Benedict XVI thinks about the University

Benedict XVI thinks of the University:
From Regensburg to Berlin, via Rome and London

Author: Josep-Ignasi Saranyana, member of the Pontifical Council for Historical Sciences (Vatican City) committee
Published in: Text read at the Universitat Internacional de Catalunya (Barcelona, 19 January 2012) and published in Temes D'Avui.
Date of publication: 13 February 2012

Dear colleagues:

I thought it appropriate to present, in chronological order, the most important topic of the Pope's speeches on the University, following the thread of four speeches, from the first, delivered in Regensburg in 2006, to the last, read in Berlin in 2011. I will focus on a single argument from these speeches, a topic that seems to me to be central to the Holy Father's magisterium, because it has been repeated in other speeches as well. And I am going to advance the conclusion of my discussion paper, because, as Gabriel García Márquez said, it is better to kill the protagonist at the beginning of the novel than to sting the reader's curiosity, so that he or she goes to the denouement and finishes reading the book before starting it. Expressed formally, the conclusion could be presented in a few words thesis , borrowing expressions from Thomas Aquinas:

1st thesis The order conceived by God with a view to create, is artistic, exemplary or ideal.

I do not deny that I have translated with some liberty a rather complex Aquinasian syntagma: "ratio divinæ sapientiæ". The term ratio has caused much head-scratching among scholars. In some sense, ratio is intelligence in its intellectual function of choosing and ordering means with a view to an end. I have therefore allowed myself to translate "ratio divinæ sapientiæ" as "order conceived by God with a view to create".

2nd thesis : Created nature participates in this ratio divinæ sapientiæ, which leaves its mark on everything created (in its being and in its action). For the same reason, rational nature participates in the reason of divine wisdom, not only by existing, but also when it knows.

By pointing out that the order conceived by God is art, exemplar or idea, we situate this order on the intellectual plane, on the one hand, and we also establish the rationality of everything created *(1).

3rd thesis : Divine revelation is rational, because it reveals, among other things, the eternal idea of God projected existentially onto the world.

4th thesis : Whatever the cultural circumstances or religious convictions, everyone is able to understand the reasons of believers, because revelation admits a rational presentation .

Ratzinger does not understand such rationality as formulated by the German Catholic theologian Georg Hermes (1775-1831), who popularised the principle "intelligo ut credam" (antithesis of the Anselmian "credo ut intelligam"), but in another, rather more original way, as I will try to show in the course of exhibition.

5th thesis : Rationality not only constitutes a common basis (because every human being is rational), but also corresponds to the intimate structure of everything that exists. That is why the human mind can say what things are.

This clears up the mystery of knowledge. It illustrates why, generally speaking, the human mind does not err when it makes judgements about things, unless there is an error in perception.

6th thesis : Consequently, the Christian has much to say in the construction of modern society, because he has opted for rationality.

After this introduction, let us turn to Benedict XVI's speeches, following the chronological order and starting with the first one.

The academic lecture in Regensburg in September 2006 is first and foremost a nostalgic speech. Benedict XVI reminisces with nostalgia about his beautiful university years between 1959 and 1976. The tone reminds me of the conversations I had with him at the end of the seventies and, above all, of the talks in Pamplona when he visited the University of Navarre to be invested doctor honoris causa in January 1998. It is obvious that the years have erased from his report the contradictions and the unpleasantness suffered, which were present from the very first moment, both in Bonn and, above all, in Tübingen. In the framework of this idealisation of the university institution, objective outlines stand out, interspersed with colourful sensations and idealised experiences.

In any case, it seems obvious that the Pope wants to emphasise that at the University of Bonn, where he started his university teaching , the interdisciplinary partnership reigned and that, in this context, the University was proud to have two Schools theology departments, Catholic and evangelical. From this fact he deduces and argues the legitimacy of the presence of theology in university life.

Let us look more calmly at how he develops his proposals, which seem to me to be fundamental, and let us leave aside another topic, also addressed at Regensburg, which deserved much media attention at the time. This was, as you will recall, the epigraph that the Pope devoted to a very lively question then and now (and perhaps always): the irrationality of imposing religious convictions by force or, to put it positively, that the Christian faith is rational and, therefore, alien to all violence.

