Shunning a truth-seeker


‘Places where the Pope can’t go: Moscow, Beijing, University of Rome’.

It’s a combustible combustion, the pope and the university. The serene priest-scholar provokes the most frenzied reactions.

Today, Pope Benedict XVI was scheduled to give a magisterial address at Rome’s most venerable university, La Sapienza. It promised to be one of the set-piece academic masterpieces for which Benedict is renowned. The Holy Father was to explore the relationship of faith and reason in the search for truth, the purpose for which universities exist.

At the University of Regensburg in September, 2006, Benedict argued that to coerce faith, especially by violence, was contrary to reason, and that which is contrary to reason is contrary to God. In a world marred by terrorist violence, Benedict asked whether Islam took the same view of reason. In response, there was a wave of anti-Christian mob violence across the Islamic world.

Nothing of that sort was expected at La Sapienza. After all, the university, secular since 1870, was founded by Pope Boniface VIII in 1303, and was sustained for centuries by the papacy. Yet the papal visit brought an outbreak of ugliness. Sixty-seven science professors wrote to the university’s rector, asking him to withdraw the invitation, as Benedict was a man “hostile to science.” Some 100 leftist students occupied the rector’s office earlier this week, demanding the same, and threatening disruptive protests when the Holy Father arrived. On Tuesday, the Vatican announced that Benedict would “postpone” his visit in light of the controversy.

Benedict played the situation masterfully. Had he gone, the story would have been about the rude protesters. In declining to appear before such ill-behaved supposed scholars, he focused attention on their closedmindedness. Yesterday, the entire Italian cultural and political establishment rose as one and denounced the professors and the students. Italian President Giorgio Napolitano sent Benedict a letter of support denouncing the “manifestations of intolerance” as “inadmissible” in a university dedicated to free inquiry.

“So there are three places where the pope cannot go: Moscow, Beijing and the university of Rome,” said one student at yesterday’s papal audience.

Saying that Benedict is not fit for the university is like saying that Pelé has no place on the soccer pitch. He is without doubt among the greatest scholars of his generation...

Of course , the Pope does not need La Sapienza to get his teaching noticed. The address he had prepared was released by the Vatican yesterday and now will be studied in greater depth than it otherwise would have been. It is, as expected, magisterial in every sense of the word. The 3,350-word Italian address is a model of humility in the search for truth.

“What has the pope to do or to say in the university?” Benedict asked. “Certainly he does not seek to impose in an authoritative way the faith, which can only be given in freedom. ... He always renews the invitation for reason to put itself at the search for the truth, for the good, for God.” Acknowledging that religious believers are capable of mistakes, Benedict called both believers and non-believers alike to the search for truth, which can be difficult, but which should not be abandoned because of the difficulties.

Yet the protest reflects that many in the contemporary university are not seeking a disinterested search for truth, but wish to exclude from consideration entire fields of human inquiry. The scientific fundamentalists claim that Benedict is not worthy of the university environment because he thinks there are limits to what science can tell us about the most fundamental questions of life. Benedict believes the laboratory is an excellent place to learn about the natural world, but not well-suited to understanding the meaning of existence, the nature of truth, the reality of love, the vocation to freedom.

In this case, the protesters overreached. Saying that Benedict is not fit for the university is like saying that Pelé has no place on the soccer pitch. He is without doubt among the greatest scholars of his generation, a fact recognized when he was inducted in 1992 into the prestigious French Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques, taking the seat vacated by the death of the Soviet physicist and political dissident Andrei Sakharov. He had devoted his entire life to the university, continuing his scholarly work even as his pastoral duties increased.

There is no doubt that La Sapienza turning its back on the pope is a historic moment. Certainly, it is a moment that has horrified Italy. And Italy should be horrified, for it means that La Sapienza has also turned its back on the search for truth, and on freedom in the search for that truth.


Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Shunning a truth-seeker." National Post, (Canada) January 17, 2008.

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


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 © 2008 National Post

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