Schall on the Sapienza Lecture: Benedict XVI on the Nature of a University | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | February 11, 2008 | Ignatius InsightSchall on the Sapienza Lecture: Benedict XVI on the Nature of a University | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | February 11, 2008

EDITOR'S NOTE: Fr. Schall, who celebrated his 80th birthday last month, recently spent some time in the hospital battling pneumonia. He is, thankfully, doing much better now, and has graciously written the following essay for Ignatius Insight.

"On this occasion (January 17), I am happy to express my gratitude to you for your invitation at your university (La Sapienza, in Rome). With this prospect in view, I first of all asked myself the question: what can and should a Pope say on such an occasion? In my lecture at Regensburg (September 12, 2006), I did indeed speak as Pope, but above all I spoke in my capacity as a former professor of my old university, seeking to link past memories with the present." -- Benedict XVI, "The Truth Makes Us Good and Goodness Is True", Undelivered Address to La Sapienza University


Benedict XVI did not deliver his major address at La Sapienza University in Rome because of threats of disturbance and protests at his visit to the university, a place originally founded by Boniface VIII. In response to such clearly un-academic threats, the Pope simply postponed his visit (the University has announced that the Pope will be re-invited to the institution). This move was probably unanticipated by the erstwhile protesters who were suddenly left exposed for what they were: people who did not understand the first thing about a university, namely its space free enough to speak of the truth. It cannot be what it is, an area of freedom to pursue the truth, when threats of violence are made against its very expression. The Pope's lecture, however, was read by another professor and published in due form in L'Osservatore Romano.

The address is quite remarkable. It is, in fact, a brief history of what a university is from classical, medieval, and modern times. The lecture touched on the very nature of reason, a theme to which this Holy Father often returns. Some time has passed since the incident. Still, I think it valuable to take a retrospective look at this address in what it says and outside of the controversy surrounding its initial presentation. Benedict is a careful and clear thinker. His mind always seems to have before it Scripture, classical philosophy, Augustine and Aquinas, medieval history, and modern thought.

In the address, Benedict cites Socrates in the Euthuphro, the short dialogue on piety that takes place the day before the Trial of Socrates. Benedict recalls how Socrates wanted to know whether the accounts of the pagan gods, their wars and struggles with each other, were true (6b). Right away, with this deft citation from Socrates, the pope allied himself with the rule of reason as it relates to the gods. The Christian fathers in the early centuries took up this very question. What they proposed was that the "story" of the Incarnation was not a "myth" but a true account of God's intervention in our history. What the pagans were searching for was a true account, defensible in reason, of the Godhead, which has now been revealed to us. Christian thinkers thus took up the Socratic question in this form: "Is the Christian account of the Godhead found in Scriptures basically true?" The relation of faith and reason thus is already within Christian revelation from its very beginning. The Christian God—the Trinity, the Logos—is not a myth. What it depicts happened; it is true. It is addressed to human reason not as myth but as reason.

The pope in fact calls Socrates the remote founder of the university as such. Benedict cites John Rawls, Jčrgen Habermas, and Thomas Aquinas with equal familiarity. He keeps his first question in mind, namely, "What should I as pope tell you?" His answer is direct: "Certainly, he (the pope) must not seek to impose the faith upon others in an authoritarian manner—as faith can only be given in freedom." Critics, who presume that it needs to be "imposed," not freely understood, vastly underestimate the power of revelation. That is the last thing it needs. In fact, revelation is to be received as a free act by an intelligent and free being on the grounds of grace and wisdom.

The pope's office is not to deny that faith is directed to reason but to affirm it. Benedict adds:

Over and above his ministry as Shepherd of the Church and on the basis of the intrinsic nature of his pastoral ministry, it is the Pope's task to safeguard sensibility to the truth, to invoke reason to set out ever anew in the search for what is true and good, in search of God, to urge reason, in the course of this search to discern the illuminating lights that have emerged during the history of the Christian faith, and thus to recognize Jesus Christ as the light that illuminates and help us find the path toward the future.

These remarks of the Holy Father about the future and the one about Jesus Christ remind us directly of the Pope's book Jesus of Nazareth and his latest encyclical Spes Salvi.

The pope, as pope, has to tell the university audience that, on its own terms, the terms of reason, the evidence that Christ is who He says He is, the Logos, is intact and convincing. The scientific studies of the record are sufficiently clear that Jesus Christ did exist in this world and was what He said He was. The pope here is not saying that reason can prove who Christ was. Rather he is saying that none of the vast historical efforts to deny the record are, on their own grounds, better founded than their opposite, that Christ's claim has grounding in reason. To go back to the citation from the Euthuphro, the Christian account of God is not a "myth." It is reasonable by every standard of reason. It is concerned with or confronted by a reason, by a Logos, which is higher than our finite reason but still directs itself to our understanding as true.

