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Benedict XVI's undelivered speech: What is the purpose of a university?

As the secular University of the Philippines celebrates its 100th year in 2008, Pope Benedict XVI's speech that he was supposed to deliver at Rome's La Sapienza Universitylast January 17 gives us some food for thought. EWTN has the full English text of the speech originally in Italian.

I have always admired and have been amazed at Benedict's way of discourse. The former Don of Regensburg does not fall into stereotyping and logical twists unlike the Don of Oxford Richard Dawkins! That's why I await the day when the Oxford Don meets with the Infallible Regensburg Don!

Bui I digress here are some highlights of the speech.

"Well, so far I have only talked about the university in the Middle Ages, trying however to show to what extent its nature and purpose have remained the same all along. In modern times knowledge has become more multi-faceted, especially in the two broad fields that now prevail in universities. First of all, there are the natural sciences which have developed on the basis of experimentation and subject matters’ supposed rationality. Secondly, there are the social sciences and the humanities in which man has tried to understand himself by looking at his own history and uncovering his own nature. From this development humanity not only acquired a great deal of knowledge and power but also an understanding and recognition of the rights and dignity of mankind. And for this we can be grateful. But man’s journey can never be said to be over and the danger of falling into inhumanity is never just warded off as we can see in today’s history. The danger faced by the Western world, just to mention the latter, is that mankind, given its great knowledge and power, might give up on the question of the truth. At the same time this means that reason in the end may bow to the pressures of partisan interests and instrumental value, forced to acknowledge the latter as the ultimate standard. From the point of view of the academic world this means that there is a danger that philosophy, feeling incapable of fulfilling its task, might degenerate into positivism, a danger that theology and the message it has for reason might be confined to the private sphere of a group more or less big."

Here the Pope mentions positivism whose famous exponent today is Richard Dawkins who has a scientistic viewpoint.

In the speech, the Pope says that the autonomy of the university's faculties should be upheld. In the medieval period the classical faculties of philosophy,theology, arts, law and medicine. A man or woman who is said to have a universal education should have taken courses in these faculties. It was Thomas Aquinas that maintained that for the sake of truth the autonomy of these faculties must be guaranteed. By extension this autonomy is extended to the university and its professors and students (academic freedom).

Nonetheless the Pope reminds that the idea and purpose of a university stems from the Catholic ideal that exalts reason in tandem with faith. In fact if reason is dumped in favour of faith only we can end up with fanaticism. Fanaticism can be secular or religious. The difference is naught whichever kind. The same idea is refreshingly taken in Thomas Cahill's Mysteries of the Middle Ages.

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