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I. The historical foundations of universities and the rise of Mediaeval universities - II. The Renaissance and Modern university - III. The rise of Catholic Universities - IV. Reflections on the ’“University Idea” and university training - V. Theology in the context of other university subjects - VI. John Paul II and the University world.

The idea that to foster and pass on knowledge one needed people and places precisely devoted to this end goes back to Antiquity and accounts for one of the key phenomena for the rise and the development of human civilization. Between the end of the 12th and the beginning of the 13th centuries, this idea was to be implemented in an organized manner through the foundation of Mediaeval universities. Their gradual transformation, due to the evolution of society and the growing diversification of knowledge, does not prevent us even today from looking to these institutions for a common spirit and a certain general homogeneity. The University, as a historical and cultural subject, is not alien to the connections between Christianity and scientific thought: this not only involves its historical foundation, but also the issue of the presence of theology among university subjects, the aims of studying and research, the question of truth and of the unity of knowledge.

I. The historical foundations of universities and the rise of Mediaeval universities

 1. The Platonic Academy. If the rise of Mediaeval universities can be connected with the development of theology and law schools already existing in the early Middle Ages, the first educational communities go as far back as Greek Antiquity. The schools of Athens and Alexandria, for instance, represented on a large scale what Plato had attempted to do through the foundation of his Academy – a venue within the Athenian gymnasium where he gathered his disciples to converse, – or what, even before him, Pythagoras had created in Crotone.

For Plato the in-depth pursuit of knowledge and its transmission had to occur  only within a “school,” intended as a community of life and dialogue between teachers and pupils. According to an original ethical-political intention and in polemic opposition to the Sophists, he wanted to train human beings to be capable of reflecting and governing in line with truth and justice, devoting themselves to philosophy with a rational, thorough and universal method, inseparable from the pursuit and love of the good. The Platonic community is at the same time an intellectual and a spiritual one. Research progresses through the combined effort of both teachers and their disciples, through their dialogue and the adoption of an analytical method, aimed at nurturing human beings’ ability to look for truth and defend it from error and unjust aggressions. Platonic dialectics is not a purely logical exercise: it calls for commitment, asceticism, openness and submission to an independent truth everyone is to humbly look for, since it proceeds from the Logos. Its most immediate aim is the inner transformation and the improvement of those who devote themselves to it. At the Platonic Academy, study turns into a lifestyle, a personal commitment to truth and good: living as good philosophers means sharing a will to pursue goods without any personal gain, in sharp opposition to the Sophists’ practice of making philosophy instrumental to economic profit and power. We do not know whether the Platonic Academic was a cultic community in the strict sense of the word (etymologically it is called after the semi-god Academus, whose place of worship was not far from the chosen seat of the Academy itself), but actually the commitment to truth and justice that it entailed — especially if considered in opposition to the Sophist practice — called for a special sensitivity to the divine, for a willingness to free knowledge from the tyranny of utility, to lead it back into the realm of the Good. Finally, Plato, with his focus on “dialogue” was to make one of the most important contributions to what would later become Mediaeval and Modern universities. The need for listening, opening up to other people, but also the need for discussions, as well as mutual exchange, scientific precision, communicability, are already recognized as essential elements of any knowing process.

2. The reawakening of studies in Europe and the rise of Mediaeval universities. The convenience of communal life and dialogue to foster and transmit knowledge is part and parcel of almost all schools of Antiquity. The spread of Christianity had fostered schools of exegesis and venues for doctrinal and theological teaching, but none of these forms of education or study exhibited clearly enough what would be the distinctive features of Mediaeval universities: autonomy and universality. The onset of the process leading to their setting up may be located in the reawakening of interest in studies witnessed in Europe from the late 11th to the early 12th centuries. Those were the times when teachers and scholars began to move with sufficient ease from town to town throughout the Continent and there are records of a significant concentration of students in Salerno, Bologna and Paris, precisely where there were well-known study centers for medicine, law and theology, respectively. Bologna saw its fame grow thanks to legal history research and documentation work by Irnerius and Gratian; in Salerno Hippocrates, Galen and Avicenna were commented upon; Paris owed the reawakening of its fame to its theological schools, which already existed at Notre Dame cathedral, at the Abbey of Saint Victor and at the Church of Sainte Genevieve, as well as to masters such as Abelard and Peter Lombard; at Oxford many students gathered to listen to Scripture lectures by Robert Pullen and law lectures by the Italian jurist Vaccario. As early as in the mid-12th century all these “academic” entities were alive and active (for a historical overview, see D'Irsay, 1933-35; Arnaldi, 1974; Verger, 1982; De Ridder-Symoens, 1992; Tuilier, 1994).

Despite keeping a connection with Church authorities and remaining mainly clerical, these studies began to develop with a different logic from that which had previously marked the monasteries and the schools attached to Cathedrals and took on an ever more open and intercommunicating character. Students and teachers gathered in specific corporate organizations, which came to be endowed with rights and privileges before the authorities. The term Nationes, initially used to refer to student societies, would gradually be superseded by Universitas which, depending on places, shifted in meaning to refer not only to the set of students, universitas scholarium, but to the whole academic community, the Universitas magistrorum et scholarium. By approximately the middle of the 13th century the term Universitas had already acquired legal value in official documents regarding its foundation or order of studies.  At the end of the 13th century University had its own typical connotation. It was normally made up of four Facultates: “Liberal Arts,” including preparatory studies for the other faculties and inheriting the teaching tradition of the trivium (Grammar, Rhetoric and Logic) and the quadrivium (Geometry, Arithmetics, Astronomy and Music), the Faculty of Law, the Faculties of Medicine and Theology. Teaching activities mainly revolved around the lectio format, subsequently flanked by quaestio and disputatio. Academic titles were broken down into three successive degrees: baccalaureate, license and doctorate. Ordinary courses were held by Doctors, special or supporting ones by baccalaureates as well.

Academic life resembled that of a citadel, with its inhabitants electing their own authorities, masters, proctors and vice-chancellors, scheduling their own calendar and feast-days, as well as enjoying a privilegium fori, that is the right to be released from the judgment of the civil authority, along with other advantages, including the exemption from military life and a suspension of residential obligations deriving from previous appointments; in many aspects of their activity or condition, the inhabitants of the Universitas were direcly dependent on the Pope’s authority or enjoyed special rights to appeal to it, reflecting some sort of libertas academica vis-à-vis local powers. Everything, in the ordering and in the relationships with the other social components,  seems to be geared to facilitate the protection of the university, of its life and of the people within it, in the awareness that its task amounts to something important, worth being supported and upheld, being bound to the well-being of human society and its development.

Among the events that determined the rebirth of 11th- and 12th-century studies are the third Lateran Council (1175), establishing a sort of “chair” at every cathedral church, so that a master could teach clerics and lay people, and the fourth Lateran Council (1215), strengthening and extending these provisions regarding the choice of the teaching staff and the subjects to be taught. If at the time Europe already had well-organized Schools in Salerno, Bologna, Paris, Oxford, Montpellier and Cambridge, by the end of the 13th century there were no less than twenty university centers already built with their own constitutions, recognized by the papal or the imperial authorities as legal entities controlled by academic regulations and endowed with specific rights and privileges. In 1219 Pope Honorius III bestowed on Bologna the right to grant a Doctor’s degree and Statutes were drawn up in 1252; in the establishment decree of the University of Naples, founded in 1224 by emperor Frederick II, the term Facultas is attested for the first time; the various Parisian schools were recognized by Gregory IX as a body divided into different Faculties in 1231; Oxford had its statutes confirmed by Innocent IV in 1254; in 1260 Cambridge already had four complete Faculties; in addition to these, other university centers were Salamanca, Padua, Orleans, Angers, Lisbon, later relocated to Coimbra. By the end of the 14th century other universities had been set up in Florence, Pisa, Pavia, Perugia, Grenoble, Avignon, Valladolid, as well as in Vienna, Krakow, Prague... By the early 16th century active universities in Europe had increased to approximately eighty.