In Spes Salvi, the pope directly sought to reestablish the Christian notion of the future, indeed of the four last things. This effort recognized that most of modern philosophy and ideology is an effort to find an answer to questions of death, punishment, the perfect city, freedom, and life, as if it could be achieved in this world by human means. In many ways, modern science proposes various kinds of "reconstruction" of the human body and psyche so that we are begotten and kept alive, by technology, in this world. In short, we create a hell on earth by our very refusal to accept the conditions of our being to which revelation addresses itself.


In what sense does the pope speak to all mankind? The tendency is to claim that moral and ethical matters are closed circuits. There are as many different kinds of speakers as there are cultures and religion. The claim of universal truth and intelligible dignity that the Church makes is written off as "arrogant" or as "opinion." The pope thus is said to draw his "judgments from faith and hence cannot claim to speak on behalf of those who do not share this faith." This objection, the pope affirms, brings up the "fundamental question" namely: "What is reason?" Reason is precisely the grounds for directing all thought to the same measure and standard, something that, in argument and reflection can be known to everyone from whatever background.

What is "reason" is itself related directly to the questions, as Benedict put it: "'What is a university?' 'What is its task?' ... I think one could say that at the most intimate level, the true origin of the university lies on the thirst for knowledge that is proper to man. The human being wants to know what everything around him is. He wants truth." We have, all of us, a knowing faculty and we want to know. There are traditional and articulated ways and institutions in which this desire "to everything around us" can and should be pursued. Benedict is ever concerned that "reason" be not restricted to methods that exclude the higher things, the things that are not matter and hence not "measurable" by quantity. To insist that the only kind of knowledge is that based on measurable quantity is to exclude from the beginning the really deepest and most important things in our lives. As Fides et Ratio indicated, the Church is directly concerned that philosophy and reason be what they are, neither more or less.

"Yet truth means more than knowledge," Benedict continues in a passage obviously related to book six of Plato's Republic:

The purpose of knowing the truth is to know the good. This is also the meaning of Socratic enquiry: What is the good which makes us free? The truth makes us good and goodness is true: this is the optimism that shapes the Christian faith, because this faith has been granted the vision of the Logos, of creative Reason, which in God's Incarnation revealed itself as the Good, as goodness itself.

This is a remarkable passage. The faith is an "optimism" in its own right. It is grounded in the good. The Logos is "creative reason." Things can be understood as true, as what exactly is our destiny and purpose. This purpose in the good is not irrational or mad, but precisely reason responding to Logos, to reason.

Creative reason does not appeal to us as if we had no questions to ask of it. It only appears in fact when we are precisely asking the questions of our reason—those about our origin, purpose, meaning, and destiny. These latter questions do not initially arise from revelation but from living and thinking about what is. Creative reason presents itself not as something alien to us but as something that attracts us as good and as true. Were our freedom not intimately bound up with our reason, we could not be beings who really do know and choose to be what we are. "Here it was a matter of giving the correct form to human freedom, which is always a freedom shared with others. Law is the presupposition of freedom; it is not its opposite." We observe the law, particularly the natural law, because we understand it as reasonable. Our freedom is not to do whatever we want, but to do what is right. This freedom is "shared with others" for we all have the same destiny and know the same truth if we choose to do so.


Benedict next takes up the question of truth as it exists in and shapes the public order, the relation between politics and truth. Benedict's assessment is sober:

The representatives of that public 'process of argumentation' are--as we know--principally political parties, inasmuch as these are responsible for the formation of political will. De facto, they will always aim to achieve majorities and hence will almost inevitably attend to interests that the promise to satisfy, even though these interests are often particular and do not serve the whole. Sensibility to the truth is repeatedly subordinated to sensibility to interests.

The logic of this realist observation is that we cannot simply grant that political parties will provide us with sufficient truth to direct lives lived in a polity. Reason, at its best, and revelation both stand outside de facto political agendas. We must listen to claims to truth other than parties alone.

Dealing with the classic university idea of faculties of theology and philosophy whose essential purpose was the truth as derived from their disciplines, Benedict returns to the notion of "sensibility" to truth in a public order consumed by interests. In this sense, the classic academy had to exist "outside of politics," so that it would be free enough to know the truth as something more than one's own interests. Not many actual polities provide or allow for the terms in which a university must exist to be itself. "One might even say that this was the permanent and true purpose of both faculties (philosophy and theology); to be custodians of sensibility for the truth, not to allow man to be distracted from his search for the truth." This is indeed a noble purpose. It is particularly poignant today when it is precisely the university that seems most to represent an arena of closed political correctness, a sophistry that does not allow the ultimate sources of reason to enter its domain in the name of a certain kind of limited reason usually called "science" but in practice limited to a very small part of real knowledge available to the human mind.

