Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Speech

~an excerpt via Asia News

What can and should the pope say in meeting with his city's university? Reflecting on this question, it has seemed to me that it includes two more questions, the clarification of which should by itself lead to the answer. It is necessary, in fact, to ask: What is the nature and mission of the papacy? And again: What is the nature and mission of the university? It is not my intention here to belabour either you or myself with lengthy examinations of the nature of the papacy. A brief summary should be enough. The pope is, first of all, the bishop of Rome, and as such, in virtue of apostolic succession from the Apostle Peter, he has Episcopal authority in regard to the entire Catholic Church. The word "bishop"—episkopos—, which in its immediate meaning refers to "supervision", already in the New Testament was fused together with the biblical concept of the shepherd: he is the one who, from an elevated point of observation, surveys the whole landscape, making sure to keep the flock together and on the right path. This description of the bishop's role directs the view first of all to within the community of believers. The bishop—the shepherd—is the man who takes care of this community, the one who keeps it united by keeping it on the path toward God, which Jesus points out through the Christian faith—and He does not only point this out: He himself is the way for us. But this community that the bishop cares for as large or small as it may be—lives in the world; its conditions, its journey, its example, and its words inevitably influence the rest of the human community in its entirety. The larger it is, the more its good condition or eventual decline will impact all of humanity. Today we see very clearly how the situation of the religions and the situation of the Church—its crises and renewals—act upon the whole of humanity. Thus the pope, precisely as the shepherd of his community, has increasingly become a voice of the ethical reasoning of humanity.

But here there immediately comes the objection according to which the pope does not in fact truly speak on the basis of ethical reasoning, but instead draws his judgments from the faith, and therefore he cannot claim that these have validity for those who do not share this faith. We must return to this argument later, because it poses the absolutely fundamental question: What is reason? How can an assertion—and above all a moral norm—demonstrate that it is "reasonable". At this point, I would like to note briefly that John Rawls, while he denies that religious doctrines overall have the character of "public" reasoning, he nonetheless sees in their "non-public" reasoning at least a reasoning that cannot simply be dismissed by those who support a hard-line secularist rationality. He sees a criterion of this reasonableness in, among other things, the fact that that such doctrines are derived from a responsible and well grounded tradition, in which over a long span of time sufficiently strong arguments have been developed in support of the respective doctrines. It seems important to me that this statement recognises that experience and demonstration over the course of generations, the historical backdrop of human wisdom, are also a sign of their reasonableness and their lasting significance. In the face of an a-historical form of reason that seeks to construct itself in an exclusively a-historical rationality, the wisdom of humanity as such—the wisdom of the great religious traditions—should be viewed as a reality that cannot be cast with impunity into the trash bin of the history of ideas.

Let's return to the opening question. The pope speaks as the representative of a believing community, in which throughout the centuries of its existence a specific life wisdom has matured; he speaks as the representative of a community that holds within itself a treasury of ethical understanding and experience, which is important for all of humanity. In this sense, he speaks as the representative of a form of ethical reasoning.

But now we must ask ourselves: What is the university? What is its purpose? It is a huge question which I can only answer once again in almost telegraphic style by making just a few observations. I believe that it can be said that the true intimate origin of the university lies in man’s craving for knowledge. He wants to know what everything around him is. In this sense the Socratic questioning is the impulse that gave birth to the Western university. I am thinking here, just to mention one text, the dispute that sets Euthyphro, who defends mythical religion and his devotion to it, against Socrates.


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