Sense and Nonsense: John Paul II at the University of Bologna

This year Georgetown University celebrates the two-hundredth anniversary of its founding by Bishop John Carroll. It is the oldest university in this country with Catholic origins. Interestingly, the University of Bologna in Italy, the oldest university in the world, the Alma Mater Studiorum, is currently celebrating its 900th Anniversary. Throughout medieval and modern times, Bologna has been the seat of particularly legal studies, both Roman and Canon Laws. Gratian, Erasmus, Copernicus, Dante, Petrarch, Innocent IV, and St. Charles Borromeo, among many others, all studied in Bologna.

Christopher Dawson wrote, in his Religion and the Rise of Western Culture:

Throughout the central period of the Middle Ages from 1150 to 1350, it was the canonists and the University of Bologna rather than the theologians and the University of Paris who stood nearest to the Papacy and had the strongest influence on the government and organization of the Church…. The fact that this work was done by men trained in the same school and the same traditions as the Civilians who during the same period were organizing and rationalizing the medieval state was of the first importance for the history of Western institutions [p. 189].

This importance derives from the fact that it was precisely in the interrelation of these two traditions that our civil laws and procedures were worked out.

Ronald Berman, in his remarkable Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition, even suggests that it was from the very nature of these legal studies that the Church was responsible for modernity and especially the main characteristic of modern science itself.

The jurists [of Bologna] thus gave the West its characteristic methods of analysis and synthesis of texts. They taught the West to synthesize cases into rules, rules into principles, principles into a system. Their method, which is still that of the legal science in the United States today, was to determine what various particulars have in common, to see the whole as an interaction of parts. This was the prototype of modern Western science….

Again we are reminded that science and freedom did not just arise in just any culture, but in a specific one, one seeking to relate the stimulus of revelation to the worldly enterprise.

On June 7, 1988, John Paul II visited the University of Bologna to honor its 900th Anniversary, one so important to the Church itself. The Holy Father gave two significant addresses on the same day, one to the Faculty in the Aula Magna and one to the students in the Piazza San Petronio. John Paul II, it strikes me, never goes to any university — and he has been in an astonishing number — as someone from outside of its purpose and founding.

The very idea of a university as we know it owes much of its origins to the Church. John Paul II knows that what he stands for as Pope, in its most articulate and profound rendering, has a legitimate and necessary place within the very core of any university. Moreover, John Paul II himself easily is the intellectual peer of any faculty member he addresses.

One of the most amusing and self-deluding figures in the Catholic university in particular today is the academic or cleric who tries to insinuate, on the basis of his own puffy credentials, that somehow this Pope does not bear in himself one of the most profound minds of our era. Everyone who has read or heard him speak throughout the world takes this papal brilliance and humanity for granted.”The notion of a ‘university’ has a requirement of universality,” John Paul II told the Bologna faculty, “that is, openness to the entire truth that attracts and embraces everyone in its immensity, and that is identified with the truth of God and man that is the Incarnate Word” (L’Osservatore Romano, English, August 22, 1988). And to the students in the Piazza San Petronio, he reminded them of the effect of this truth. “Do not let yourselves,” he told them,

be intimidated by the presumed requirements of laws and mechanisms which are unworthy of the dignity of the person; it [youthfulness] means the ability to glimpse, in every situation and event, the possibility of going beyond, looking further, and working more intensely to keep man from locking himself into the prisons he himself has built.

Who said that, before the ideologies of our era, John Paul II was not a true liberal in the best sense of that much battered term, that is, someone really open to truth, to all truth, even the truth of revelation?

Recently, I came across a letter from a Harvard University office outlining their program for hiring “minority” faculty. It was a chilling document since it was based, it seemed to me, on an implicit denial of universal truth and fairness. No one could know or speak any other “truth” but his own. No student could expect any truth but a biased truth from any professor, so the university was out to see that all biases were duly represented. A university meant not openness to all knowledge, even to an accurate understanding of error, but rather a dividing the world up into ethnic, class, and gender groups. Thus the jobs were to be distributed in direct proportion to sundry ideological categories.

Presumably, this approach was the only way institutionally to guarantee justice and a kind of truth, though it seemed closer to the consequences of a denial of any truth, a denial that any real universality could exist. Gertrude Himmelfarb put the issue most acutely:

Today’s misapplication of affirmative action is often defended as a democratic measure: a democratization of the curriculum and a democratization of the faculty. In fact, it is the reverse of that. For it is not only a perversion of the traditional idea of the university, it is a perversion of the traditional idea of democracy—that ideas should be judged on their own merits rather than on the authority of the persons propounding them, and that individuals should be judged as individuals rather than as members or representatives of groups [New York Times, May 5, 1988].

And of course, there was no hint in such hiring plans of the sort of universality that the Pope spoke of from the origins of universities as such — of the transcendental as well as the horizontal and biological.

Fairness in presenting the things of God was not considered a pressing faculty hiring category. John Paul II is quite aware that it is this systematic deprivation that is ultimately most harmful to students, to their “whole truth,” as he calls it.

The Holy Father always talks to university students a bit over the heads of their faculties. He addresses students as if they both knew metaphysics and prayed a lot, as they should. “The a priori rejection of the quest for truth, or the insufficient theoretical foundations of truth,” the Pope told the Bologna students, “can lead to the rapid dissemination of vague and illusory projects and the embracing of positions of skepticism and apathy.” Many a sharp student will recognize that often just what the Holy Father was concerned about was in fact the latest core curriculum of his own university.

On his famous 1901 walk to Rome, Hilaire Belloc passed not too far from Bologna. In the very Province of Emilia where Bologna is located, he reflected on the goodness of the local people: “They are courteous, straight, and have in them laughter and sadness.” They sang, told stories, and “their worship is conformable to the world that God made.” Finally, Belloc urged, to our very point: “And let us especially pray that the revival of our faith may do something for our poor old universities.”

If in the beginning, it was indeed the direct confluence of faith and the Western tradition that gave rise to the university and through it to law and science, then Belloc with the Pope may indeed have put his finger on the real problem, not merely at a Bologna, or a Harvard, or a Georgetown, all old, perhaps even tired, universities to be sure. The problem is, to wit, that the universities will not be universities until the “truth of God that is man in the Word Incarnate” is a real intellectual element in an institution that claims to be a studium generale, a place to study all things, especially those things, transcendent and worldly in interaction, that made our very tradition.

  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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