So What Did He Say?
When it comes to Benedict XVI, that’s a question that always floats around him. Perhaps it should – he’s been known to speak wisdom that children understand even as it befuddles the educated and the powerful. Yesterday, the Pope spoke at Catholic University on the topic of academic freedom, and although he was addressing academics and educators, he was speaking on a favorite topic of mine – the relation between faith and knowledge.
Academic scholars, Benedict said in the late afternoon talk at Catholic University, “are called to search for the truth wherever careful analyses of evidence leads you.”
However, in a pointed message to scholars who stray from church teachings, the pope stressed that Catholic doctrine is paramount. “Any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and the teaching of the Church would obstruct or even betray the university’s identity and mission,” he said.
This seems a contradiction. At least, it does at first to many. How can you search for the truth and not, at least, risk contradicting the teachings of the Church? That’s merely “revealed truth”, and not what we use to design our cars and computers – isn’t it?
Well, it’s not a contradiction, and it’s consistent with Vatican teaching for a long time.
Schwartzman goes on to quote the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown.
Catholic educators “will be pleased to see and hear him express his respect for academic freedom. That’s extremely important in the academic context.”
Equally significant, Reese said, is that the pope did not call for universities to dismiss theologians who disagree with church teachings. “At the same time, he says freedom can be abused by people who don’t teach the truth or who don’t teach Catholic teachings,”
There’s that word again – truth.
Mark Stricherz at Get Religion picks up the theme. “Indeed, Benedict referred to a ‘crisis of truth,’ which he said was ‘rooted in a crisis of faith.'” Stricherz quotes Benedict’s writing on academic freedom to highlight the main point of the Pope’s speech. But I’m struck by his emphasis on the search for truth in the university.
I wish to reaffirm the great value of academic freedom. In virtue of this freedom you are called to search for the truth wherever careful analysis of evidence leads you. Yet it is also the case that any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and the teaching of the Church would obstruct or even betray the university’s identity and mission.
What does this mean to, say, an astronomer who looks at the structure of the universe and shouts “We begin to understand! There’s nothing is the universe that won’t be explained, in time, by these equations!”?
To that person I would still parrot an old bromide. You’ve got your data, and the wrong data has been removed by your hard work to leave information. By finding its place in the compendium of human understanding, it may even become knowledge.
That’s pretty good, especially for physics, which is after all the study of how things move (and what would you expect from a discipline whose goal and purpose can be stated in six words?).
But that’s a long way from truth in the way Benedict is speaking of it, and farther yet from bringing wisdom.