Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Lecture La Sapienza Refused to Hear

This morning I finally sat down to read the lecture Pope Benedict XVI planned to give at La Sapienza University in Rome, and I was absolutely stunned. As you may know, the university invited the Holy Father to speak on January 17 to celebrate the inauguration of the new academic year, but the Pope canceled his visit after students and faculty - including 67 professors - protested against it. (Angelo Matera wrote a fabulous article about the incident for the National Catholic Register which can be found here: "The Death of Irony.")

Remember Regensburg? The Sapienza protest was hardly different. It certainly lacked the violence generated by the Pope's speech at Regensburg, but it was spawned by the same kind of ignorance. The "academics" at La Sapienza, like the Islamic fundamentalists who spoke out against the Pope in 2006, misquoted the Holy Father, using "his" remarks (which were not, in fact, his) out of context as justification for their protest. Ironically, the lecture the Pope planned to deliver at La Sapienza, like the one he gave at Regensburg, was meant to be a caution against the dangers of relativism.

Radical Islam and Western secularism both call faith and reason mutually exclusive. If we allow either or both of these ideologies to occupy a higher place in than Christian wisdom in the public sphere - and one might argue that they already do - we may as well bid goodbye to Western civilization as we know it. As the Pope said in a homily in 2005:

"Having a clear faith, based on the Creed of the Church, is often labeled today as fundamentalism. Whereas, relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and 'swept along by every wind of teaching,' looks like the only attitude [acceptable] to today's standards. We are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desires."

In his conclusion to the Sapienza lecture, the Pope elaborated on the dangers that relativism poses to the modern world:
"... [T]he danger of falling into inhumanity is never simply overcome - as we see in the panorama of contemporary history! Today the danger of the Western world - to speak only of this context - is that man, precisely in the consideration of the grandeur of his knowledge and power, might give up before the question of truth. And that means at the same time that reason, in the end, bows to the pressure of interests and the charm of utility, constrained to recognize it as the ultimate criterion."
The Holy Father went on to point out the dangers that relativism poses to the university specifically:

"The danger exists that philosophy, no longer feeling itself capable of its true task, might degenerate into positivism; that theology, with its message addressed to reason, might become confined to the private sphere of a group more or less sizable. If, however, reason - solicitous of its presumed purity - becomes deaf to the great message that comes from the Christian faith and its wisdom, it will wither like a tree whose roots no longer reach the waters that give it life. It will lose courage for the truth and thus it will not become greater but less."
The same thing, the Pope said, will happen to European culture if it continues to become increasingly secular and to "cut itself off from the roots by which it lives" - the roots of Christian wisdom.

Finally, the Holy Father returned to a question he posed at the beginning of his address: "what does the Pope have to do with, or to say to the university?" I can only hope that his answer embarrassed the "academics" at La Sapienza enough to teach them some humility and help them re-discover the path to true wisdom:

"Surely [the Pope] must not attempt to impose the faith on others in an authoritarian way, since it can only be bestowed in freedom. Beyond his office as Shepherd of the Church, and on the basis of the intrinsic nature of this pastoral office, there is his duty to keep the sensitivity to truth alive; to continually invite reason to seek out the true, the good, God, and on this path, to urge it to glimpse the helpful lights that shine forth in the history of the Christian faith, and in this way to perceive Jesus Christ as the Light that illuminates history and helps us to find the way to the future."
You can read the full text of the Holy Father's planned address on Zenit. (Thanks, Angela.) As usual, the Pope is right on target. It's too bad that those who need to hear him the most are also the ones doing all they can to tune him out.

1 comment:

Angela Miceli said...

Emily, I agree with your conclusion that the pope is right on target -- especially in saying that if reason does not listen to the insights of the Christian faith, then it will wither up as a tree that has been cut off from its roots. Can we ever separate love of God from love of truth? While philosophy can, does, and should be carried out in its domain, it cannot ignore Revelation. Dr. Sandoz just made this comment in class. He quoted Etienne Gilson, a Catholic Thomist of the twentieth century who says something to the effect that philosophy cannot simply be pursued as though revelation never took place. Truth is One and Many -- it is a paradox that must be engaged and a tension that must be lived. Revelation allows reason to see the truths that it might have otherwise overlooked, says Gilson. I agree, and likewise reason should limit and shape the pursuits of theology.