While Bologna owed its initial fame to its law faculty and Paris to theology, Oxford’s fame soon grew thanks to its school of logic and sciences, featuring renowned scholars such as Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon and Thomas Bradwardine, alongside theologians such as Alexander of Hales, Robert Pullen and, later, Duns Scotus. 13th- and 14th-century universities benefitted from an innovative environment, fostering a wide circulation of knowledge and a significant mobility of teachers and backed up by appropriate provisions protecting studies, all of which produced an unprecedented social and intellectual phenomenon. Studies, teaching and literary products by men like Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, Roger Bacon or Duns Scotus — to mention but a few names — are sufficient evidence of their depth and importance.

The Mediaeval notion of the unity of knowledge granted theology a privileged role, but such a role did not entail a cultural or organizational predominance: only about half of the approximately fifty universities existing at the end of the 14th century  had a Faculty of Theology. By this time the various university studies had already achieved a certain amount of autonomy and the idea that there should be a hierarchy among lay subjects in many ways seems to be a limiting interpretation. The great cultural synthesis championed by theology and mainly reflected in the works of its great thinkers, first and foremost Thomas Aquinas, is not reflected in university architecture or in its visible organization, but in a “university spirit” based on a common logic, on sharing places and rights, on an approach whose origin certainly lies in the Christian thought of the period. A visible effect of such a Christian approach is the creation of the two Faculties of Law and Medicine alongside theology, or even before it, showing not only a need for higher education in the Arts but a somewhat special care for the human being, for the protection of physical and social life, fundamental rights and essential needs.

Therefore the phrase used by John Paul II nowadays to refer to universities as something that arose “from the bosom”, that is, “from the heart” of the Church (cf. Ex corde Ecclesiae, 1) does not sound exaggerated. Yet historically universities do not arise as an “instrument of the Church,” or to pursue its internal life goals, or to extend its influence. Though they suited the training of clerics for studying and preaching purposes, at the time of their creation universities played a much wider role. The Church’s central authorities did not only guarantee the universality of studies and the qualification of the teaching staff. They also strove to ensure studies should be free and freely accessible, by encouraging local church authorities to ensure suitable accommodation for underprivileged students by building colleges. This promotional activity made use of all the instruments available at the time, through a legislation providing for special exemptions, meaning to uphold the work done within universities and to preserve their special needs.

II. The Renaissance and Modern university

While relations between the university world and Christian culture did not actually undergo such a significant change during the Renaissance as that subsequent to the Enlightenment, an evolution in the relations with the State brought about a gradual transfer of the jurisdiction over universities from the Church to secular institutions, a process accelerated by the Reformation which would later reach its peak in the Napoleonic era.

1. Renaissaince studies. The Italian Renaissance and the European Humanism did not conflict with the university world, but rather they contributed to give it new life, fostering theology itself, at a time when Scholastics experienced its nominalist involution. University studies “absorbed” the humanist ferment making it their own. A humanist like Erasmus of Rotterdam, for instance, was at the same time a “university man”: having been a student in Paris and in Turin as well as professor at Oxford and Cambridge, he became Dean of the University of Basel, where he remained right up to his death. However, Humanism, as multiple and general a phenomenon as it was, could not be confined within university walls: artistic and intellectual circles developed in its wake and were soon organized as Academies, ideal places for interdisciplinary dialogue, scholarly pursuits and scientific research, gathering quite a few contemporary scientists. The predominant focus of the humanist Renaissance on the study of the classics did not – at least before the Reformation – turn into a polemical stance towards the Church and the cultural synthesis theology had promoted up until that point. The very spirit of Renaissance Academies was attentive to theological studies, sometimes taking an esoteric slant, but in any case remaining open to the idea of a unified body of knowledge.

From the 16th century onwards, the university spirit that had accompanied the great Mediaeval foundations came to a dramatic standstill. The division within Christianity, initiated first by German reformers and then by Henry VIII, deeply influenced universities by strengthening their nationalistic and denominational connotation. The new foundations promoted by German princes who had joined the Reformation movement, such as Königsberg, Marburg and Jena, did not obtain the Pope’s patronage and thus turned into institutions which were highly dependent on the political power of those who governed their territories. In England, after the Anglican schism, the chairs of law and theology at Oxford and Cambridge were suppressed: professors and students were forced to agree to the 39 articles of the Act of Supremacy against Rome, and thus universities in England took on a Protestant connotation they were to maintain up until the 19th century. On their part, ecclesiastical subjects taught in Catholic lands were strongly marked by the controversy. Although their academic titles and their approvals continued to be connected with the Papal seat, in many other aspects of university life the dependence on their founding principles increased.

In the Renaissance period new layers were inevitably laid on the foundations of universities, hiding part of their original spirit. A certain aspiration to universality and depth in study and research remained, along with a wholehearted affirmation of their importance for the life of a nation or of a social group. However, within a rapidly evolving epistemological paradigm, the coexistence of a variety of subjects in one and the same place was still significant, since the connections between human sciences and  natural sciences had not been jeopardised yet. Having lost a great deal of their freedom of movement due to their increasing dependence on external goals, universities began to wonder about the role they were playing in the education and training of their students. In this process universities began their transition towards the Modern Age, marked by State-led educational schemes and by reflections on the “university issue” spanning the 19th and 20th centuries.

2. University in the Modern Age. The effects of the great political and cultural changes that occurred in 18th-century Europe were also clearly felt in the notion of    University and on the order of studies. Although natural sciences were mostly developed within Academies, the rapid development of scientific research, of important discoveries and their applications — pioneering the technical-industrial revolution of the following century — entailed a growing specialisation of studies in universities. The humanities too moved towards a significant differentiation, mainly due to the developments of philosophical and historical thought with Kant and Hegel, to the blooming of philological and exegetical studies, to the new organization of social sciences. In universities, systematic presentations replaced the lectio format based on authoritative texts; seminars and practical tests replaced disputationes. The Faculty of Arts had by now been transformed into a Faculty of Literature and Philosophy gathering a great variety of subjects lying outside the realms of the Faculties of Law and Medicine. Technical-scientific secondary schools began to be established as independent Institutes. In France and in German-speaking countries the history of universities was to develop along different routes: in Paris the French Revolution first abolished them, then Napoleon decreed their administrative and ideological centralization into a single imperial university; German universities were nurtured by Idealism and Romanticism, seeking to match their research freedom and their status as communities of scholars with the social and political development needs of national States.

With the success of the French Revolution (1789), the will to get rid of whatever belonged to the ancien régime resulted in the Consular Republic issuing a decree ordering to close down all universities (1793), whereas Napoleon, a little later, decided to set up a single strongly centralised imperial university (1806), turning the pre-existing French universities into mere Faculties under its control. Theological studies were to be subjected to the authority of the State, even when teaching took place within secondary schools promoted by the Church. France was due to lose all Faculties of Catholic Theology in State universities some decades later, in 1882, that is at the time when the first Catholic Universities were starting to spread; French Faculties of Protestant Theology were turned into independent schools. The great State-oriented shift promoted by Napoleon was to last very long and to significantly affect other European legislations.

In Germany the great concentration of great thinkers in university positions contributed to keep the study of philosophical subjects alive, as the latter had superseded theology in the intellectual leadership of the time, above all since Kant. The originality of Germany lay in the fact that between the 18th and 19th centuries the main protagonists of German culture were university professors, and in many cases deans or chancellors. The cultural liveliness of German universities made it possible for the research freedom ideal and for the appreciation of speculative pursuits to be kept alive, protecting education, at least for the time being, from a pragmatic involution. Many of those thinkers devoted explicit reflections to educational issues and to university life: The Conflict of the Faculties (1798) by Kant, The teaching of Philosophy in Universities (1816) by Hegel;  Fourteen Lessons on the Academic Study Method (1803) by Schelling, the Occasional Remarks on Universities in a German Sense (1808) by Schleiermacher are but a few examples. Fichte, first elected master of the new University of Berlin (1810),  dealt with university matters in a number of essays, including the famous On the Nature of the Scholar and its Manifestations in the Sphere of Freedom (1806) and Deduced Plan for an Institute to be founded in Berlin (1807). Even longer influence was later exerted by numerous writings by Wilhelm von Humboldt, director of the Department of Public Education of Prussia’s Home Office. Von Humboldt not only inspired and theorized the establishment of the new University of Berlin, but promoted a university ideal summed up in the motto “freedom and solitude” (Ger. Freiheit und Einsamkeit), two terms pointing to its autonomy and its relative detachment from the ebb and tide of social contingence, as essential attitudes to preserve the wise approach that is eventually able to turn into an effective service to the human community.

