Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Academic Freedom and the Pursuit of (God’s) Truth

First of all, I would very much like to thank Patrick (who initiated the thread), Rick, Steve, and Susan for their earlier thoughts and reflections on the Pope’s address delivered to Catholic educators last week. I would like to offer a few additional thoughts about academic freedom in the context of the Catholic university—including its law school, should it have one—and the search for truth, which is ultimately God, for the Catholic educator in the Catholic academic institution and the kind of freedom with which he or she should be concerned.

For any institution to call itself Catholic, it must think with, not against, the universal Church. It must be an institution where the teachings of Christ and his Church (the Body of Christ) provide the guiding influences on how its members are to conduct their affairs in relation to one another and all others. It is crucial in this regard to understand where humanism plays a role—for “humanism” is often a guise that leads the work of the academy astray. In this task, reason and faith are crucial. That is why Benedict said, “It is important therefore to recall that the truths of faith and of reason never contradict one another.” It is the Catholic dimension of the search for truth, in an authentically humanistic environment, which focuses the lens through which Christian humanism is taught, learned, and lived. And the reason for exercising this form of humanism is to seek that which is true and to know that which is false. In this regard the Holy Father noted, “Education is integral to the mission of the Church to proclaim the Good News” because he also exhorted that, “Only through faith can we freely give our assent to God’s testimony and acknowledge him as the transcendent guarantor of the truth he reveals.”

Christian humanism—rather than some other variety of humanism—must be the project of the Catholic college and university and, therefore, be imbued with the understanding and appreciation of the great deposit of the Church’s teachings. The sources of these teachings are, of course, scripture and doctrine as developed over the history of the Church. It should necessarily follow that the community of scholars, who are aligned with this long Catholic tradition of seeking the truth rather than falsehood (which masquerades as truth), must be aware of God’s existence and what He teaches and embrace both if the college or university that calls itself “Catholic” is to be authentic to its Catholic identity.


The particulars of the endeavor of studying and living Christian humanism in a Catholic context provide the members of the university with the deeper insight into authentic human nature that is essential to the survival of the world. This insight enables the unique individual who bears God’s image to encounter the magnificence of all God’s creation as relayed in the teachings of Christ and further taught over the centuries by his Church. This encounter inexorably connects the individual with the other, who is God and who is also the neighbor. This is the most fundamental teaching of Christ, the Great Commandment—two elements conflated in one directive of right relationship: love God and your neighbor as yourself. It is the Great Commandment, so understood, that is at the core of the faith and the promotion of the just world with which the Catholic academy is inextricably connected. I question whether this is the enterprise of even the greatest universities in the world who make no effort to assert that they possess something in their nature which identifies them as “Catholic.”

Having said this, what is the particular role of the Catholic university in forming its members as those who are called upon to live and implement this basic tenet of life, the Great Commandment? It is seeking the wisdom of God rather than some passing fancy or fad or currently popular theory that is here today and gone tomorrow. This is a point emphasized by Pope Benedict when he said,

With regard to the educational forum, the diakonia of truth takes on a heightened significance in societies where secularist ideology drives a wedge between truth and faith. This division has led to a tendency to equate truth with knowledge and to adopt a positivistic mentality which, in rejecting metaphysics, denies the foundations of faith and rejects the need for a moral vision. Truth means more than knowledge: knowing the truth leads us to discover the good. Truth speaks to the individual in his or her entirety, inviting us to respond with our whole being. This optimistic vision is found in our Christian faith because such faith has been granted the vision of the Logos, God’s creative Reason, which in the Incarnation, is revealed as Goodness itself. Far from being just a communication of factual data—“informative”—the loving truth of the Gospel is creative and life-changing—“performative”... With confidence, Christian educators can liberate the young from the limits of positivism and awaken receptivity to the truth, to God and his goodness. In this way you will also help to form their conscience which, enriched by faith, opens a sure path to inner peace and to respect for others.

