The Papal Talk Not Given in Rome

From the PapaRatzingerForum:

Of course, La Sapienza was once the Pope’s university, but today it is a secular university with that autonomy which, based on its founding concept, has always been part of the nature of a university, which should be linked exclusively to the authority of truth. The university finds its particular function in its freedom from political or ecclesiastical authorities, especially in modern society, which needs institutions of this kind.

Going back to my question at the start: What can a Pope say and what should he say in meeting with the university of his city? Reflecting on this, it seemed to me that it holds two other questions, whose clarification itself should lead to the answer.

In fact, one must ask: What is the nature and mission of the papacy? And likewise: What is the nature and mission of a university?

I will not keep you and me in any long disquisition on the nature of the Papacy. A brief observation will suffice.

The Pope is, first of all, Bishop of Rome, and as such, through the apostolic succession from the Apostle Peter, he has an episcopal responsibility for the entire Catholic Church. The word ‘bishop’ – episkopos – in its primary sense means ‘overseer’ – was already, in the New Testament, fused with the Biblical concept of the Shepherd.

The bishop is he who, from an elevated viewpoint, sees the whole picture, and takes care of showing the right way to all his flock and keeps them together. In this sense, this description of his task is oriented within the community of believers.

The Bishop-Pastor is the man who takes care of this community – he who keeps the flock together and puts them on the way to God, indicated – according to Christian faith – by Jesus, who not only indicates it: For us, He is the way himself.

But this community that the Bishop takes charge of, whether it is big or small, lives in the world. Its conditions, its course of action, its example and its words inevitably influence all the rest of the human community in its entirety.

The larger this community is, the more its good conditions or its eventual degradation will have repercussions on all of mankind. We see today with great clarity how the conditions of religions and the situation of the Church – its crises and its renewals – are able to have an impact on all of mankind. And so, the Pope, because he is the Pastor of his community, has also become increasingly a voice of ethical reason for mankind.

Here however, the objection may be raised right away that the Pope, in fact, could never truly speak on behalf of ethical reason, but would draw his views from the faith and so cannot claim that they are valid for those who do not share that faith.

We must return to this subject, because now the absolutely fundamental question arises: What is reason? How can a statement – above all a moral norm – show itself to be ‘reasonable’?

At this point, I wish to briefly point out that John Rawls, although denying that ‘comprehensive religious doctrines’ have the nature of ‘public reason’, nevertheless sees that their ‘non-public’ reason is, at least,still reason, which cannot be – in the name of a secularly hardened rationality – simply not known or not recognized by those who sustain such rationality.

He sees a criterion of this reasonableness, among others, in the fact that similar doctrines derive from a responsible and motivated tradition, in which, over a long period of time, sufficiently good argumentations have developed to support a particular doctrine.

I think this statement is important for its recognition that experience and demonstration over the course of generations – the historical background of human knowledge – are also a sign of reasonableness and lasting significance.

In the face of a-historical reason which seeks to construct itself only in an a-historical rationality, mankind’s wisdom as such – the wisdom of the great traditional religions – must be appreciated and valued as facts that cannot simply be cast into the wastebin of the history of ideas.

Let us return to the initial question. The Pope speaks as the representative of a community of believers, in which during the centuries of its existence, a certain wisdom about life has matured. He speaks as the representative of a community which guards in itself a treasure of knowledge and of ethical experiences which have proven to be important for all mankind. In this sense, therefore, he speaks as a representative of ethical reason.

Next we ask: What is a university? What is its mission? It is a huge question to which, once again, I can try to answer only in almost telegraphic style with some observations.

I think it can be said that the true intimate origin of the university is is the longing for knowledge, which is inherent in man. He wants to know about everything that is around him. He wants truth.

In this sense, one can see the self-questioning of Socrates as the impulse from which the Western university was born. I think, for example – to cite just one text – of his dispute with Eutiphrone, who defended before Socrates mythical religion and his devotion to it.

To this, Socrates asked in his turn: “You think that the gods really had wars against each other and terrible enmities and combats… Should we, Eutiphrone, say effectively that all this is true?” (6 b-c).

In this question which seems to be far from devout – but which, in Socrates, arose from a religiosity that was purer and more profound than the search for the truly divine God – the Christians of the first centuries recognized themselves and their journey. They had received their faith not in a positivist mode, or as a way out of unappeased desires; they understood it as the dissolution of the fog of mythological religion to make way for the discovery of that God who is creative Reason and at the same time God-Love.

That is why, self-questioning about God, as also about the true nature and true sense of the human being,was, for them, not a problematic form of a lack of religiosity, but it was part of the essence of their way of being religious.