In England and Scotland, the empirical tradition led the University notion towards a more pragmatic approach, with the only exception of Oxford where the local traditional humanist teaching opposed this trend. In the second half of the nineteenth century the denominational branding imposed upon universities ever since the schism was softened: the oaths of loyalty to the Church of England were abolished and in 1838 a religiously neutral university system was established in London. Meanwhile, the Anglo-Saxon university style had borne new foundations in the American States territories, including Harvard (1636), Yale (1701) and Princeton (1726) among the oldest ones. The order of studies of these centers had been developing in a varied manner, quite independently from the homeland; for a great deal of the 19th century it was still not comparable with the European one, either in course syllabuses or in the meaning of titles. From the start US universities showed a great deal of flexibility, a high proportion of private enterprise and a rather strong legislative autonomy. From the point of view of their relationship with religion, they grew in an open environment, in which the Faculty of Theology would later find its place; in the constitutions of the oldest foundations, explicit reference was made to the values of Christianity, both in the founder’s objectives and in the educational goals to be pursued.

The cultural approach of Italian universities subsequent to the country’s unification (1861) showed a blatant opposition to Catholicism, even though they still appeared to be organised in the five Faculties of Law, Medicine, Sciences, Letters and Philosophy, and Theology. Such an antagonistic feeling was to result in the later suppression of the chairs of theology in State universities in 1873, just as in Spain in the same period. The Italian University culture thus inaugurated an era of separation, without a real break, between higher education and theological and religious reflections, also due to the strong influence of philosophical positivism and rationalism. As Christian thinking was barred from higher education institutions, a great deal of ancient and Mediaeval Christian thought in all its richness was slowly being erased from university memory — a loss that also occurred in secondary school syllabuses — thereby limiting the study of the main Christian authors and ideas to just a few Early Christian Literature courses or to the teaching of similar subjects. A recovery of the contents of Christian thought could not be achieved even through historical disciplines, due to the idealist and historical approach started by Benedetto Croce and Giovanni Gentile and partly maintained to the present day. In Italy too this facilitated the rise of universities promoted by Catholics and placed under the Church’s own responsibility and control.

III. The rise of Catholic Universities

The situation of the university system in the 19th century, also with regard to its relationship with the Christian tradition, may be summed up as follows: “The Modern Humboldtian university especially highlights the national context where Universities work and the State plays an essential role in founding, keeping and promoting university establishments. The Romantic rediscovery of the value of the “popular spirit” and hence of nations, was intertwined with the Enlightenment ideal of rational universality and enlightened power. Mediaeval universities, on the other hand, had a private associational spirit, which was in any case independent from the State: even prior to forming a “universitas studiorum” (that is to say prior to following an interdisciplinary syllabus through a methodological unity, which is the modern university’s typical ideal), they were universitas studentium and universitas docentium, or rather a plurality of “universitates,” that is of personal associations. Furthermore, there is also another essential feature, only partly connected with the first, which differentiates the Mediaeval University from the Modern one: Mediaeval University referred to a single and only master, Jesus Christ» (A. Rigobello, “L'orizzonte tematico ed il suo sviluppo storico,” in Rigobello et al. 1977, p. 23).

During the 19th century transition, the Church tried to maintain its connection with that Master within its own specific educational entities. For the training of the clergy and the attainment of academic degrees in ecclesiastical disciplines validated by Canon Law, it already had its own establishments, seminaries and colleges, and then Universities divided into Faculties. These educational entities still exist and are known as “Ecclesiastical Universities.” Their Statutes and orders of studies directly depend on the Holy See. These ecclesiastical faculties, historically Theology, Philosophy and Canon Law, were also open to students who were not trained in Diocesan seminaries. Yet, the cultural situation developing in the second half of the 19th century with the gradual secularization of university teaching in many countries urged the Church to promote the foundation of independent “Catholic Universities,” featuring “non-ecclesiastical” Faculties, i.e. similar to those of State universities, under the Church’s own disciplinary control and with a cultural orientation in line with Christian faith.

European bishops set up Catholic universities first in Leuven (1833) and then in Dublin (1852). John Henry Newman’s enthusiastic involvement in setting up the latter was met with criticism and experienced some misunderstandings. Thanks to a law on the freedom of teaching passed by the Parisian Parliament in 1875, French bishops started their own university institutes in Paris, Lille, Toulouse and Angers. Germany differed from other countries in that State universities kept their Theology Faculties and the Catholic Church was allowed to directly manage the teaching offered by those courses. At the time when universities in France and Italy were losing their Faculties of Theology, in Prussia and in German-speaking countries theology kept being taught in the Faculties of many university cities such as Bonn, Munich, Wurzburg, Tubingen, Freiburg am Main, Vienna, Graz, Innsbruck, Cracow, Prague, etc. This state of affairs, along with the intellectual approach of a great deal of German theologians, historically prevented the establishment of Catholic universities in those countries.

In the United States of America the leaders of some religious orders had preceded the trend of setting up universities independent from the State, but recognised by secular authorities, where young Catholics were able to receive teaching in line with religion and cultivate theological and ecclesiastical sciences. This led to the establishment of Georgetown University (1789) and the Catholic University of America (1888) in Washington — the former set up by the Society of Jesus — and University of Notre Dame du Lac (1842) at South Bend (Indiana), as a development of a missionary school of the Fathers of the Congregation of Holy Cross. These institutions of limited initial impact ended up exerting great influence and gaining remarkable prestige nationwide. By the end of the 19th century similar institutions were established in Canada, in Laval and Ottawa, in Switzerland in Fribourg, but also in the Lebanon, where St Joseph University opened in 1888. With the passing of time this phenomenon extended to Latin America, the Philippines, Japan and the rest of Asia, even though it was affected by the political evolution of many of those territories.

In Italy, in a historical and cultural context where the State university had embraced positivist and idealist philosophical positions, which were fairly closed, or directly hostile to a dialogue with the Catholic world, in 1921 the Franciscan friar Agostino Gemelli (1878-1959) established the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart. At present there are a few hundreds Catholic Universities throughout the world. They are attended by pupils of any religious creed and feature non-Catholics among their teaching staff; they operate under the supervision of the competent ecclesiastical authority, invested with the responsibility of certifying their “Catholicity” and their Statutes comply with the provisions of Canon Law and of other ecclesiastical laws. The apostolic constitution Ex corde Ecclesiae, issued by John Paul II in 1990 sums up their nature and tasks as well as the general norms they are governed by. In this scenario, one should not forget the effective role of the universities that have requested to be called “Catholic” in their statutes or for their academic activities (cf. Errazuriz, 1991), but whose history is rooted in the educational and apostolic aims of certain Church institutions, or of some associations of the faithful, which have freely promoted them.

IV. Reflections on the ’“University Idea” and university training

There is quite a number of authors who specifically dealt with the University issue in their writings. Despite adopting different philosophical perspectives and general beliefs, many of them seem to converge on what seems to define a university’s own task and mission. The reflections developed in 19th-century Germany by von Humboldt’s contemporaries (see above, II.2) were later supplemented by J.H. Newman’s work on The Idea of a University, 1852. In the 20th century a further contribution to the subject was made by A.N. Whitehead (The aims of education and other essays, 1929), J. Ortega y Gasset (La misión de la universidad, 1930), J. Maritain (Education at the Crossroads, 1943), K. Jaspers (Die Idee der Universität, 1946), R. Guardini (Die Verantwortung der Universität, 1954). What we propose here is a brief commentary on Newman’s and Jaspers’ works: their different philosophical and religious origin does not prevent them from converging to a certain extant.