How can the rationality of faith be justified, Benedict XVI asks. The reasonableness of faith has not been a peaceful question, especially in the 19th century. This is a well-known fact, which I shall omit for the sake of brevity. However, it is worth remembering that the young Ratzinger was educated at a German university that had barely emerged from the shock provoked by Adolf von Harnack with his majestic Lehrbuch zur Dogmengeschichte (Treatise on the History of Dogmas), in 3 vols. (1885, 1887, 1889) and, above all, with the academic year, based on the Lehrbuch, dictated in Tübingen a few years later and published in 1900 under degree scroll Das Wesen des Christentums (The Essence of Christianity). Harnack's thesis was, in a nutshell, that Christianity was born when a branch of Palestinian Judaism entered contact with Hellenism (i.e. with the Greek Philosophy ). Consequently, and still according to Harnack, Christianity must be cleansed of any Greek contamination, thus restoring it to its original religious splendour. I am not inventing this anti-Harnackian polemical background of Benedict XVI, because Harnack is explicitly mentioned four times in the Regensburg speech . In this context, Benedict XVI, taking the bull by the horns and with enormous audacity, concedes to Harnack that Christianity owes a great deal to the Greek tradition and that this meeting was expressly provided for by divine providence. What is more, he considers that this meeting was a great good for the Gospel. He does not abhor this meeting, but praises and exalts it.

Already in his early writings Ratzinger had offered an interesting exegesis of the Johannine passage that narrates how some Greeks (they could be Jews of the Diaspora or Greek proselytes) presented themselves to Jesus. Then Christ exclaimed: "The hour is coming when the Son of Man will be glorified" (Ioan. 12,23). It is undeniable that the glory of Christ indicates in recto the death on the cross, as is evident from the rest of the pericope; Ratzinger points out, however, that in obliquo this glory is the meeting of the Gospel with the Greek world.

Harnack, on the other hand, had postulated that neither the rules of faith of the early community nor the legal order of the Church have any basis in the preaching of Jesus, but rather contradict it, so that the history of dogmas documents the apostasy of the Church from its origins. According to Harnack, this prevarication would have occurred when the Church entered contact with the Greek world and became Hellenised. That is why Harnack set out to find the "pure gospel", "de-Hellenised", i.e. "the gospel within the gospel", as it was called at the time.

It is therefore understandable that Benedict XVI said in Regensburg:

"This reciprocal inner rapprochement between biblical faith and the philosophical approach of Greek thought is a fact of decisive importance, not only from the point of view of the history of religions, but also from the perspective of world history, which we must also consider today".

And it is also logical that Benedict XVI recalled at the time that "the University [of Bonn] was proud of its two theological Schools . It was clear that they too, by questioning the reasonableness of faith, carry out a work which is necessarily part of the whole of the Universitas scientiarum, because, although not everyone shared the faith, [they all understood] that theologians strive to coordinate faith with common reason".

The German text reads: "um dessen Zuordnung zur gemeinsamen Vernunft sich die Theologen mühen". The literal translation would read: "whose coordination or relation to reason theologians seek".

The problem here lies in the translation of the relative pronoun dessen, which is a masculine genitive, because it refers to la fe, der Glaube, which is a masculine noun, whereas in Spanish the noun la fe is feminine. This is why some English versions of the Regensburg speech are unintelligible.

Let us leave Regensburg and move on to speech which he was to have read at La Sapienza in January 2008 and which, because of the civil service examination of a few, was finally suspended. It is interesting how Benedict XVI wished to present himself to the Roman faculty:

"At my lecture in Regensburg I certainly spoke as Pope, but I spoke above all as a former professor at that university, my university, trying to unite memories and current events. At 'La Sapienza', the ancient university in Rome, however, I was invited precisely as the Bishop of Rome, so I must speak as such.

He then gives the core of the message: the Pope speaks at La Sapienza "as the representative of a community that holds within itself a treasure of knowledge and of ethical experience, which is important for the whole of humanity. In this sense he speaks as the representative of an ethical reason".