Thus they had no need to let go or to temporarily shelve Socratic self-questioning, but they could and they had to welcome it, recognizing as part of their own identity the exhausting attempts by reason to arrive at knowledge of the entire truth. And so, it became possible – rather it had to be – that the university was born in the context of Christian faith, in the Christian world.

It is necessary to take a further step. Man wants to know. He wants truth. Truth is above all something to see, to comprehend, theoria, as Greek tradition called it. But truth is never only theoretical.

Augustine, in making a correlation between the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount and the gifts of the Spirit mentioned in Isaiah 11, said there was a reciprocity between scientia and tristitia. Simple knowing, he said, makes us sad. In fact, whoever sees and learns just what is happening in the world, ends up being sad.

But truth means more than knowing: knowledge of truth has the purpose of getting to know what is good. This is also the sense of Socratic self-questioning: What is the good which makes us true? Truth makes us good, and goodness is true – this is the optimism that lives in Christian faith, because it has been granted the vision of Logos, of creative Reason which, in the Incarnation of God, also revealed itself as the Good, as Goodness itself.

In medieval theology, there was a deep dispute over the relationship between theory and praxis, on the correct relation between knowing and acting – a dispute that we will not develop here. In fact, the medieval university with its four faculties presents this correlation.

Let us start with the faculty which, according to the thinking of the time, was the fourth, that of medicine. Even if it was considered more of an ‘art’ rather than science, nevertheless, its inclusion in the cosmos of the universitas clearly meant that it was situated within the sphere of rationality, that the art of healing was under the guidance of reason and had been taken away from the sphere of magic.

Healing is a task that always calls for simple reason, but precisely because of this, it needs a connection between knowledge and power, it must belong to the sphere of ratio.

Inevitably, the question of the relationship between praxis and theory, between knowledge and action, comes up in the faculty of jurisprudence. It has to do with giving the right form to human freedom, which is always freedom of reciprocal communion: the law is the precondition for freedom, not its antagonist.

Now the question comes up right away: How does one define the criteria of justice which make possible a freedom that is lived together, which serve to make man good? At this point, we jump to the present: where it is the question of how to find juridical regulations that constitute an ordering of freedom, of human dignity and of human rights. This is the question that concerns us today in the democratic processes of the formation of opinion, which also torments us as a question for the future of mankind.

Juergen Habermas expresses, in my opinion, a vast consensus of present thinking, when he says that the legitimacy of a Constitution as a premise for legality, comes from two sources: from the egalitarian political participation of all citizens, and the reasonable form in which political conflicts are solved.

About this ‘reasonable form’, he comments that it cannot just be a battle for arithmetical majority, but should be characterize itself as a ‘process of argumentation hat is sensitive to the truth” [wahrheitssensibles Argumentationsverfahren).

It is well said, but it’s something very difficult to transform into political praxis. The representatives of that public ‘process of argumentation’ are – we know – predominantly the political parties as responsible agencies for the formation of political will.

In fact, they will unfailingly aim to win that majority and would thus inevitably pay attention to interests that they will promise to satisfy – such interests, however, are often very specific and do not really serve everyone. The sensitivity to truth is always overwhelmed by the sensitivity to these interests.

I find it significant that Habermas speaks of sensibility to the truth as a necessary element in the process of political argumentation, thus restoring the concept of truth to the philosophical and political debates.

Then Pilate’s question becomes inevitable: What is truth? How does one recognize it? If this sends us back to ‘public reason’ as Rawls does, then the next question is: What is ‘reasonable? How does reason show itself to be true reason?

In any case, it becomes evident that in the search for the laws of freedom, for the truth about just coexistence, different instances must be heard with respect to parties and interest groups without wanting to even minimally question their importance.

We thus return to the structure of the medieval university. Next to the faculty of jurisprudence were the faculties of philosophy and of theology, to whom was entrusted the research on man in his totality, and with this, the task of keeping sensitivity to truth alive.

One can say that the permanent and true sense of both faculties was to be custodians of that sensitivity to the truth, and not to allow that man be distracted from his search for truth. But how could they comply with this task?

This is a question that must always be worked on and which is never posed and resolved definitively. At this point, I too could not offer an answer, but rather an invitation to stay on the road with this question – in company with the great ones who throughout history have fought and sought, with their answers and their restlessness, to find the truth, which continually recedes beyond every single answer.

Theology and philosophy thus form a peculiar twin pair, in which neither can be totally detached from the other, but nonetheless, each must keep its own mission and its own identity.

It is a historical merit of St. Thomas Aquinas – in the face of the different answers of the Fathers of the Church because of their historical context – to have brought to light the autonomy of philosophy, and with that, the right and the responsibility of reason for self-questioning on the basis of its own powers. Differentiating itself from the neo-Platonic philosophies, in which religion and philosophy were inseparably intertwined.