1. Liberal education in John Henry Newman’s “The Idea of a University.” As a promoter and first Master of the Catholic University of Dublin, John Henry Newman (1801-1890) offered his first reflections on the nature of a university as an institution and on the impact of the education to be given there in the Discourses delivered at the University of Oxford. Such reflections later developed into a more structured and mature form in the nine lectures entitled The Scope and Nature of University Education, which he used to present his project in Dublin in 1852 and were later collected under the title The Idea of a University. Newman’s huge influence was to shape a great deal of the Catholic Universities’ development in the following decades up to the present day: it is cited as many as three times in the apostolic constitution Ex corde Ecclesiae (cf. n. 4 and footnotes 19 and 23).

For Newman a university’s mission is first of all to “educate”: “a University professes to teach universal knowledge… There is a real necessity for this universal teaching in the highest schools of intellect” (Discourse II, 1). It also has to “educate to knowledge”; it is an institution which has to lead students to what he calls the  “perfection of intelligence,” so that it may eventually train people capable of “feeling at home in any environment.” The university education proposed by Newman “is the education which gives a man a clear view of his opinions and judgments, as truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them, and a force in urging them. It teaches him to see things as they are, to go right to the point, to disentangle a skein of thought, to detect what is sophistical, and to discard what is irrelevant. It prepares him to fill any post with credit, and to master any subject with facility. It shows him how to accommodate himself to others, how to throw himself into their state of mind, how to bring before them his own, how to influence them, how to come to an understanding with them, how to bear with them. He is at home in any society” (Discourse VII, 10). The aim of a university is not to generate new geniuses, political leaders or immortal authors — although many of them are bound to rise within its walls — but to form mature personalities,  endowed with “freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation and wisdom.” (Discourse V, 1) Newman’s idea of a university is aimed at shaping a gentleman. “Hence it is that his education is called ‘Liberal’.”

It is teaching aimed at forming a “a philosophical habit,” an “education to knowledge,” that is, which does not pursue utilitarian aims, because, as the title of Discourse V runs, “knowledge is its own end.” It aims at the person, her way of approaching the world and others, of coming to grips with various notions placing them in the right context and assigning them their correct value, not on the basis of external criteria, but on what the individual him/herself is maturing within by means of his/her knowledge. Such an education is thus called “liberal” as opposed to what is “servile,” just as the liberal arts differed from professions, because they were able to cultivate knowledge for its own sake not for any practical usefulness. The times when Newman set out his arguments were not prepared to welcome them more favourably than would our own times, especially in the English cultural context he addressed them to, where a predominantly pragmatic philosophical approach held sway along with a full-fledged industrial revolution.

University training differs from mere instruction because a university is not the place of erudition, even though it is where one acquires more and more information. Erudition has not in itself the ability to train the person, or to nurture her intelligence. Genuine knowledge needs to rise above the mere crop of data, to be able to organize them and gauge them, to refer them to a principle, to understand their mutual relations, to shape them (cfr. Discourse VI, 7). For Newman, a university cannot pursue professional training either, with all that we also would mean by this term nowadays. He is not at all against the teaching of practical sciences in universities, but believes that a science of this kind, isolated in itself and set apart from the significance it has within a global vision, cannot be the only horizon in the formation of a “university” mind. This is expressed by Newman himself in a passage which is worth quoting in full: “If then I am arguing, and shall argue, against Professional or Scientific knowledge as the sufficient end of a University Education, let me not be supposed, Gentlemen, to be disrespectful towards particular studies or arts, or vocations, and those who are engaged in them. In saying that Law or Medicine are not the end of a University course, I do not mean to imply that a University does not teach Law or Medicine. What indeed can it teach at all, if it does not teach something particular? It teaches all knowledge by teaching all branches of knowledge, and in no other way. I do but say that there will be this distinction as regards a Professor of Law, or of Medicine, or of Geology, or of Political Economy, in a University and out of it, that out of a University he is in danger of being absorbed and narrowed by his pursuit, and of giving Lectures that which are the Lectures of nothing more than a lawyer, physician, geologist, or political economist; whereas in a University he will just know where he and his science stand, he has come to it, as it were, from a height, he has taken a survey of all knowledge, he is kept from extravagance from the very rivalry of other studies, he has gained from them a special illumination and largeness of mind and freedom and self-possession, and he treats his own in consequence with a philosophy and a resource, which belongs not to the study itself, but to his liberal education” (Discourse VII, 6).

University teaching is not aimed at religious learning or at moral formation. Its freedom is so great as to detach it from that kind of order. Liberal education certainly offers valid preparation to Christian virtues, but does not produce them by itself, nor is it seen as instrumental to them. A well-trained mind does not necessarily match a Christian personality and would still be compatible with a lack of faith in God. Newman insists in saying that “Liberal Education makes not the Christian, not the Catholic, but the gentleman” (Discourse V, 9). An important feature of the training a university is called to give is the ability to get to a unified view of reality, to mutually distinguish various disciplines and the connections between their contents, to critically judge the conclusions each comes to, while simultaneously recognising the contribution made by each partial element to the search for truth as consistent with the whole. This unifying and discerning activity primarily responds to a “philosophical habit,” to what we may call a “metaphysical look.” Liberal education or “philosophical education,” as Newman called it in various places, thus becomes the form of education suited for training that look, recognising in it a form of knowledge with a value in itself: “I have accordingly laid down first, that all branches of knowledge are, at least implicitly, the subject-matter of its teaching; that these branches are not isolated and independent one of another, but form together a whole or system; that they run into each other, and complete each other, and that, in proportion to our view of them as a whole, is the exactness and trustworthiness of the knowledge which they separately convey; that the process of imparting knowledge to the intellect in this philosophical way is its true culture; that such culture is a good in itself; that the knowledge that is both its instrument and result is called Liberal Knowledge” (Discourse IX, 1).

Newman pursues a university education where each discipline is taught bearing in mind the others’ contribution as well as the general context all of them belong to; it is a type of education which has in itself the ultimate reason of its “usefulness”; it is finally an education which is necessary for any good moral life, but which is insufficient, by itself, to bring it about. Its positive tension towards the truth, sought in a philosophical wisdom that unifies everything and judges everything, and the intellectual asceticism that stems from it, dramatically set it apart from a “neutral” form of education, even though there is no reason for calling it “Christian.” The relevance of Newman’s thought nowadays, in a deeply changed context, lies in the fact that he does not provide a university model, but a person’s education’s model. He intends to fully demonstrate the personal implications of culture, in their ability to determine the whole approach to the world, to others, to one’s own conscience; for this reason, his “Idea” still provides good food for thought.

2. Truth and Interdisciplinarity in Karl Jaspers’ own “Idea of a University.” A century apart from Newman’s essay, Die Idee der Universität by the German philosopher and psychologist Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) converges with it on at least two fundamental notions: at university one cultivates a kind of knowledge which has a value in itself and has no other motives, so that its demands for freedom and autonomy are fully justified; it has to devote itself especially to the formation of virtues, within a strongly unified view of knowledge. Its main feature is academic freedom, which for Jaspers is the privilege entailed by its obligation to teach the truth. As an expression of every human being’s first and fundamental thirst for knowledge, science for Jaspers has an end in itself and its “usefulness” does not depend on its pragmatic applications. By the phrase “being an end in itself,” Jaspers does not mean that science by itself legitimately justifies any result or any technically possible application: rather, he wants to indicate that its adequate motive lies in man’s commitment to knowledge, in his ongoing hope to extend its frontiers, to the point of transcending science itself. Science, though, is not “absolute,” both because it is the activity of a subject who, in order to practise it, needs assumptions, previously known facts or convictions lying outside scientific learning, and because it needs a sense or meaning which may assign it its direction.

