Msgr. David Q. Liptak
As one of the three panelists at Tunxis Community College recently (9 Nov.) on Pope Benedict XVI’s lecture in Regensburg, I made the point that the Holy Father was especially deferential on that occasion to the Rector Magnificus and the various Faculties assembled there. In fact, as I reviewed both the text and the photographs of the event, Benedict appeared almost reverential toward them. He was, of course, back home, in his beloved university setting, hence perhaps could not help but recall the awesome wonders of the academic life: helping the young to discover truth, listening to and dialoguing with scholars in various fields, accepting all kinds of academic challenges, whether in solving textbook dilemmas or exploring new avenues of knowledge, researching projects, critiquing theories, and preparing papers.
In recollection of all this, and in an effort to acknowledge authentic learning, the Holy Father clearly manifested his respect for academia in the persons of the rector, the teachers and the students.
Pope John Paul II, also a veteran academic, had done the very same, first in Krakow, and later in Lublin. At the latter, KUL (the only Catholic University that managed to stay alive, despite great pressure, during both the Nazi and the Communist regimes), John Paul began (as I noted in the last issue of the Transcript) with a celebrated quotation from St. Thomas Aquinas: Intellectus est quodammodo omnia. Literally, this means that “the intellect is, in a certain sense, all things.” Which indicates that the university must be, in the very first instance, a place where the quest for universal truth is seriously pursued.
Becoming a student, therefore, amounts to taking part in a journey, a quest for some aspect of wisdom, while acknowledging countless other aspects. This quest is demanding, but it is also exciting, leading to vistas usually not even dreamt of at the start.
The very name, “Benedict,” resounds with a love for solid learning. It was the Benedictine monks who for centuries safeguarded learning for Europe, ensuring that true scholarship, reaching back to ancient times, would not be lost. Such was an integral dimension of the monastic vocation; prior to the invention of movable type, manuscripts had to be copied by hand – a laborious, often agonizing, process. A love for learning was, we are given to understand, one reason why our present Holy Father chose “Benedict” as his Papal name.
Pope John Paul’s love of learning has been revealed many times over in his books and talks. In his last published book, Memory and Identity (one of my all-time favorite volumes), Karol Wojtyla recalls how he developed certain approaches to basic questions in moral philosophy while holding the Chair of Ethics at KUL. These approaches, now universally acknowledged as spectacular, were put into print in two epoch-making volumes, Love and Responsibility and The Acting Person. When the Ethician of Lublin left the Chair of Ethics in Lublin to succeed to Peter’s Chair in Rome, he reflected on the arguments he had developed in these two celebrated books through a series of immortal catecheses, now published under the title of Original Unity of Man and Woman. Interestingly, John Paul also learned, on the basis of further study, that the problems cited in these catecheses were also important to many modern thinkers, including Jean-Paul Sartre, Max Scheler, Emmanuel Levinas, Paul Ricoeur, Vladimir Soloviev, and Feodor Dostoevsky.
Even a concept so basic to human existence as freedom can be traced back to Aristotle, “who viewed it as a property of the will, which is realized through truth” – as the Pope notes in Memory and Identity. Hence, there is no freedom except for truth. St. Thomas Aquinas read this in Aristotle (in the Nicomachean Ethics) and defended it in his masterpiece, the Summa Theologiae. Indeed, as John Paul notes, the entire Aristotelian system of analyzing the virtues was embraced by Aquinas when explaining the theological schema. Moreover, “Catholic social teaching owes much to Aristotle’s Politics…” (Memory and Identity). Again, the staying power of learning, of solid scholarship, is so crucial.
Academia is a principal venue for safeguarding learning for the benefit of the world. The respect reflected in the titles and the symbols of academia – e.g., the title, “Rector,” academic robes, academic processions, the hymns, the ceremonial mace – are all important as signs of a true university’s purpose.
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript, and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.