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Benedict: Radical Questioner

BY Tom Hoopes

| Posted 3/29/09 at 6:37 AM

 

Yesterday, I recommended Father John Jenkins of Notre Dame read about Joseph Ratzinger’s university days in Munich.

The FMU theology department opposed the Nazis, and so was shut down. When it was reopened, students had to literally rebuild it.

But what about academic freedom? What can the “hardliner” Pope teach Obama’s Notre Dame about that?

Here’s the CNS story about Father Jenkins speaking on Academic Freedom in 2006 in Rome:

“Father Jenkins, the Holy Cross priest who took over last year at the helm of the Indiana university, told a Rome conference Feb. 1 that the church’s universities should take their cue from St. Thomas Aquinas, whose writings examined a ‘disputed question’ from all sides. ...

“Father Jenkins said he sees no tension between a university’s Catholic identity and academic freedom. At Notre Dame, he said, scholars and students — including non-Catholics — have the right to think what they like, publish their research and speak about their field of expertise.

“‘It is the same academic freedom that is enjoyed anywhere else,’ he said. … ‘We want a diversity of views. That’s part of being a university.’”

Here’s another quote from Brennan Purcell’s Benedict of Bavaria. This one is about Ratzinger’s mentor, who had fled the aftermath of the Nazis:

“One of these dispossessed was Gottlieb Söhngen, a professor of fundamental theology, who provided a formative influence on the young scholar. Ratzinger described Söhngen as a ‘radical and critical questioner.’ For him no subject was untouchable, nothing taboo, and at the same time he was a man deeply committed to his Catholic faith.

“His questioning was a sign not of professorial arrogance or irreverence, but of the boldness of his belief. According to him, no Catholic should fear any question, and no thought calls for violent suppression.

“The theologian should speak first and foremost not for himself but for the faith of the Church, something that he receives and does not think up himself. And through all the horrors of the Nazi era, Söhngen managed to maintain his easy, humane sense of humor.

“Ratzinger became a theologian of the same strain. Söhngen took the young scholar under his wing, so to speak, even treating him to performances of opera in Munich.

“Throughout all of Ratzinger’s writings, we find the same courage to ask the hard question — Why should anyone believe in any of this? — and an even greater confidence in the answers, which allows him to take on any intellectual challenge to the faith.

“On April 3, 2007, Pope Benedict XVI exhorted all theologians, professional and amateur, to keep on asking questions. ‘Only if we ask questions, and are radical with our questions, radical as theology has to be, going beyond specializations, only then can we find answers to these fundamental questions that affect all of us. Before everything else, we have to ask questions.’”

In his address at The Catholic University of America last year, Pope Benedict XVI said:

“In regard to faculty members at Catholic colleges and universities, I wish to reaffirm the great value of academic freedom. In virtue of this freedom you are called to search for the truth wherever careful analysis of the evidence leads you.”

He added:

“Yet it is also the case that any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and teaching of the Church would obstruct or even betray the university’s identity and mission; a mission at the heart of the Church’s mundi docendi and not somehow autonomous or independent of it.”

How are those two statements consistent? Pope Benedict XVI’s great model of academic freedom in college shows how; and Benedict himself provides a great model now.

True academic freedom at a Catholic university isn’t the freedom for theologians to teach that the Church is wrong. It’s the freedom for students to ask radical questions, relentlessly, in a context where wise scholars know that the Church has the answer.

Does that sound like a contradiction? It wasn’t for Thomas Aquinas. It wasn’t for Cardinal Avery Dulles. Rather, it’s a description of what theologians do: dig deep into the deposit of faith, not to hollow it out and reshape it in their own image, but to be enriched by it.

Does it sound impossible to have to staff a school with Thomas Aquinas or a Gottlieb Söhngen types? That’s why we have the mandatum, oaths of fidelity and other safeguards.

Indeed, that’s why the U.S. bishops’ 2004 document “Catholics in Political Life” said: “Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors, or platforms that would suggest support for their actions.”

The Church’s safeguards don’t constrict academic freedom: They free Catholics from the radical dissenters and allow them to be radical questioners who look to the Church for answers.