We then seem to be faced with an aporia: on the one hand, science represents a value in itself, on the other it needs a direction. Its incompleteness is not only due to a notional framework that does not stand by itself, but mainly to its need for a living base: “science as whole – for Jaspers – is neither true nor alive without the faith on which it rests” (The Idea of University, p. 37). This aporia will be resolved by holding that, if we want to protect it from serving external goals, scientific enterprise has to embrace a teleological dimension originating from within its own phenomenology.  This recognised orientation “from within” proceeds from roots which go deeper than those of science itself, but are grafted on a founding, anthropological ground, which in turn produces the reasons of the existence of science, i.e. the desire to know what one does not know yet and the existential commitment to look for the truth, the aspiration to find it in the unity and coherence of the whole.

Scientific enterprise, moving beyond discursive reason, receives an orientation from the human desire to link its parts to the whole, from the will to bind the “plurality” of experiences and of disciplines to that “unity” which necessarily has to support them for them to make sense. “Propelled as it is by our primary thirst for knowledge, this search is guided by our vision of the oneness of reality. We strive to know particular data, not in and for themselves, but as the only way of getting at that oneness. Without reference to the whole of being science loses its meaning. With it, on the other hand, even the most specialized branches of science are meaningful and alive [...]. Thus, what determines the actual direction of any inquiry is our ability to perpetuate, yet continuously to interrelate two elements of thought. One is our will to know the infinite variety and multitude of reality which for ever eludes us. The other is our actual experience of the unity underlying this plurality” (The Idea of University, p. 38). A university, for Jaspers, is precisely the place where one can achieve, at least in principle, this unity of the whole, where knowledge, let free to pursue the search for the truth, can get to transcend itself. His notion of the unity of knowledge eventually led Jaspers to conceive a “Faculty of Technology,” to be added to the four traditional ones of Mediaeval universities, in order to submit the world view and the set of transformative changes set off by technology to a sort of “cultural test.” So, Technology as a whole would be tasked with clarifying its presuppositions, both scientific and cultural ones, within a qualified university cultural contest, just as Medicine, Law and Theology did, in order to publicly show its ability to give rise to a set of consistent notions in line with those of the other Faculties.

The different scientific and philosophical schools, spontaneously resulting from the tradition passed on, and from the personal work done by the great masters, are allowed to take part in the cultural debate hosted by universities – so essential for the progress of knowledge, – as long as they are able to express a truly “university-like” thought, that is one which is able to conduct a dialectic discussion, a rational analysis with a critical eye. The various “world views” are not just admitted into the university realm just to guarantee a plurality of opinions, nor can they be forced into it from the outside, because this would be ideological interference. To legitimately justify their presence, they are not asked for a rational and exhaustive foundation of their arguments (“rational” here is used in its empirical-logical meaning) as any Weltanschauung is equally based on extra-scientific criteria; each of them rather, is required to be able to explain its synthesis within an interdisciplinary context,  while accepting a critical confrontation. If historically a given “view” has given rise to a sufficiently rooted and profound cultural thought, it will “already de facto” lie within the university realm, through the books, results and witnesses of its qualified representatives. A university, in brief, is not the venue of the different visions of the world, but the meeting-point of scholars who hold different views of the world and hold them because they have become culture. The notion of its interaction with the State is also well-defined: the latter supports the University system and its workings from an institutional point of view, protecting it if necessary, but it has to respect its research and teaching freedom. University work has to be carried out without any political or ideological pressures. Jaspers compares academic freedom to a sort of   “religious freedom,” which is something that the State has to guarantee as a primary right and which it cannot handle as it pleases, because it just does not have any authority to do so.

Jaspers’ reflection on university shows the convergence between a Kantian epistemological perspective, an idealist component present in its view of sciences and in their relations to the whole, and a deeply existentialist root, which may be gleaned  in a search for the truth conceived as a personal meaningful adventure, but an unfinished one. In accordance with the ultimate consequences of existentialism, he does not so much stress truth’s ability to lead the eye towards Beings, as its innate and continuous desire to search. This is where the limitations of his approach lie and at the same time also the qualities of the radical commitment to defend the existential engagement in searching for the truth along with the associated requirements for freedom.

V. Theology in the context of the other university subjects

Thinking of university as the place for interdisciplinarity and the unity of knowledge, insisting on its cultural value — as held by Newman or by Jaspers — rightly justifies the question of what could be the role of theology in a university context. We are not talking about theology being taught at higher education level with corresponding academic degrees — as it is already the case in ecclesiastical universities (see above, III) — but about theology being taught at a Faculty within a public university campus. This is not immediately justifiable: while teachings such as history of religions, philosophy of religion or early Christian literature may well come into the humanities syllabus, the teaching of theology, resting as it does on Biblical revelation, likely turns out to be a much less obvious option, since the latter may only be acceptable in faith and applicable to a believing individual. Nowadays theology preserves its own chairs in German-speaking State universities, whereas in countries like Italy, France or Spain, these chairs have not been reintroduced since their abolition in the 1800s. In English-speaking countries, the content broadening process (or in some case religious syncretism) has led a good deal of the Divinity to lose many of the traditional specificities of theological teaching.

1. Is there room for theology in a University idea? The first position worth mentioning is that of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). In his work The Conflict of the Faculties he laughs at the idea of the division between the “higher” Faculties of  Medicine, Law and Theology, and the “lower” Faculty of Philosophy.  While the former would be tasked with training officers and being instrumental to the preservation of power, philosophy does not pursue any immediate ends and therefore deals with a “useless” kind of knowledge whose role is to critically reflect on things. However, unlike higher Faculties, Philosophy has no other authority but reason and can then carry out its work free from any pressures. Should philosophy, acting as critical intellectual consciousness, want to refer the other Faculties back to reason by freeing them from the pressures of power, this would necessarily set off a conflict with them. Only by accepting a critical debate with philosophy and rebutting its objections and doubts, the other Faculties will be in a position to train enlightened officers. An ideal University is one in which philosophy will critically direct the studies of all other disciplines, thus turning into a higher Faculty, though from a different and higher point of view.

 So, the presence of theology is seen by Kant in terms of “conflict of authority”: on the one hand, there is the obedience to dogmas, to Holy Scripture and to the doctrinal authority of the establishment; on the other hand, there is the freedom of reason searching for truth. A theology obeying an established authority would be showing itself to be a discipline caged within its own principles and therefore closed to the authentic university spirit. If it is understood in such a way, theology does not seem to be left with any ways out: it either turns into philosophy, or it will never qualify to be a real discipline according to Kant’s university ideal. In sum, Theology ought to move away from its dogmatic knowledge, serving the needs of the State, and to accept a healthy conflict. To move beyond Kant’s position one would need to clarify concepts such as “faith” or “authority,” interpreted by him in a rather reductionist manner, and then to show that theology viewed as fides quaerens intellectum is an open kind of knowledge, which is also guided by the search for truth, and which is fully compatible both with the option of faith, and with the existence of dogmatic notions, that is the ones expressed through precise formulations. Moreover, there is an analogy between religious faith and the options which other disciplines adopt when wandering outside their own realm to consider the foundations of their own knowledge. A further analogy exists between dogmatic formulations and the propositions with the same value in other sciences. Unlike what the Prussian philosopher argued, theology is able to exercise a kind of original knowledge of its own, by reason and in reason, without being “reduced within the limits of reason.” Yet an interesting element emerges from Kant’s analysis: a theology acting within the university system has to understand itself as an open and dialoguing kind of knowledge, willing to engage in a critical debate not simply aimed at functional goals. Such an idea of  theology certainly does exist, but in Kant’s own classification and cultural context it was not seen as such.

The same issue is also approached by Newman, in particular in the first four lectures of The Idea of a University. Considering culture as relatively autonomous from theological faith, and believing that the philosophical shaping of liberal education already implicitly prepares for faith, he starts off by justifying the presence of theology “from below,” not as a supernatural theology, or as a theodicy, ma as a rational and explicit way of rationally discussing what humans implicitly mean when referring to “God” as a Supreme Being. In this meaning, the term theology is used by Newman as “philosophy of religion,” as “science of religion,” or simply “religion,” and the addressee of his arguments is an atheist or an agnostic.

