he cannot claim that these have validity for those who do not share this faith. We must return to this argument later, because it poses the absolutely fundamental question: What is reason? How can an assertion—and above all a moral norm—demonstrate that it is "reasonable". At this point, I would like to note briefly that John Rawls, while he denies that religious doctrines overall have the character of "public" reasoning, he nonetheless sees in their "non-public" reasoning at least a reasoning that cannot simply be dismissed by those who support a hard-line secularist rationality. He sees a criterion of this reasonableness in, among other things, the fact that that such doctrines are derived from a responsible and well grounded tradition, in which over a long span of time sufficiently strong arguments have been developed in support of the respective doctrines. It seems important to me that this statement recognises that experience and demonstration over the course of generations, the historical backdrop of human wisdom, are also a sign of their reasonableness and their lasting significance. In the face of an a-historical form of reason that seeks to construct itself in an exclusively a-historical rationality, the wisdom of humanity as such—the wisdom of the great religious traditions—should be viewed as a reality that cannot be cast with impunity into the trash bin of the history of ideas.
Let's return to the opening question. The pope speaks as the representative of a believing community, in which throughout the centuries of its existence a specific life wisdom has matured; he speaks as the representative of a community that holds within itself a treasury of ethical understanding and experience, which is important for all of humanity. In this sense, he speaks as the representative of a form of ethical reasoning.
But now we must ask ourselves: What is the university? What is its purpose? It is a huge question which I can only answer once again in almost telegraphic style by making just a few observations. I believe that it can be said that the true intimate origin of the university lies in man’s craving for knowledge. He wants to know what everything around him is. In this sense the Socratic questioning is the impulse that gave birth to the Western university. I am thinking here, just to mention one text, the dispute that sets Euthyphro, who defends mythical religion and his devotion to it, against Socrates. In contrast Socrates asks: “And do you believe there is really a war amongst the gods, with terrible feuds, even, and battles . . . Are we to say that these things are true, Euthyphro? (Euthyphro, 6: b and c). In this apparently not very devout question—but which drew in Socrates from a deeper and purer sense of religiosity, one that sought a truly divine god—the Christians of the first centuries recognised their path and themselves. They accepted their faith non in a positivist manner or as a way of getting away from unfulfilled desires but rather as a way of dissolving the cloud that was mythological religion so as to discover the God that is creative Reason as well as Reason-as-Love. For this reason, asking themselves about the reason for the greater God as well as the real nature and sense of being human did not represent for them any problematic lack of religiosity, but was part of the essence of their way of being religious. They therefore did not need to solve or put aside the Socratic dilemma but could, indeed had to accept it. They also had to recognise as part of their identity the demanding search for reason in order to learn about the entire truth. The university could, indeed had to be born within the Christian world and the Christian faith. We must take another step. Man wants to know; he wants the truth. Truth pertains first and foremost to seeing and understanding theoria as it is called in the Greek tradition. But truth is not only theoretic. In correlating the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mountain and the gifts of the Holy Spirit mentioned in Isaiah 11, Augustine asserted the reciprocity of scientia and tristitia. For him just knowing is source of sadness. In fact those who only see and learn all that happens in the world end up becoming sad. But the truth means more than knowledge. The purpose of knowing the truth is to know what is good. This is also the sense of Socrates’ way of questioning: What good thing makes us true? Truth makes us good and goodness is true. This optimism dwells in the Christian faith because it was allowed to see the Logos, the creative Reason that, in God’s incarnation, revealed itself as that which is Good, as Goodness itself.
