Our initial reaction to seeing the words “Catholic” and “university” together tends to be one of skepticism. Does religion, and especially religious authority, not interfere with open discussion and investigation? Are there not many examples of the Church censuring scholars?

The truth is that, historically speaking, the Church did not stand in the way of academic freedom, but, in fact, rendered it possible.

The first universities were ecclesiastical institutions. They were founded in the midst of secular life but free from some of its constraints, so that teachers and students could enjoy a sacred space in which to pursue the quest for the truth — rather than for money, power or even honor.

The first university, the University of Paris, was founded in 1200. This happened when the king of France, Philip August, removed the professors and students of a number of existing colleges from the jurisdiction of the ordinary courts, placing them instead under the authority of the bishop of Paris and his delegate, the chancellor.

By this move, the king recognized the body of professors and students as an entity in its own right. He also created a space for study, teaching and learning under the jurisdiction of the Church, which was exempt from the rules of ordinary life in the city. At the same time, however, the university was placed right in the city. Its organization mirrored that of a very important civic institution, the guilds. Faculties corresponded to crafts, students to apprentices, bachelors to craftsmen, and professors to masters (in fact, the medieval professors were even called “masters”). Thus the university possessed a very ambiguous status: Its location at the heart of secular life was counterbalanced by its exemption from the legal rules of that life.

In contemporary society, the function of the Catholic university remains as important as ever, providing a haven from economic and ideological pressures. A Catholic university does more than simply teach its students the skills they will need in order to be successful in business, entertainment, politics or academia. This is why its value should never be measured merely in terms of its “usefulness” to society.

The Catholic university does not so much serve society as it serves the truth — a truth that is ultimately God himself. However, by so doing, the university paradoxically ends up serving society better than any other much more “useful” part of it. It accomplishes this by reminding us that the truth must never be made subservient to lesser goals. Hence the appropriateness of placing it right in the city, where such lesser goals tend to dominate everyday life.

The university as an ecclesiastical institution has a history of remarkable openness to diversity. In the curricula of all the faculties of the medieval university, public discussions occupied a central position. Examinations were conducted through them, and one's place in the university hierarchy corresponded to one's function in these “disputations.” The medieval universities were conceived as places for public discourse — yet not the discourse of Babel, an anarchy of different voices, but rather ordered discourse, oriented toward a goal. And that goal was synthesis.

All disputations were structured in such a way as to be concluded with a solution. This solution would carefully take into consideration all the pros and cons brought up in the preceding discussion (the standing and prestige of a professor depended on this ability), but it would nonetheless be a solution, a provisional final word. The disputations had the ideal of a differentiated unity built into their very form.

Medieval Christian academics read pagan, Jewish and Muslim authors with the utmost seriousness — at a time when other parts of society were persecuting or killing “infidels.” Their profound confidence in the truth of their faith gave them the detachment necessary to consider seriously the merits of a pagan philosophy such as Aristotle's. Questions like the eternity of the world (a central tenet of Aristotle's) were discussed very openly at the medieval universities, and the outcome of these discussions was not guaranteed.

Even the great St. Thomas Aquinas was nonplussed by Aristotle's arguments in favor of the eternity of the world, although they clearly contradict the belief in a day of judgment. The medievals had enough faith to admit to it if the right answers were not forthcoming as quickly as they might have wished.

The Church continues to uphold this spirit of openness in its contemporary universities. In 1990, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a document dealing with the problem of theologians who find themselves at odds with the magisterium. The “Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian” points out that, “if tensions do not spring from hostile and contrary feelings, they can become a dynamic factor, a stimulus to both the magisterium and theologians”(No. 25).

While the congregation's document disapproves of public opposition and dissent voiced through the mass media, a Catholic scholar who views certain aspects of Church teaching as problematic is urged “to make known to the magisterial authorities the problems raised by the teaching” (No.30). This includes the possibility of expounding his or her views in appropriate scholarly publications.

Thus, the loyalty which a Catholic university and its faculty owe the Church does not in any way exclude free investigation and research. On the contrary, in the contemporary Church the university remains the privileged setting for open discussion and debate of issues. If it were otherwise, the Catholic university would belie its historical origins, as well as its vocation to serve nothing but the truth.

Philipp W. Rosemann is assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Dallas.