Dealing with the knowledge and truths that humans possess about God, such a theology may claim to act as a bridge between philosophical knowledge and liberal education and the truths of Christian Revelation. In every society or culture where the term “God” still has some significance, theology is entitled to find a place in its universities. Keeping it out would be tantamount to ignoring a reality which is essential to define that society or culture or, alternatively, would implicitly mean acknowledging that what can be said about God does not come into the realm of knowledge any longer, but only concerns a subjective feeling which cannot be communicated. Among the forces responsible for this second approach, Newman mentioned fideism and pietism, favouring a religion which does not claim any bond with the exercise of the intellect. Furthermore, by excluding theological teaching, one would also make a statement about professing religions as “non-knowledge,” and this in itself would be biased. “If, then, in an Institution which professes all knowledge, nothing is professed, nothing is taught about the Supreme Being, it is fair to infer that every individual in the number of those who advocate that Institution, supposing him consistent, distinctly holds that nothing is known for certain about the Supreme Being; nothing such, as to have any claim to be regarded as a material addition to the stock of general knowledge existing in the world. If on the other hand it turns out that something considerable is known about the Supreme Being, whether from Reason or Revelation, then the Institution in question professes every science and yet leaves out the foremost of them” (Discourse II, 2).

In the first place, the defence of theology Newman embarked on does not directly concern Catholicism, but every religion that considers itself intellectually adequate to become a science. Secondly, this defence concerns a theology founded on Christian Revelation, because a culture that has accepted the reasonableness of God-based knowledge in a philosophical context, cannot ignore the answers on God coming from a revealed religion, whose impact on the history of the human genre has been and continues to be a substantial one. Theology is not absorbed in philosophy or in critical knowledge, as had been advocated by Kant, but is specifically present with its own body of knowledge, because this concerns an “object,” God, whose significance is acknowledged by philosophy. Therefore, the authority that justifies the teaching of theology, if we like to call it an authority, is not that of the establishment, but that of reason: university teaching, without Theology, would simply cease to be philosophical, and thus would not respect knowledge.

In a university-level culture wanting to get rid of theological reflection, the empty space left by the latter would immediately be taken up by other sciences. Just as with other disciplines when, if a science is forgotten, the other ones, crashing their borders, break into places they should not, thereby causing reflection as a whole to lose some of its knowledge power, because the methodology employed by one is not suitable for the subject of the other. “Supposing theology be not taught, its province will not simply be neglected, but will be actually usurped by other sciences, which will teach, without warrant, conclusions of their own in a subject-matter which needs its own principles for its due formation and disposition” (Discourse IV, 15). In other words, if, in a University, there was no theology speaking about God, then physics, biology, or economics would start talking about him. It is not difficult to see how relevant Newman’s analysis still is, being confirmed as it is these days that the notion of God is introduced by sciences into the philosophical reflection.

In more recent times, the question regarding the presence of theology in a University was taken up, among others, by Karl Rahner (1904-1984) in his essay Theology today (1980). Many of the objections raised about that presence – as Rahner remarked – may ultimately be addressed to other disciplines. To those who question its scientific nature one could object that only a few people in contemporary universities  would be able to precisely define what a science is; those who tell theology that it does not enjoy the support and interest of all citizens, could be asked whether a lack of interest in the masses is a sufficient reason to get rid of a subject or to close down a Faculty. In any case, university theology still plays quite a firm role and does not allow for easy standardisation: “no sooner has it opened its mouth, than other sciences attack it and say that its subject cannot concern them as such, because by definition it cannot feature in their own field; in fact, they threaten to expel it and to kill it with the very effective means at their disposal: a positivistic-sceptical theory of knowledge and science, the instruments of philology which dissolve or demise the absoluteness of Holy Scripture, psychology and sociology, which explain all too clearly how this peculiar long-agonising cultural phenomenon arose and struggles to survive” (Rahner, 1980).

As part of its own mission — the importance of which goes beyond university walls – theology, for Rahner, has a specific irreplaceable role to play in the academic community. In a world where knowledge is understood as power, technique or interpretation, theology reminds us that there is a dimension of knowledge that cannot be manipulated, interpreted or formalized: there is an Unconditioned Someone that humans cannot totally comprehend, but from Whom they have to let themselves be   comprehended. By its presence, theology calls other disciplines to a sort of intellectual humility, protecting them from the risk of providing totalising solutions of reality, which easily degenerate into ideologies. At times it is sciences themselves, from within, that open up to other forms of knowledge, but whenever that call for dialogue does not find a partner of the same academic level as that of a theology Faculty, they break out of their own methodological horizon, in fact replacing theology — as Newman had already warned they would —, or they are lured by world views where the overriding of scientific rationality no longer points to transcendence, but to irrationality.

University theology should stop being a demanded epistemological justification or theoretical advocacy of “talking about God,” and turn into a demanding “talking of God” as a necessary reference point to whom one may link the meaning of acting, as the ultimate justification of the dignity of every human being and the personal meaning of his or her freedom. This would no longer be a task reserved for scientists, historians or philosophers, but would be handed over to theologians, because notions such as truth or freedom, which Jaspers placed at the heart of a university’s work, are not exhausted in the philosophical arena but open up to a fuller meaning, which only Revelation can disclose. Therefore, within a universitas Rahner claims a role for theology in the narrow sense of the word, that is the one taught within faith, even in a teaching or scientific context where this gift is yet to be shared by everyone.

2. The reason for a “university” theology. The Church has always upheld the significance of theology’s place in the universitas studiorum both by supporting theology chairs in State universities, and by providing for them to be present in the universities promoted by itself (cf. Gravissimum educationis, 10; Ex corde Ecclesiae, 19). How appropriate it is that there should be a Divinity Faculty can be justified in three ways.

The first reason is an anthropological one, since religiousness in humankind is a constant fundamental anthropological component and the problem of God has always accompanied the development of human thinking as a whole. This does not present itself along exclusively philosophical or psychological lines, but also “religious” ones. The existence of a revelation, of whatever kind it is, and the personal dimension of the response to a God who reveals Himself, shift the analysis of the discussion on God from the philosophical to the theological field, the only one where anthropologically significant terms such as creature, merit, conscience, witness, eternal life, have a full meaning. There is also a second justification from a historical point of view. The Judeo-Christian Revelation has manifested itself with facts which have marked the history of mankind in a way that has been felt by other disciplines as well. The shaping of the people of Israel, the movement that arose around Jesus of Nazareth, the impact of his doctrine in the history and spiritual heritage of nations are facts with much too clear a bearing to be possibly ignored. Yet, Revelation cannot only be studied by employing tools of historical analysis, because they would soon prove to fall short of explaining it; here too, theological categories need to be drawn upon to understand what has happened and why.

Finally, there is a particularly cultural reason. Both Holy Scripture and the systematic arrangement of knowledge about God provided by theology on the basis of Revelation, have been the primary source of reflection for countless authors. A scientifically thorough understanding of their thought cannot leave out this source. Without any knowledge of what the Incarnation or the mystery of the triune God represent for Christianity, it would not be possible to understand Dante’s Divine Comedy or Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit, Pascal’s mysticism or Nietzsche’s nihilism; without a precise idea of the history of salvation and of its various stages, as they are passed on to us by Holy Scripture, the contents of the main works of art would become shadowy, nor would we understand the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel or the architecture of Gothic cathedrals; without an experience of the dramatic aspects of sin  and redemption we could not access the content of Dostoevskij’s or Goethe’s, Shakespeare’s or Calderón de la Barca’s works; without a knowledge of the universal scope and novelty of the redeeming sacrifice on the Cross, we would fail to grasp the reason of the historical development undergone by law and political philosophy. This does not only concern Western culture, or the European one in particular, but human culture in general, because the critical issues of existence, as highlighted by Christianity, are equally found in the other great religious traditions, and the latter may only be fully understood within a comparative framework that does not exclude Christianity and Judaism.

