Maintain A Vigilant Awareness of Truth: The Holy Father Writes to the University

Cardinal Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone S.D.B., yesterday sent a letter to the rector of Rome's "La Sapienza" University, explaining the reasons for which the Pope will not participate in today's ceremony for the inauguration of that institution's academic year.

In his letter the Cardinal writes: "As, unfortunately, the prerequisites for a dignified and tranquil welcome were not present, because of an initiative by a decidedly minority group of professors and students, it was judged opportune to postpone the scheduled visit in order to remove any pretext for demonstrations which would have been unfortunate for everyone concerned".

Nonetheless, the letter continues, given that the majority of professors and students wished to hear "a culturally meaningful word, whence to draw stimuli for their own journey in search of truth, the Holy Father has instructed that the text he prepared for the occasion be sent to you".

In his discourse, which was read out at the end of this morning's ceremony, Benedict XVI recalls the lecture he delivered at Regensburg in September 2006, during the course of his apostolic trip to Germany. On that occasion, he writes, "I spoke as Pope but, above all, as a former professor of what used to be my own university. … However, I was invited to 'La Sapienza', the ancient university of Rome, as Bishop of Rome, and as such I must speak.

"Of course", he adds, "'La Sapienza' was once the university of the Pope, but today it is a lay university enjoying that autonomy which, on the basis of the principles on which they were founded, has always been part of the nature of universities, which must be exclusively bound by the authority of the truth".

"The Pope is first and foremost the Bishop of Rome and as such, by virtue of his succession from the Apostle Peter, has an episcopal responsibility towards the entire Catholic Church", writes the Pope. "But the community which the bishop has in his care, be it large or small, lives in the world; its conditions, its progress, its example and its word inevitably influence all the rest of the human community".

"The Pope speaks as the representative of a community of believers, … as a representative of a community that contains within itself a wealth of ethical knowledge and experiences which are important for all humankind. In this way he speaks as a representative of ethical reason".

Benedict XVI asks himself: "What is the university? What is its task?" Then he goes on: "The true, intimate, origin of the university lies in the longing for knowledge which is inherent to mankind. Humans want to know what it is that surrounds them. They want truth".

"Truth is never just theoretical. … Truth means more than knowing. Knowledge of truth has as its goal knowledge of good. … What is the good that makes us true? The truth makes us good, and goodness is truth. This is the optimism that lives in Christian faith, because [that faith] has been granted the vision of the 'Logos', creative Reason which in the incarnation of God was revealed as Good, as Goodness itself".

In this context, the Holy Father presents the example of medieval universities in which, he notes, faculties of philosophy and theology "were entrusted with searching for the truth about man in its entirety and, alongside that, with the task of ensuring that awareness of truth remained high". Then, quoting a formula used at the Council of Chalcedon to describe Christology, Benedict XVI affirms that theology and philosophy must co-exist "without confusion and without separation.

"Without confusion", he adds, "means that each of the two disciplines must conserve its own identity. Philosophy must remain a real search for reason, with its own inherent freedoms and responsibilities", while theology "must continue to draw from that wealth of knowledge which it did not invent itself … and which, since it can never be totally consumed by reflection, always provides fresh stimulus for thought".

"Without separation", he explains, means that "philosophy does not start afresh from zero each time in the mind of the thinker, but is part of the great dialogue of historical wisdom", in which "it must not close itself to what religions – and in particular the Christian faith – have received and donated to humanity as signs along its journey".

"Much of what theology and faith say", Pope Benedict observes, "can be absorbed only within the context of faith itself and therefore cannot be presented as a requirement to those people for whom this faith remains inaccessible. Yet at the same time it is true that the message of Christian faith … is a purifying force for reason, … an encouragement towards truth, and therefore a force against the pressures of power and interest groups".

The Holy Father also refers to modern times in which "new dimensions of knowledge" have opened up, represented in universities in two main areas: "the natural sciences, … and the historical and human sciences". He also notes with satisfaction how "the recognition of the rights and the dignity of man" has increased.

However, despite this, "the danger of falling into inhumanity can never be completely eliminated", in particular "the danger facing the Western world … is that man today, precisely because of the immensity of his knowledge and power, surrenders before the question of truth. … This means that, in the end, reason gives way before the pressure of other interests and the lure of efficiency, and is forced to recognise this as the ultimate criterion".

"There is a danger", the Pope observes, "that philosophy, no longer feeling itself capable of playing its true role, may degenerate into positivism; that theology with its message to reason, may be confined to the private sphere of a particular group, large or small as it may be".

In closing his discourse, the Benedict XVI asks: "What does the Pope have to do or to say to the university?" And he answers: "Certainly he must not seek to impose on others, in an authoritarian way, a faith which can only be given in freedom.

"Over and above his ministry as a pastor in the Church and on the basis of the intrinsic nature of such pastoral ministry", the Pope concludes, "it his job to maintain high the awareness of truth, inviting reason ever and anew to seek truth, goodness, God and, on this journey, encouraging it to notice the valuable lights that have arisen during the history of the Christian faith".

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