During a meeting with academics held at the famous Castle of Prague Sunday evening, Pope Benedict called professors and students to exercise academic freedom as a gift that must bring them to know and proclaim the truth.
Before the audience of rectors, professors and students from around the Czech Republic, the Pope again brought forward the issue of the dramatic transformations in Eastern Europe after the fall of Communism.
“The great changes which swept Czech society twenty years ago were precipitated not least by movements of reform which originated in university and student circles. That quest for freedom has continued to guide the work of scholars whose diakonia of truth is indispensable to any nation’s well-being,” he said, using the Greek word for “service.”
“I address you as one who has been a professor, solicitous of the right to academic freedom and the responsibility for the authentic use of reason, and is now the Pope who, in his role as Shepherd, is recognized as a voice for the ethical reasoning of humanity.”
The Holy Father recalled that “the freedom that underlies the exercise of reason, be it in a university or in the Church, has a purpose: it is directed to the pursuit of truth, and as such gives expression to a tenet of Christianity which in fact gave rise to the university.”
“Indeed,” he continued, “man’s thirst for knowledge prompts every generation to broaden the concept of reason and to drink at the wellsprings of faith. It was precisely the rich heritage of classical wisdom, assimilated and placed at the service of the Gospel, which the first Christian missionaries brought to these lands and established as the basis of a spiritual and cultural unity which endures to this day.”
Digging into the thorny issue of academic freedom in universities, and the autonomy usually claimed by the academic world, Pope Benedict said that the proper autonomy of a university finds meaning in “its accountability to the authority of truth.”
“Nevertheless, that autonomy can be thwarted in a variety of ways,” he added.
“The yearning for freedom and truth is inalienably part of our common humanity. It can never be eliminated; and, as history has shown, it is denied at humanity’s own peril. It is to this yearning that religious faith, the various arts, philosophy, theology and other scientific disciplines, each with its own method, seek to respond, both on the level of disciplined reflection and on the level of a sound praxis,” he added.
The Holy Father also recalled that he great universities springing up throughout Europe during the Middle Ages “aimed with confidence at the ideal of a synthesis of all knowledge, it was always in the service of an authentic humanitas, the perfection of the individual within the unity of a well-ordered society.”
“And likewise today: once young people’s understanding of the fullness and unity of truth has been awakened, they relish the discovery that the question of what they can know opens up the vast adventure of how they ought to be and what they ought to do.”
“The idea of an integrated education, based on the unity of knowledge grounded in truth, must be regained. It serves to counteract the tendency, so evident in contemporary society, towards a fragmentation of knowledge.”
Speaking about the consequences of new technologies such as the Internet, Pope Benedict explained that with their massive growth comes “the temptation to detach reason from the pursuit of truth.
“Sundered from the fundamental human orientation towards truth, however, reason begins to lose direction: it withers, either under the guise of modesty, resting content with the merely partial or provisional, or under the guise of certainty, insisting on capitulation to the demands of those who indiscriminately give equal value to practically everything.”
He then warned against relativism, which provides “a dense camouflage behind which new threats to the autonomy of academic institutions can lurk.”
“Our societies will not become more reasonable or tolerant or adaptable but rather more brittle and less inclusive, and they will increasingly struggle to recognize what is true, noble and good,” he also warned.
Finally, the Holy Father briefly mentioned “the mending of the breach between science and religion,” calling it a “central concern” of his predecessor Pope John Paul II.
“Each supports the other and each has its own scope of action, yet still there are those who would detach one from the other. Not only do the proponents of this positivistic exclusion of the divine from the universality of reason negate what is one of the most profound convictions of religious believers, they also thwart the very dialogue of cultures which they themselves propose,” the Pope explained.
“An understanding of reason that is deaf to the divine and which relegates religions into the realm of subcultures, is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures that our world so urgently needs. In the end, ‘fidelity to man requires fidelity to the truth, which alone is the guarantee of freedom’,” he concluded.