The charge of the Catholic intellectual inquiry, therefore, is to understand better one’s self and one’s world not from any narrow or individualized perspective but, as best as the human being and human community can, i.e., to understand it from God’s perspective. In a Catholic context, our learning, our seeking must be simultaneously humble [I/we do not know it all] and uplifting [seeking through prayerful relationship union with God]. Gerard Manley Hopkins once commented that, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” It is the Catholic intellectual, academic tradition which seeks to better understand the world not for itself but with the grandeur of God in mind. And this search requires freedom. But, freedom essential to the academic enterprise is not well-understood. As the Pope observed in this context, the notion of academic freedom is the object of distortion. In must not be the means to “opt out” but, rather, the desire to “opt in”—to participate “in Being itself.” Pope Benedict observed that “authentic freedom can never be attained by turning away from God. Such a choice would ultimately disregard the very truth we need in order to understand ourselves.”

It seems evident that the university—including the Catholic one—is a place of liberty and free inquiry. Without fetter, the inquiring mind must be free to search for what is true. But, in the Catholic context, how is the freedom essential to this task to be understood? This was a question asked and answered by Benedict. What follows is intended to complement what he said about the need to turn to God in the exercise of this genuine freedom.


Freedom is often viewed as the independence of the sovereign, autonomous individual from regulation or control. So, without any external restraint, the mind can wander without inhibition. By itself, this may be viewed as desirable because it enables the person to proceed unconstrained by the control of some external force. But is this the only kind of freedom with which we of the Catholic university are to be concerned? I would like to suggest that there is another dimension of freedom that is more important to the inquiry of the Catholic intellectual tradition, and that is the freedom for the truth, the truth which is God. And why is this link between God and the truth to be pursued by Catholic educational institutions so critical? Benedict gives us the answer: “Once their passion for the fullness and unity of truth has been awakened, young people will surely relish the discovery that the question of what they can know opens up the vast adventure of what they ought to do. Here they will experience ‘in what’ and ‘in whom’ it is possible to hope, and be inspired to contribute to society in a way that engenders hope in others.”


It is often said that universities exist so that their members may pursue the truth. In the context of the American university, it is further said that the greatest academic freedom is essential for the pursuit of this truth. However, this freedom is essentially viewed as freedom from control external to the investigator. By contrast, it is the particular role of the Catholic university, inspired by Christian humanism, to ensure that the pursuit of the truth is God’s truth rather than the truth that is simply human. This is where the greatest of freedoms is needed—the freedom for. Freedom from is inadequate to learn about the other or the beyond as accurately as possible. The freedom for God’s truth that is simultaneously transcendent, moral, and objective is essential to the work of the Catholic university if it is to be faithful to its mission. Freedom from insulates, whereas freedom for liberates thereby enabling the inquiring person to pursue this truth who is God. As Benedict argued, “Set against personal struggles, moral confusion and fragmentation of knowledge, the noble goals of scholarship and education, founded on the unity of truth and in service of the person and the community, become an especially powerful instrument of hope.”


It is this freedom for the greatest truth that enables those persons associated with Catholic higher education to bring such education that imbues the Good News to those not only near but those whom we do not see but with whom we assuredly do exist. It is faith in the Gospel of Christ, our common savior, that enables us to live the justice of the greatest commandment—to be in right relation with all others, our God and our neighbor. It is our Catholic faith that enables us to be the people who act justly, love tenderly, and live humbly with our God and one another. As the prophet Micah reminds us, this is the one thing that God asks of every person. This is the truth that we can come to know and the truth, as St. John proclaims about the freedom for discipleship, “you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” [John 8:32] Again, what is that truth?


It is the way of and to God. It is the way that Jesus taught for the salvation of all. It is the realization that the exclusively subjective leads to forgetting not only the needs of others but also that we are bound with them—and this is crucial to Catholic legal theory. It is, in the context of the objective of the Catholic university, the pursuit of the transcendent and objective moral order that enables the fulfillment of the Great Commandment. Does this mean that Catholic institutions can talk about the views of those whose perspectives conflict with Catholic teaching? Of course it does. But, in doing so the members of the Catholic academy must not forget who they are, what is constitutive of their identity, and where the Truth exists. Once they forget, they will be like any university, famous and otherwise. And should they simply identify themselves as “just like any other academic institution,” the truth and the light of God will be simply be one possible course that can be discarded in favor of some other avenue of investigation. But the desire to pursue God’s rather than merely human, subjective “truth” is not censorship; rather, it becomes the quest of authentic precision about who we are, what we are about, and where we are going as beings who bear God’s divine image.    RJA sj


Araujo, Robert | Permalink

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