The theological teaching offered within a university campus, without replacing the one offered in ecclesiastical universities or other training centers placed under the Church’s direct control, should have its own methodological features, in line with its status publicus. First, this kind of theology ought to be developed and taught as if one were “facing an interlocutor,” i.e. employing a methodology carefully providing the principles of its own reflection and justifying its reasonableness, in a continuous dialogue with the cultural and existential situation in which the interlocutor is immersed. Secondly, it would be a typically “contextual” theology, especially mindful of the universal nature of its own discourse. Its own reflection ought to be carried out while bearing in mind the results of sciences, the whole planet’s anthropological, religious and cultural panorama, the timeframes of its lengthy evolution, the course of history alongside human evolution. A theology presenting the mystery of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen from the dead, as reason of the world and meaning of history, if it wishes to be credible, has to be able to argue for this central role in a complete, as wide as possible, diachronic and synchronic scenario. It cannot confine itself to proposing “its own history,” but it has to seek to justify “all histories” and “the whole of history.” Further, such a theology would be markedly “interdisciplinary,” not because it is anxious to provide rushed syntheses with the knowledge arising from other sources, but because it is capable of showing the links between the contents of Revelation and the subjects of the other disciplines, by being able to highlight that transcendental dimension shaping the activity of any research seriously interested in knowing the truth. It will also be able to do this better, the more it will be willing to listen and to dialogue with the other sciences. Finally, a university theology would be practised and taught “within faith.” Just like any other teacher, the theologian too has made precise choices regarding the principles of, and experiences an existential involvement with, the subject studied, even more so since, in this concrete case, it is God. He/she can reasonably approach an audience who has not received the gift of faith, an audience that is able to come to grips with the principles of this science, but is still unable to existentially embrace the Life enkindling those principles. Such a theology would thus become a proclamation, just as Paul and John’s theologies or that of the Fathers of the early Christian fathers were, without thereby ceasing to be a genuine theology.

A synthesis between theology and the other sciences is not only a need felt by the university to foster better conditions to facilitate a genuine unity of knowledge: such a dialogue and synthesis are also needed by theology itself. The intellectum engaged by fides is both the understanding of the things of God, and also the understanding which, in pursuing its goal, follows an itinerary through the understanding of the whole of creation, human life and its history. Giving up following that itinerary would be tantamount to facing the risk of fideism or fundamentalism, which are as far from faith as from the authentic university spirit. A believing synthesis between theological knowledge of God and human knowledge of the world turns into an aspect of the relationship which has to bind nature with grace. We can thus understand why one can say – as John Paul II put it – that not only does University need the Church, but also that the Church needs University (cfr. Address to the Members of the Academic Body of the University of Bologna, April 18, 1982, n. 2).

VI. John Paul II and the University

It is worth paying particular attention, for the issue that concerns us here, to John Paul II’s addresses to the university teaching staff and the academic communities worldwide, outlining a consistent “university idea” (an anthology up to 1991 can be found in Discorsi alle Università (Jan 1, 1979 – March 19, 1991), a cura di E. Benedetti e L. Campetella, Camerino 1991; analyses and reflections in Tanzella-Nitti, 1998). The foundations of such an idea, in close connection with a precise cultural notion, had already been laid in the early years of his pontificate and may be found in the addresses to the Unesco Assembly (1980), in Cologne Cathedral (1980), in those to the University of Bologna (1982), Padua (1982), Leuven (1985), Turin (1988) and Uppsala (1989). Quite a few sections of those speeches, especially those regarding the notion of freedom and the immanent dimension of the subject of culture, are linked to remarks made by Karol Wojtyla in the 1960s and 1970s, when he was professor of Ethics at Lublin University.

1. The notion of culture. For John Paul II culture entails the task of “creating oneself.” It provides the subject with spiritual enrichment and also involves the sphere of production. Despite its many plural aspects, culture is somewhat “one”: it is what enables each one to live in a genuinely human way, which matches his/her nature and dignity. Genuine culture differs from false cultures, typical of ideologies: the former is centered on the primacy of being, as the true source of practice, and it is respectful of the subject’s own truth; the latter are aimed at possessing or even manipulating the subject, imposing on him/her pre-conceived practices they are forced to adjust to. The former recognises religion as an expression of human self-transcending and the question of God is part and parcel with it: in art, poetry, music, but also in science; the latter, separating religion from culture, end up being a boomerang against man himself. This is also the basis to address the issue of the value of scientific, technological or cultural progress: progress is measured on the service it renders to man and his integral truth.

The relationship between faith and culture is presented as a circular mutual provocation. The synthesis between faith and culture is needed by both: “faith needs to turn into culture”; and yet the Christian message goes beyond any culture, because the proclamation of Christ does not impose another people’s or another race’s own culture.  Ultimately, the fact that faith does not identify with any culture is precisely what enables it to “turn into culture,” by integrating into local cultures. The Church needs university for faith to be able to become flesh and to become culture. Yet there is a convergence between Christianity and culture, for there is full convergence between Christianity and humanism. All that is human “concerns” the Church, because man is the road on which God, in Christ, has moved towards us. In a university the Church feels at ease —  as John Paul II said at the University of Bologna — not only because of its historical origins, but also because the Church and the university share the “passion” for truth, or better put, for man’s truth.

2. University and freedom for truth. In his university speeches, John Paul II asked first and foremost that a university might once again be the place of “whys,” it might embrace, that is, the sphere of goals and not only that of functional training: “Universities as institutions must be instrumental to the education of man. Even the most prestigious cultural means and tools would be useless, if they did not go along with a clear vision of a university’s essential and teleological goal: the formation of the human person as a whole, regarded both in its constitutive and original dignity, and in its goal. Society asks a University to supply not only specialists, trained in their specific areas of knowledge, culture, science and technology, but above all humanity builders, servants of their brothers’ community, promoters of justice in their aiming at the truth. In a word, nowadays, as always, one needs people in the humanities and in science, who may be able to place the values of conscience above any other, and to nurture the supremacy of being over appearing” (Meeting with the world of culture in the University of Turin, September 3, 1988, n. 4).

John Paul II refers to a university as the place to search for the truth. “The basic mission of a University is a continuous quest for truth through its research, and the preservation and communication of knowledge for the good of society” (Ex corde Ecclesiae, 30). The orientation of every human being, of every intellectual in particular, towards the truth is not a cold rational process: it involves the whole of man, calling on the commitment of the will and on self-giving. That is why the phrases “passion for truth” and “love for truth” can be used. In line with all those who have reflected on a University’s nature and mission John Paul II reminds us that the freedom of research and its legitimate autonomy are features that lie at the heart of the university institution. Yet, these have to match a responsibility to oneself and to society: being bound to the search for the truth, not to anything else. Whenever science loses its constitutive bond with truth, it is conceived as a merely “technical,” “functional” fact; its knowing value is only bound to the success of its processes and its results legitimately justified only by its effectiveness in pragmatic terms. Once it has lost its connection with truth, the freedom of technical-scientific knowledge is no longer “freedom for truth,” but a mistaken freedom to be able to do anything that is technically possible. In the Pope’s speeches to universities there does not seem to be any room for an instrumental or neutral notion of scientific enterprises. What is underlined, on the other hand, is the “personalistic” dimension, which always involves the sphere of aims. Science does not have any ethically neutral research projects or application: it is a personal enterprise, where the search for truth is inseparable from the search for good (cf. Meeting with the scientists and students, Colonia, November 15, 1980, nn. 3-4; comments and reflections in Strumia, 1987).