The Fathers had presented the Christian faith as the true philosophy, underscoring even that this faith corresponded to the exigencies of reason in search of truth; that faith was the Yes to truth, with respect to the mythical religions which had become reduced to simple customs.

But at the moment the university was born, those religions no longer existed in the West, only Christianity, and therefore, it was necessary to underscore once again the responsibility of reason alone, not absorbed into the faith.

Thomas acted at a favorable time: For the first time, the philosophical writings of Aristotle were accessible in their entirety. There were Jewish and Arab philosophers, who represented specific appropriations and prosecutions of Greek philosophy.

Therefore Christianity, in a new dialog with the reason of others,
as it encountered them, had to fight for its own reasonableness.
The faculty of philosophy, which as the so-called ‘faculty of artists’, had been up to that time merely an introduction to theology, now became a true and proper faculty, an autonomous partner of theology and of the faith that it reflected. We cannot dwell here on the fascinating confrontation which came out of this.

I would say that the idea of St. Thomas on the relationship between philosophy and theology would be expressed in the formula found by the Council of Chalcedon for Christology: philosophy and theology should relate to each other “without confusion and without separation”.

‘Without confusion’ means that each should keep its own identity. Philosophy should remain truly a search by reason into its own freedom and responsibility – it should see its limits, along with its greatness and vastness. Theology should continue to draw from a treasure of knowledge which it has not invented itself, which always surpasses it, and which, never being totally exhaustible through reflection, would always allow thought to start up anew.

The idea of ‘without separation’ should be in force just as much as ‘without confusion’. Philosophy does not start from zero in the thinking subject, in isolated manner, but is situated within historical knowledge, which it always welcomes and develops critically but also obediently. Nor should it close itself up before what religions, and in particular, the Christian faith, have received and given to humanity to show it the path.

Various things said by theologians in the course of history – some of it even translated to practice by ecclesiastical authorities – have been shown to be false by history, and today we find them confusing.

But at the same time, it is also true that the stories of the saints, the story of humanism as it developed on the basis of Christian faith, demonstrates the truth of this faith in its essential nucleus, thus justifying its role in ‘public’ reason.

Of course, much of what theology and faith say could be done only within the faith and therefore cannot be demanded of those to whom this faith remains inaccessible.

At the same time, it is true that the Christian message is never just a ‘comprehensive religious doctrine’ in Rawls’s sense, but a purifying force for reason itself, which helps it to be more itself.

The Christian message, based on its origins, should always be an encouragement towards the truth, and therefore, a force against the pressure of power and interests.

Up to now, I have been speaking of the medieval university, trying nonetheless to let the permanent nature of the university and its mission come through. In modern times, new dimensions of knowledge have opened up, and in the university, they are appreciated most of all in two spheres: above all, in the natural sciences, which have developed on the basis of the link between experimentation and the presumed rationality of matter; and in the second place, in the historical and humanistic sciences, in whuich man – scrutinizing the mirror of history, and clarifying the dimensions of his nature, seeks to understand himself better.

This development has opened to mankind not only an immense meassure of knowledge and power, but it has also developed the knowledge and acknowledgment of human rights and human dignity, for which we can only be grateful.

But man’s journey can never be said to be complete, and the danger of falling into inhumanity can never be simply abjured – as we see in the panorama of current affaris.

The danger for the Western world – to speak of this alone – is that man today, especially considering the greatness of his knowledge and power, surrenders when faced with the question of truth. This would mean that reason ultimately folds up from the pressure of interests and the attractiveness of utility, being forced to recognize it as the ultimate criterion.

Stated from the point of view of the structure of the university, there is a danger that philosophy, no longer feeling capable of its true mission, degenerates into positivism; that theology, with its message addressed to reason, becomes confined to the private sphere of a group or groups.

If however, reason, solicitous of its presumed purity, becomes deaf to the great message that comes from the Christian faith and its wisdom, it would wither up like a tree whose roots no longer reach the waters that give it life. It would lose its courage for the truth and will stop being great – it would diminish.

Applied to our European culture, this means: if reason wishes to self-construct itself circumscribed by its own argumentation and that which convinces it for the moment, and – preoccupied with its secularity – cuts itself off from the roots through which it lives, then it does not become more reasonable and pure, but will decompose and break up.

With this, I return to our starting point. What does the Pope have to do or say in the university? Certainly, he should not seek to impose the faith in authoritarian fashion, because faith can only be given in freedom.

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 the sensitivity for truth; to invite reason ever anew to set itself to a quest for the truth, for goodness, for God; and along this path, call on it to be aware of the useful lights that have emerged throughout the history of the Christian faith, and thereby to perceive Jesus Christ as the Light who illumines history and helps us find the way to the future.

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