In the Vatican Gardens, faith meets reason

FR. RAYMOND J. DE SOUZA

Not everyone who comes here does so to exercise the soul.

There are many who come, not to seek the Lord, but to understand something more about history, or to behold the sublime achievements in art and architecture, or simply out of curiosity. There are also a few who come to exercise the mind — scholars who find in the Vatican a congenial home for the work of scholarship.

I am here for the annual meeting of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, which, in Vatican terms, was established only the day before yesterday, in 1994. There is also the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, established in 1879, which itself is a baby compared to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, established in 1603. The academies serve as a forum where leading scholars are able to meet precisely as scholars to discuss particular themes of current interest. Many of the members of the various academies are not Catholic, but all are leading scholars in their respective countries. In my own field of economics, three of the world’s leading economists belong to the Academy of Social Sciences. I had to come to the Vatican to meet a Nobel laureate in economics.

That is not really that remarkable. The Church has a long history of being a patron of research and scholarship. The university itself, after all, was born from the heart of the Church. And the history of the natural sciences as a whole is replete with ecclesiastical patronage. For those who think that the story of the Church and the sciences begins and ends with Galileo, it is at least important to remember that the Galileo affair involved the Church because that is where much of the scientific action was in the 17th century.


One reason the pontifical academies attract such eminent scholars is that they actually have philosophers, economists, historians and legal scholars all talking to each other in conversations that simply don’t occur in many other places, including most universities.


This year’s meeting of the social sciences academy was devoted to international relations, and various invited guest speakers made presentations to the academy. While Henry Kissinger attracted the most attention, this year’s roster also included a former Mexican foreign minister, the head of the Organization of American States, the director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization, and various other luminaries. (I hasten to add that my presence was not as a contributing scholar, but as a factotum handling media relations.)

So why do so many prominent guests join the members of the academy for four days of intense discussions? No doubt it has something to do with the prestige of a Vatican invitation, and the opportunity to meet in the Vatican Gardens. But it is also because the pontifical academies offer something rare in the academic world today — an opportunity to discuss matters of broad interest across disciplines. For example, one day at lunch (no doubt Italian cuisine attracts some of the Germans and the English!) I had a conversation in Italian about the relationship of metaphysics to moral philosophy, a conversation in English about the different role of juries in civil trials in England and the United States and listened in on a conversation in French about the application of just-war theory to the situation in Iraq.

The contrast with the contemporary university is striking. Though “interdisciplinary studies” are quite fashionable, the daily reality of most scholars is marked by isolated work on topics of greater and greater specialization of interest to fewer and fewer of their academic colleagues, let alone to a more general audience. Indeed, the language of scholarship is often so idiosyncratic as to make it difficult for scholars in different disciplines to even talk to each other. One reason the pontifical academies attract such eminent scholars is that they actually have philosophers, economists, historians and legal scholars all talking to each other in conversations that simply don’t occur in many other places, including most universities.

That practical reality is the fruit of the Church’s theological conviction, namely that all truth is united as it proceeds from the same God. The experiments of science, and the research of social scientists, do not have divine revelation as their object of study, but to the extent that they can reach the truth about things, they tell us something about the author of truth.

That Christian conviction has motivated centuries of faith seeking understanding, as St. Anselm put it a millennium ago, and it explains why even today the scholar, as well as the pilgrim, finds a ready welcome here.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Father Raymond J. de Souza, "In the Vatican Gardens, faith meets reason." National Post, (Canada) May 3, 2007.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.

THE AUTHOR

Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2007 National Post



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