What All Universities Can Learn for La Sapienza


Published: Febrary 14, 2008

Pope Benedict XVI was invited to La Sapienza University to give the opening remarks for the new semester on Jan. 17. This visit was cancelled after a small group of students and faculty voiced their disapproval about the pope coming to the largest university in Italy. The protestors, primarily from the science and math departments at La Sapienza, claimed that the pope and, by extension, the Church have no business being at a place of knowledge and scientific reason. The incident at La Sapienza raises a question: does the pope and the Church have anything to say about knowledge, reason and truth?

On Jan. 16, the Vatican released the speech the pope had intended to give at La Sapienza, which ironically focuses on the relationship between reason and truth and the roles that the Church and the university play in this. Pope Benedict XVI states that it is his and the Church’s mission to use reason to find the truth and to spur others onward in this direction, as well. Why would professors and students, allegedly attempting to seek the truth by using reason, be against a man championing just that? Very simply, they believe, as do many, that the reason of the pope is not the reason of science. This is a critical mistake.

There was a refusal at La Sapienza to engage Pope Benedict XVI with reason. Instead, the professors and students rested on their ideologies, making arguments based on the Church versus science stereotype. How often have Catholics been dismissed, even at purportedly Catholic schools, as irrelevant or outdated in conversations about reason and truth?

If, at our universities, one only applies reason to what can be quantitatively measured, reason narrows. Limited reason can only discover scientific truths and, therefore, does not encompass all of reality. Complete reason cannot stop only at what is scientifically understood; otherwise an objective truth cannot be discovered. We can see this already happening in our universities. We accept supposedly risqué things, like “The Vagina Monologues,” without blinking, but we are frightened by and, therefore, reject what the pope states: there is an objective truth, and we must use reason to find it.

Claiming to be able to find objective truth which is true now, yesterday, tomorrow and in every situation, under any power, seems to be a radical claim. In reality, you can be reasonable, or you can be wrong. We must utilize all aspects of reason to discern the ultimate truth of reality. We must test and reject the incomplete truth, still searching for the meaning of reality.

Without a willingness to engage reality with all of our reason, or to attend the university engaging all of our reason, there is no truth at any university. Without truth, or at least the search for truth, the institution of the university loses its meaning. The university becomes a place where there is merely transfer of knowledge from one person to another. The university has then lost its purpose and, therefore, its interest.

We must be aware of this situation and challenge it. We are at the university to learn and to discover the truth. If we are using our reason incorrectly or if we are not using the full extent of reason, we need to be corrected by those who are supposed to teach us the truth. The problem, as we have seen at La Sapienza, is that even those who should teach us the full capacity of reason limit reason to the quantitative. We are now charged with the responsibility to take the desire for truth seriously in our lives. Therefore, we must ask—no, we must demand—that the search for truth via reason be upheld in our university.