What ethical reasoning is involved and what does speech allude to? Benedict XVI thinks of Socrates and his struggle against Greek myth. For Socrates, questioning God, reasoning about God, "was not a problematic lack of religiosity", says the Pope, "but an essential part of his way of being religious". And the conclusion, perhaps expected, comes immediately, in a strong and provocative formulation, especially in these times when the Church is denied bread and salt in university circles:

"Consequently, they [Christians] did not need to put aside the Socratic question, but could, indeed they had to accept it and recognise as part of their own identity the arduous search for reason in order to reach the knowledge of the whole truth. Thus, in the sphere of the Christian faith, in the Christian world, the University could, indeed had to be born".

He then reviews how the four university Schools s of the Middle Ages (Medicine, Law, Theology and Arts or Philosophy) realised the Socratic ideal, so to speak, and he focuses on the relationship between the Schools of Philosophy and Theology. Taking his cue from the felicitous formula of the Council of Chalcedon (which immortalised the four adverbs: inconfuse, immutabiliter, indivise, inseparabiliter when referring to the relations between the two natures of Christ), Benedict XVI focuses on two adverbs: Philosophy and theology must be related without confusion, but also without separation.

As was to be expected, the Roman Pontiff jumps to our times, because he could not stay in the Middle Ages, and asserts:

"From the point of view of the structure of the university, there is [today] the danger that Philosophy, no longer feeling capable of fulfilling its true task, will degenerate into positivism; and that theology, with its message addressed to reason, will be confined to the private sphere of a more or less large [human] group ".

Here again is the question that worries the Pope so much: that Christians should abandon reflection on their faith and that theology should be expelled from the academic world or itself abandon it, considering that its mission statement is not there; something that happened in Spain when the bishops decided, following the concordat of 1851, to remove the Schools of Theology from the University, on the pretext that they could no longer control with sufficient guarantees the course of the teaching, and they opted to found Pontifical Universities in the Spanish metropolitan sees. A crass tactical error, certainly, as was seen eighty years later, when Pius XI decided to close all the Spanish Pontifical Universities because of their low scientific level.

Let us now move to Westminster Hall, where Benedict XVI delivered one of his most beautiful speeches in September 2010. One can sense the Pope's obvious emotion in the solemn tone of his words and the exquisite finesse with which he addresses his listeners. It is no small thing to speak on the floor of the British Parliament, in the presence of both Houses, joined by distinguished guests. The "Mr. Speaker", with which he opens speech, is very expressive. I am aware of the great admiration Benedict XVI has always felt for the English people and, in particular, for Cardinal Henry Newman, now Blessed. On one occasion he confessed to me, I think I can tell you, that one of John Paul II's great desires was to declare Henry Newman a Doctor of the Church, something which, as far as I could perceive, was also the desire of Joseph Ratzinger. But divine providence has its times, and popes too must submit to them.

After the captatio benevolentiæ, well felt and true, Benedict XVI could not but recall the case of Thomas More, to jump immediately to our time:

"Each generation, as it seeks to advance the common good, must ask itself: what demands can governments make on citizens in a reasonable way? And how far-reaching can these demands be, and in whose name can moral dilemmas be resolved? These questions lead directly to the ethical foundations of civil life. If the ethical principles underpinning the democratic process are not governed by anything more solid than mere social consensus, then this process is clearly fragile. Herein lies the real challenge for democracy".

A difficult question, certainly, and an old one, too, in the preoccupations of the young Ratzinger, who had already dealt with topic on several occasions while teaching in Tübingen and who returned to it in a memorable essay graduate Christianity and pluralist democracy. On the modern world's need for Christianity ("Scripta theologica", 1984). In 1984 he wondered about the minimum consensus for democratic coexistence, that lowest common denominator in a pluralist society that makes political coexistence and social peace possible. Now, years later, as Roman Pontiff, the question has a brilliant answer:

"The Catholic tradition holds that objective standards for just governmental action are accessible to reason, regardless of the content of revelation".

And finally the expected conclusion, with a nod to English history, which went ahead to abolish slavery with its Abolition Act of 1807. Let me read the text, even if it is a little long:

"Without the corrective financial aid of religion, reason can also become distorted, as when it is manipulated by ideologies or applied in a biased way to the detriment of full consideration of the dignity of the human person. After all, it was such abuse of reason that caused the slave trade in the first place and many other social ills, in particular the spread of the totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century. That is why I wish to point out that the world of reason and the world of faith - the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief - need each other and should not be afraid to engage in a deep and continuous dialogue, for the sake of our civilisation. In other words, religion is not a problem for lawmakers to solve, but a vital contribution to the national discussion ".

