Over a month ago, the Holy Father traveled to the Czech Republic.  Next month, the county will celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, when the Communist regime was overthrown and freedom was restored.  Not surprisingly, most of the Holy Father’s addresses and homilies drew upon the ideas of freedom, justice and the reign of truth.

The day before he departed to return to Italy, Pope Benedict addressed the academic community of the Czech Republic with a speech in Prague Castle.   It’s not a long speech, and I’d recommend reading it here.   As always, he teaches with such clarity and insight.

He focused on the idea of academic freedom.   As in his other messages during those days, he recalled the effects of totalitarian rule in the country.  He reaffirmed the importance of the universities’ autonomy — as we all know, when a totalitarian regime takes over a country, it will always take over the academy and attempt to control thought.  The Holy Father reminded the academy, however, that “the proper autonomy of a university, or indeed any educational institution, finds meaning in its accountability to the authority of truth.” (emphasis here, and in the following quotes, mine.)

He reminded his audience that academic freedom has a purpose.  It is not freedom for the sake of freedom, but freedom to pursue truth.  “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.”

This perhaps brings up the age old question of Pilate: What is truth?  Is it subjective or objective?  Can it be found at all?

In his address the day before to civil and political authorities, the Holy Father answered Pilate: “For Christians, truth has a name: God.”

After referring to the triumph of truth over totalitarianism that the country witnessed in 1989, the Holy Father cautioned the academy.  He first warned them against the “fragmentation of knowledge” that arises today in the face of the “massive growth in information and technology,” where education is viewed as a gathering of facts, severing reason from the pursuit of truth.  Then he warned against the relativism that comes from this weakening of reason:

“The relativism that ensues provides a dense camouflage behind which new threats to the autonomy of academic institutions can lurk.  While the period of interference from political totalitarianism has passed, is it not the case that frequently, across the globe, the exercise of reason and academic research are – subtly and not so subtly – constrained to bow to the pressures of ideological interest groups and the lure of short-term utilitarian or pragmatic goals?”

These are powerful words from our Holy Father.  Anyone with the slightest bit of contact with a public university has to find themselves nodding to that last sentence.  And let’s not just point fingers at public universities.  We all know of examples of private universities, who so proudly wave the banner of “academic freedom!!” whenever they do something to betray their founders or identity.  They too are bound in chains to public opinion, political correctness, and… money.

The Holy Father continues:   “What will happen if our culture builds itself only on fashionable arguments, with little reference to a genuine historical intellectual tradition, or on the viewpoints that are most vociferously promoted and most heavily funded?  What will happen if in its anxiety to preserve a radical secularism, it detaches itself from its life-giving roots?”

He has an interesting answer:  “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.”

Exactly the opposite of what they all claim to be, no?

It all comes down to truth.  When you get that wrong, you get it all wrong.

“In the end, “fidelity to man requires fidelity to the truth, which alone is the guarantee of freedom” (Caritas in Veritate, 9). This confidence in the human ability to seek truth, to find truth and to live by the truth led to the foundation of the great European universities.  Surely we must reaffirm this today in order to bring courage to the intellectual forces necessary for the development of a future of authentic human flourishing, a future truly worthy of man.”

What is the goal of the university?  To become a premier research institution?  To have an acclaimed faculty that is published and esteemed?  To raise large endowments?

What is education?  Is it an accumulation of facts?  Acquiring a warehouse of skills?  Completing a certain number of requisites in order to earn that piece of paper that says “diploma” on the top of it?

In my favorite part of his address, the Holy Father reminded the professors that their mission is far greater:  “From the time of Plato, education has been not merely the accumulation of knowledge or skills, but paideia, human formation in the treasures of an intellectual tradition directed to a virtuous life.”

Wow.  Tell that to a state school.  Can you even say the word “virtue” in those halls?

He continues, “While the 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.”

Is that what is happening in our universities, who are so quick to hide behind the phrase “academic freedom”?  Do they realize that true academic freedom calls for the pursuit of truth and acquisition of virtue, not the lemming march to the politically-correct drum?  That it requires fidelity to what is true, noble, and good, not the pledge of allegiance to the latest ideological trend?

A society which allows itself to be hypnotized in the academy by the State will soon be conquered and ruled by the State.  Where are we headed?

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