In medieval theology there was a great dispute over the relationship between theory and praxis, over the proper relationship between knowledge and action, a dispute that we must not go into further here. In fact with their four faculties medieval universities embodied this correlation. Let us begin with medicine, which was the fourth faculty according to the understanding of that time. Although it was seen more as an “art” than as a science, its inclusion in the realm of the universitas meant that it was seen as belonging to the domain of rationality. The art of healing was seen as something guided by reason and was thus beyond the domain of magic. Healing is a task that always requires more than simple reason but exactly for this reason it needs the connection between knowledge and power and must belong to the realm of ratio. Inevitably in law faculties the relationship between praxis and theory, between knowing and doing takes front seat for it is about giving human freedom its right shape which is always freedom in reciprocal communion. The law is the premise upon which freedom is built; it is not its adversary. But this raises another question. How can we identify what the standards of justice are, that is those that make freedom as part of a whole possible and serve mankind’s goodness? Let us come back to the present. It is a question that is related to how we can find legal rules that can govern freedom, human dignity and man’s rights. It is an issue that concerns us insofar as it relates to the democratic processes that shape opinions but also one that can distress us insofar as it relates to humanity’s future. In my opinion Jürgen Habermas articulates a view, widely accepted in today’s world of ideas, in which the legitimacy of a constitution as the basis for what is legal stems from two sources: the equal participation of all citizens in the political process and reasonable conflict-resolution mechanisms in politics. Insofar as the reasonable mechanisms are concerned he notes that the issue cannot be reduced to a mere struggle for who gets more votes but must include a “process of argumentation that is responsive to truth” (wahrheitssensibles Argumentationsverfahren). This is well said but it is something difficult to turn into political praxis. We know that the representatives of this public “process of argumentation” are for the most part political parties which shape the formation of the public will. In fact they invariably will seek a majority and will almost always take care of the interests they pledge to protect which are very often partisan and not collective interests. Responsiveness to the truth always takes the back seat to partisan interests. To me it is significant that Habermas should say that responsiveness to truth is a necessary component of political argumentation, since it reintroduces the concept of truth in philosophical and political debates.
Pilate’s question then becomes inevitable: What is truth? How do we recognise it? If we turn to “public reason” as Rawls does, another question necessarily follows: What is reasonable? How does a reason prove to be the true reason? Whatever the case may be, it is obvious that in the quest for freedom and for living together equitably groups other than parties and interest groups must be heard; although that does not mean that the latter are any less important. Let us go back to medieval universities and the way they were set up. Along with law, philosophy and theology had their own faculty with the task of studying mankind in his totality and thus keep alive responsiveness to truth. One might even say that this is the real and enduring meaning of both faculties—they maintain responsiveness to truth and prevent man from being distracted in his quest for the truth. But how can they do this? This is a question which we must always work at and which can never be raised and answered once and for all. Hence at this point not even I can properly give you an answer. I can though invite you to keep asking this question, one that has involved all the great thinkers who throughout history have fought for and sought out the truth, coming up with their own answers and enduring their own fears, always going beyond any one answer.
Theology and philosophy are an odd couple; neither can be totally separated from the other and yet each must keep its own purpose and identity. Compared to the answers Church Fathers formulated in their day and age, St Thomas Aquinas deserves a special place in history for highlighting the autonomy of philosophy as well as that of the law. He equally has the merit of pointing out the responsibilities that fall on reason when it questions itself on the basis of its own strengths. Unlike neo-platonic ideas that saw religion and philosophy inseparably intertwined, the Church Fathers had presented the Christian faith as real philosophy, insisting that this faith corresponded to the needs of Reason in its quest for the truth, that is a faith that was a “Yes” to truth when compared to mythical religions that had ended up turning into mere custom. However, when universities were founded in the West those religions were no more—only Christianity existed. This meant highlighting in a new way reason’s own responsibility, one that was not absorbed by the faith. Thomas lived at a special time. For the first time all of Aristotle’s philosophical writings were available as were the Hebrew and Arabic text that embodied and extended Greek philosophy. Thus as Christianity interacted with others and engaged their reason in a new