Benedict is aware of the implications of what he is saying. "Theology and philosophy, in this regard form a strange pair of twins, in which neither of the two can be totally separated from the other, and yet each must preserve its own task and its own identity." Philosophy, the discipline that seeks the whole by the power of human reason, knows that it finds some truth but not whole truth. Theology, for its part, articulates itself in terms of what is reasonable in its account of what is revealed. This was the purport of Benedict's citation from the Euthuphro. When theology formulates what is revealed to it, it can articulate its terms and implications to be presented to mind. This articulation cannot be accomplished without a philosophy of what is. Revelation is directed to the real world. It is not a myth. Without changing its own purpose or method, philosophy cannot ignore that the terms of revelation are also reasonably presented to its own thinking about what is. Each must be what it is; neither can exclude the other. The implication to reason, of course, is that the reason found in revelation is indeed directed to reason found in philosophy. As Benedict said in the Regensburg Lecture, the reason discovered in nature through mathematics itself implies an origin that is reason, Logos.

Benedict then discusses Thomas Aquinas, our teacher in all of these things. Aquinas lived in a "privileged time," Benedict observes, a time when Jewish, Arabic, and Christian philosopher were suddenly confronted with the great figure of Aristotle, "the Philosopher." "I (Benedict) would say that Saint Thomas' idea concerning the relationship between philosophy and theology could be expressed using the formula that the Council of Chalcedon adopted for Christology: philosophy and theology must be interrelated 'without confusion and without separation.'" This is the significance of the doctrine that Christ is "true man." He is likewise Logos, a divine person, but fully man, one of the most difficult positions to accept both by other religions and philosophy. Yet, this reality of the Incarnation is the heart of the matter. The pope simply draws the momentous consequence of this teaching: philosophy is philosophy; revelation is revelation. Both exist un-confusedly as what they are, "twins," directly related to each other. If we deny this distinction, we do so at the risk of the whole coherence of the universe in a single order.


Following a comment of Habermas, Benedict stresses that philosophy includes, not excludes, its own history. It cannot be a Cartesian beginning with nothing in each case of thought. "Philosophy does not start again from zero with every thinking subject in total isolation, but takes its placed within the great dialogue of historical wisdom, which it continually accepts and develops in manner both critical and docile. It must not exclude what, the Christian faith in particular, has received and have given to humanity as signposts for the journey." It is not rational to say, "let's philosophize" but then exclude the philosophical record of the Logos, the "I Am who am." Christianity and its address to reason cannot be excluded because it is only "private" or a "myth." It is neither. It is itself essential to the fullness of what it is to think on what is.

All through his career, Benedict has been careful to give science in the modern sense its due. He never denies its positive accomplishments, only its presumption that its limited method is sufficient to cover all the reality to which our minds are open. The pope recognizes that our whole civilization is at stake in these philosophic issues. "The danger for the western world—to speak only of this—is that today, precisely because of the greatness of his knowledge and power, man will fail to face up to the question of the truth." Rather reason will bow to interests, to massive projects to reconstruct man and his world in the image not of God but of himself as presupposed to nothing.

Benedict has long considered the present intellectual battlefield is Europe and its culture of reason and revelation. "Applied to our European culture, this means: if our culture seeks only to build itself on the basis of the circle of its own argumentation, on what convinces it at the time, and if—anxious to preserve its secularism--it detaches itself from its life-giving roots, then it will not become more reasonable or purer, but will fall apart and disintegrate." Such is what Benedict had to tell the students and faculty at La Sapienza. This is what the objectors did not want anyone to hear or consider. Any student at such a university who was not outraged by this overt threat to deny him of a discourse on what is true has not yet felt the passion for truth that runs through the soul of Benedict XVI.

Recalling the famous question of Pilate, Benedict still reminds us that we have to "face up" to the question "what is truth?" Revelation exists in part because this question can never be allowed to die among us. The complete political closure of the academia to truth in its fullness recalls the old Platonic and Aristotelian positions that a "City in Speech," a philosophy of what is, abides over all polities and all souls who have taken the trouble to ask about what man really is? What is his destiny? The La Sapienza Lecture, I think, reminds us of the fundamental importance of the fullness of reason and of the revelation directed particularly to it.

Related Articles:

Author Page for Pope Benedict XVI | Ignatius Insight
Reading Without Learning: On Not Missing "Sublime Passages" | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Benedict on Aquinas: "Faith Implies Reason" | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Secularity: On Benedict XVI and the Role of Religion in Society | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
On "Losing" One's Faith at University | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Catholic Commencements: A Time for Truth to Be Honored | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Are Truth, Faith, and Tolerance Compatible? | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
The Molochs of Modernity | Dr. Jose Yulo
Ivory Comedy Clubs: The Tragedy of Modern Education | Dr. Jose Yulo
Ratzinger and Regensburg: On What Is a University? | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
On Learning and Education | An Interview with Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The Inequalities of Equality, or All Things Being Equal, Not Everything Can Be Equal | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
On School and Things That Are Not Fair | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
On Teaching the Important Things | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning, The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006) and The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007). His most recent book is The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). Read more of his essays on his website.

Visit the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by staff and readers about current events, controversies, and news in the Church!