From London we can move on to Berlin, where the circle will be closed. Shortly after he began his speech in the Reichstaggebäude before the two chambers, Benedict XVI went directly to subject:

"In my international responsibility, I would like to offer you some thoughts on the foundations of the liberal rule of law".

It could not begin in a more solemn way in the land of the greatest theoreticians of modern law.

The allusion to his international responsibility is interesting, because at the beginning of the speech, the Pope had appealed to his Germanness. He is therefore speaking to the Germans, who will understand his language and the problems raised; but also to the whole world, because the topic affects everyone and not just Germany, although perhaps it was the Germans, and more specifically the Austrian Hans Kelsen, who caused the problem by putting into circulation the famous "pure theory of law", establishing an unbridgeable hiatus between being and ought-to-be, between sein und sollen, between "el que és i el que hauria de ser", as it is now translated into Catalan. The hiatus between being and ought-to-be can and must be crossed, the Pope boldly affirms.

The big question is therefore how to recognise what is fair. It is true that in many matters to be regulated by law, i.e. for a large part of matters of ordinary administration, majority rule is sufficient.

"But it is also clear that in fundamental questions of law, in which the dignity of man and humanity is at stake, the majority principle is not enough: in the process of training of law, a person manager must seek the criteria of his or her orientation".

So here is the big problem: how to recognise what is right in the most important matters?

And again the Pope appeals to reasonableness. These are his words:

"Contrary to other great religions, Christianity has never imposed on the state and society a revealed law, a legal order derived from a revelation. Instead, it has referred to nature and reason as the true sources of law, it has referred to the harmony between objective and subjective reason, a harmony which, however, presupposes that both spheres are founded on the creative Reason of God".

And the luminous conclusion with which he closes his long reflection is this:

"A positivist conception of nature, which understands nature in a purely functional way, as the natural sciences understand it, cannot create any bridge to ethos and law, but can only provide functional answers. But the same is also true for reason in a positivist view, which many consider to be the only scientific view. In it [in the positivist view], that which is not verifiable or falsifiable does not fall within the realm of reason in the strict sense. Therefore, ethos and religion are to be relegated to the realm of the subjective and fall outside the realm of reason in the strict sense of the word".

The final wink was to Karl Popper, another Austrian, i.e. a tributary of German culture; a wink and, as can be seen, also a disqualification.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have reached the end of my speech. I have tried to be somewhat provocative and I think I have succeeded. After all, a seminar room of professors is convened to discuss a thesis or a hypothesis, with passion, but without becoming fierce.

I have vindicated, following the teachings of the Holy Father, the substantive role of theology in the University, and rationality as the foundation of religious, political, ethical and philosophical dialogue. Even more: I have defended, based on the words of Benedict XVI, the rationality of faith, far from two extremes: from rationalism, which claims that one must understand in order to believe (intelligo ut credam); and also far from fideism, which considers that reason has contaminated the Christian faith and is, therefore, like the whore of Babylon. The conjunction of both, that is, of faith and reason, -inconfuse et inseparabliter- is the guarantee willed by God for the spread of the Gospel of Christ and for perseverance in good works... with the financial aid of grace, of course. In spite of all that has been said and written throughout the 20th century, the time has come to exalt intelligence as the greatest gift that human nature has received from God when He created it. It is inconceivable, then, that in order to be pleasing to God we should have to trample and reduce to ashes the virtuality of our being that so immediately reflects the Creator! Never: it would be monumental foolishness.

Not for nothing did the Gnostics of the first centuries affirm - from their shore - that human intelligence is something divine in us, like a spark of God fallen into our spirit. This is what the poem of Ghibames and, of course, the book of Genesis had already glimpsed: "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness, to have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over every beast of the earth, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; and he created them male and female" (Gen. 1:26-27). From this perspective, perhaps the Ratzinguerian thesis with which I began my exhibition will become clearer.

Thank you very much for your patience.

  1. Thus expressed, this Ratzinguerian thesis also shows an undeniable Augustinian and Bonaventurian imprint, which leads us to medioplatonism.