Saturday, August 25, 2012

Academic freedom, 190 Atenean professors and a Pope who dissented

My lectures to undergraduates on academic freedom is within the subject of the history of science in relation to the history of the Roman Church.  The thesis is that the this freedom is at the root for the esse or being of the university. The concept of academic freedom was first formalized in German medieval universities but essentially was practiced in all of Europe's ancient universities, Bologna, Paris, Oxford, Cambridge, Palencia, Heidelberg etc

The Roman Catholic Church in fact founded all of these universities and the liberties granted by the secular powers and the Church were respected. Some of the universities like Oxford and Cambridge passed into Protestant hands in the Reformation but still they held on to these liberties. Thus with academic freedom which extends to professors and their students (with their inherent rights), science and the arts flourished. Without these freedoms, the freedom of research would have been curtailed.

As paradoxically it sounds to 21st secularist ears, it was the secular power, the Catholic and later Protestant monarchs that really threatened academic freedom in those times. The Church did not bother much with the universities and in doing so guaranteed their very freedoms. What the Church wanted was that the students matriculated and paid their fees. If the students had problems with the secular government, they would decamp and move to another jurisdiction and establish their own university. An example is Cambridge University.

As an example of how the Church tolerated contentious ideas, Galileo was allowed to teach the Heliocentric theory as a hypothesis in Padua but not as scientific fact for he had not the evidence to demonstrate it as scientific fact. His troubles with the Roman Church really started from this, his bawdy reputation which made him a campus figure  and abrasive personality in his later years that even his good friend the Pope got dissed. And to add toxin to this brew is the Church was fighting a battle against the Protestant Reformation leading to Galileo's famous trial by the Holy Office. Galileo for all his faults is a great scientist.

In Johannes Kepler's case, he did his research in a Lutheran university foundation, Tuebingen. He was allowed to do his research on the heliocentric theory but the Protestant Prince who ruled the fief was more literal than the Lutherans and thus Kepler had to decamp to a Roman Catholic jurisdiction and ended up in Austria where he published his greatest scientific works.

Academic freedom is therefore the life and spirit of the university. Contrary to what many would think. A university IS NOT the trustees/regents, the rector/president or if its church run, the bishop and clergy but is the community of professors and students. Over the centuries the liberties of the professors and students were pared down but still they have the freedom. This freedom includes freedom to assent or dissent as long as you have clear basis in philosophy or science to do so.

The Philippine Catholic hierarchy may threaten 190 professors of the Jesuit foundation Ateneo de Manila University with sanctions under Canon Law, but they have no legal power to remove the right of a dissenting professor to teach unless it can be demonstrated that the professor is academically incompetent or has done something so atrocious to the life of the mind like plagiarism! Such right to do belongs to the Ateneo and to the Ateneo alone

The Church under the papal constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae can remove the licence of a professor of theology his/her right to teach Catholic theology but cannot remove the faculty that he/she can teach theology. Then Cardinal Ratzinger removed Fr Hans Kung's right to teach Catholic theology but his university Tuebingen, jealously guarding its academic freedom just founded another faculty of theology, the Ecumenical faculty where Kung now has his chair.

Father Kung has advocated worse "heresies" than the 190 professors of the Ateneo and yet Rome has never removed his faculties to dispense the sacraments and neither has he been excommunicated. A Roman Catholic can receive valid sacraments from this dissenting padre. The present Pope who was Kung's doctoral professor had lunch with him in the Papal apartments.

With the current controversy involving the 190 Ateneo professors, Filipinos, especially students should take a renewed look at academic freedom and why there is such a thing. The 1987 Constitution protects this liberty only for higher education. The framers of the Constitution fully understood that this is the esse of a university or institution of higher learning.

It is an esse worth speaking and even fighting for. Pope Benedict XVI exactly knows what this means. Benedict is at heart a professor and he gave a lecture to the faculty and students of the University of Regensberg that has become controversial for it strikes at the very essence of what it is to be a professor at a university. A professor has to search for the truth using reason. In using historical texts, Benedict did not amuse secularists and Muslims. Benedict essentially dissented from what politically correct secularism  and neo-liberalism demanded.

The only shortcoming His Holiness had is that for that moment  it appeared that he forgot the fact that he was Pope and no longer just a mere professor. Muslims as well as secularists demanded an apology. For his part Benedict said that what he gave as a lecture in the university does not represent his own views on Muslims but he expressed regret if he offended their sensibilities. Even if Benedict had just remained as Father Professor Ratzinger as he wished he  had remained, then the university cannot sanction him.

And so dissent is part of the reason for being a university. If Ateneo as a university sanctions its professors only for their dissent the Ateneo will lose its very essence and Dr Rizal its most famous alumnus would be turning in his grave in the Luneta.

I may not agree with the stand of the 190 professors but I support their right to dissent.



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