dialogue it had to fight for its own reasonableness. The Faculty of Philosophy, i.e. the so-called artists’ faculty, was until then only a preparatory stage before moving onto theology. Afterwards it became a faculty in its own right, an autonomous partner to theology and the faith which the latter reflected. We cannot dwell on the gripping confrontation that followed. I would say that St Thomas’ idea about the relationship between philosophy and theology can be expressed by the formula handed down by the Council of Chalcedon on Christology, namely that philosophy and theology must relate to each other “without confusion and without separation.” “Without confusion” is understood in the sense that each will maintain its own identity so that philosophy is truly a free and responsible search for reason and aware of its own limits and thus of its own greatness and vastness. Theology must instead continue to draw from a source of knowledge that it has not invented and that is always greater than itself, and which always renews the process of thinking since it is never totally exhausted by reflection. “Without confusion” does not stand alone for there is “without separation,” that is the idea that philosophy never starts from scratch in isolation but is part of great dialogue found in the accumulated knowledge that history has bequeathed and which it always critically but meekly accepts and develops. Yet it should not shut itself off from what religions, especially the Christian faith, have received and given to humanity as a sign for the path to follow. Indeed History has shown that many of the things that theologians have said in the course of time or that Church authorities have put in practice have been proven false and today they confuse us. But it is equally true that the history of the saints and the history of the humanism that has developed on the basis of the Christian faith are proof of the truth of this faith in its essential core, making it something that public reason needs. Of course, much of what theology and faith say can only be appropriated from within the faith and thus cannot be seen as a need for those to whom this faith remains inaccessible. It is true however that the message of the Christian faith is never only a "comprehensive religious doctrine" in Rawls’ terms, but that it is instead a force that purifies reason itself, further helping the latter to be itself. On the basis of its origins the Christian message should always encourage the search of the truth and thus be a force against the pressures exerted by power and interests.
Well, so far I have only talked about the university in the Middle Ages, trying however to show to what extent its nature and purpose have remained the same all along. In modern times knowledge has become more multi-faceted, especially in the two broad fields that now prevail in universities. First of all, there are the natural sciences which have developed on the basis of experimentation and subject matters’ supposed rationality. Secondly, there are the social sciences and the humanities in which man has tried to understand himself by looking at his own history and uncovering his own nature. From this development humanity not only acquired a great deal of knowledge and power but also an understanding and recognition of the rights and dignity of mankind. And for this we can be grateful. But man’s journey can never be said to be over and the danger of falling into inhumanity is never just warded off as we can see in today’s history. The danger faced by the Western world, just to mention the latter, is that mankind, given its great knowledge and power, might give up on the question of the truth. At the same time this means that reason in the end may bow to the pressures of partisan interests and instrumental value, forced to acknowledge the latter as the ultimate standard. From the point of view of the academic world this means that there is a danger that philosophy, feeling incapable of fulfilling its task, might degenerate into positivism, a danger that theology and the message it has for reason might be confined to the private sphere of a group more or less big. If however reason, concerned about its supposed purity, fails to hear the great message that comes from the Christian faith and the understanding it brings, it will dry up like a tree with roots cut off from the water that gives it life. It will lose the courage needed to find the truth and thus become small rather than great. Applied to our European culture this means that if it wants to constitute itself on the basis of its arguments and whatever appears to it to be convincing, with concerns about its own secular nature, it will cut itself off from its life-sustaining roots, and in doing so will not become more reasonable and pure but will instead become undone and fragmented.
And so let me go back to the initial point. What does the Pope have to do or say in a university? He certainly should not try to impose in an authoritarian manner his faith on others, which can only be freely offered. Beyond his ministry as Pastor of the Church and on the basis of the intrinsic nature of this pastoral ministry, it is his task to keep alive man’s responsiveness to the truth. Similarly he must again and always invite reason to seek out truth, goodness and God, and on this path urge it to see the useful lights that emerged during the history of the Christian faith and perceive Jesus Christ as the light that illuminates history and helps find the way towards the future.
From the Vatican, 17 January 2008