3. Interdisciplinarity and unity of knowledge. The tension towards truth is accompanied by the tension towards the whole: a university, therefore, has to be the place where to practise humbleness, listening, interdisciplinarity, the place where reductionism is recognised as a mistake and the desire for unity of knowledge as a value. The effort that the search such unity entails ultimately represents one of university’s educational tasks, since it has to educate open-minded people, who do not confuse specificity with “sectorialization.” Specialization is not by itself opposed to the unity of knowledge. Yet a person may oppose it, whenever that specialized methodology is held to be the only way to get to know things. In such a university, theology has the place it is naturally entitled to. “Now, it is precisely a feature of the University, which is universitas studiorum in itself, unlike other study and research centres, to cultivate a universal kind of knowledge, in the sense that every science has to be cultivated there in a spirit of universality, i.e. in the awareness that each of them, despite being different, is so bound to the others to be impossible for it to be taught outside the context - at least intentional - of all the others. Shutting itself up means it will be sooner or later doomed to become sterile and run the risk of confusing a norm of whole truth with a refined method to analyze and embrace a particular segment of reality” (Meeting with the world of culture in the University of Turin, September 3, 1988, n. 3). Working on a discipline “at least intentionally in the context of the others” does not mean saying that one is “omniscient,” but, in line with Newman’s idea, being learned people.

John Paul II finally made clear that the unity of knowledge is built around the unity of the person, not around mere multi-disciplinarity. The most dangerous fragmentation is not rooted in disciplinary specialization but in the breach between a culture based on means and a culture based on aims. The unity of knowledge is an intellectual habitus. It means setting off a dialogue within the subject’s intellectual experience between all the sources and forms of knowledge to resolve all the most important issues, the existential ones: what is the world?, what is man?, what is man’s place in the world? Giving up approaching such issues or neglecting their significance hinders any unity of knowledge, despite the richness of sources and data accessed. One needs the courage to wonder about the ultimate and foundational causes, on the whys that matter (cf. Allocution to UNESCO, June 2, 1980; Address to the Academics at the University of Padua, September 12, 1982).

Documents of the Catholic Church related to the subject: 

John Paul II: Allocution to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), June 2, 1980, Insegnamenti III,1 (1980), pp. 1636-1655; Meeting with the scientists and students, Cologne, October 15, 1980, Insegnamenti III,2 (1980), pp. 1200-1211; Address to the Members of the Academic Body of the University of Bologna, April 18, 1982, Insegnamenti V,1 (1982), pp. 1223-1231; Address to the Academics at the University of Padua, September 12, 1982, Insegnamenti V,3 (1982), pp. 412-417; Address to the University community of Louvain, May 21, 1985, Insegnamenti VIII,1 (1985), pp. 1598-1605; Meeting with the world of culture in the University of Turin, September 3, 1988, Insegnamenti XI,3 (1988), pp. 548-556; Meeting with the Swedish University Community at the University of Uppsala, June 9, 1989, Insegnamenti XII,1 (1989), pp. 1608-1615; 2000 Address to University professors of all nations for the 2000 Jubilee, Rome September 9, 2000, OR September 10, 2000, p. 7. Discourse to the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for Culture, March 25, 1988, EV 11, 325-377; John Paul II, Ex corde Ecclesiae, August 15, 1990, EV 12, 414-492; Congregation for Catholic Education, The presence of the Church in the university and in university culture, May 22,1994, EV 14, 1349-1405.


On the historical origins and nature of a University: G. Arnaldi (a cura di), Le origini dell'università (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1974); M. Bellomo, Saggio sull'Università nell'età del diritto comune (Catania: Giannotta, 1979); A.B. Cobban, The Medieval Universities: their Development and Organization (London: Methuen, 1975); H. Denifle, Die Entstehung der Universitäten des Mittelalters bis 1400 (Berlin: Weidmannsche Buchhandlung, 1885); H. De Ridder-Symoens (ed.), A History of the University in Europe (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press), 4 voll., vol. I: Universities in the Middle Ages, 1992, vol. II: Universities in Early Modern Europe (1500-1800), 1996; S. D'Irsay, Histoire des Universités françaises et étrangères des origines à nos jours, 2 voll. (Paris: A. Picard, 1933-35); P. Donati, “L'autonomia universitaria come progetto culturale,” Studi Cattolici 34 (1990), pp. 484-491; R. Guardini, Die Verantwortung der Universität (Würzburg: Werkbund, 1954); R. Guardini, Tre scritti sull’università (Brescia: Morcelliana, 1999); K. JASPERS, The Idea of University (London: Peter Owen, 19652); K. Jaspers, K. Rossmann, Die Idee der Universität (1946), 2nd ed. (Heidelberg-Berlin: Springer, 1961); J. Maritain, Education at the Crossroads (1943) (London: Yale University Press, 1972); A. MacIntyre, Three Rival versione of Moral Enquiry (London: Duckworth, 1990); M. Miozzi, Lo sviluppo storico dell'università italiana (Firenze: Le Monnier, 1993); G. Morra, L'università tra tecnologia & ideologia, Studi Cattolici 25 (1981), pp. 763-770; J.H. Newman, The Idea of a University (1852), English text in Scritti sull’università. Testo inglese a fronte, ed. by Michele Marchetto (Milano: Bompiani, 2008); J. Ortega y Gasset, Misión de la Universidad (1930), in Obras Completas, 12 voll. (Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1987), vol. IV, pp. 313-353; H. Rashdall, The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1895) (re-edited by F.M. Powicke and A.B. Emden, 3 voll. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1936); P. Ricoeur, J. Dreze, J. Debelle, Progetto di Università (Brescia: Queriniana, 1969); A. Rigobello et al., L’unità del sapere (Roma: Città Nuova, 1977); A. Tuilier, Histoire de L'Université de Paris et de La Sorbone, 2 voll. (Paris: Nouvelle Librairie de France, 1994); J. VERGER, "Patterns," in: H. de Ridder-Symoens (ed.): A History of the University in Europe, Vol. I: Universities in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), pp. 35–76; W. von Humboldt, Università e umanità, ed. by F. Tessitore, (Napoli: Guida Editori, 1974); A.N. Whitehead, The Aims of Education and Other Essays (New York: Macmillan, 1929).

On the relationship between a University and Christian thought: Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer y la Universidad, prologo di A. Del Portillo (Pamplona: Eunsa, 1993); A. Bausola, “La Costituzione Apostolica «Ex Corde Ecclesiae»: una “chance” per le Università Cattoliche,” Seminarium 30 (1990), pp. 677-686; L. Corradini, Fede e cultura in università oggi, Pedagogia e Vita 51 (1993), n. 3, pp. 96-107; J. Coulson (ed.), Theology and the University (Baltimore and London, Helicon Press - Longman & Todd, 1965); C.J. Errazuriz, Il “munus docendi Ecclesiae”: diritti e doveri dei fedeli (Milano: Giuffré, 1991); M. Fois, “La Chiesa e le Università. Lineamenti storici del rapporto tra Chiesa e Università,” Seminarium 35 (1995), pp. 47-61; I. KANT, The Conflict of the Faculties (Der Streit der Fakultäten), transl. by Mary J. Gregor (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1992); J.L. Illanes, “Teología y ciencias en una visión cristiana de la Universidad,” Scripta Theologica 14 (1982), pp. 873-888; JOHN PAUL II, Discorsi alle Università (January 31, 1979 – March 19, 1991), edited by E. Benedetti e L. Campetella, Centro Interdipartimentale Audiovisivi e Stampa dell'Università degli Studi di Camerino, Camerino 1991; P. Poupard, Chiesa e Culture. Orientamenti per una pastorale dell'intelligenza (Milano: Vita e Pensiero, 1985); K. Rahner, “Theologie heute,” in H. Dollinger (ed.), Akademische Festreden zum Jubiläum 1980, Schriftenreihe der Westfälischen Wilhelms-Universität Münster, n. 1 (1980), pp. 43-54; A. Strumia, L'uomo e la scienza nel magistero di Giovanni Paolo II (Casale Monferrato: Piemme, 1987); G. Tanzella-Nitti, Passione per la verità e responsabilità del sapere. Un’idea di università nel magistero di Giovanni Paolo II (Casale Monferrato: Piemme, 1998).

Paolo Zanna