Benedict XVI had provocative ideas about the true nature of education.
The election of Joseph Ratzinger in 2005 brought one of the foremost theologians of Catholic Church to the Papacy. As an academic, he had played a significant role in the Second Vatican Council. Afterwards he helped to found the influential journal Communio, a publication intended to ensure that the Council’s legacy remained faithful to the “Catholic intellectual tradition”. In the following decades, he interrogated the fertile fields of liturgy, the relationship between faith and culture and inter-faith dialogue, to name just three.
He did not stop when he became Pope. His weekly audiences, for instance, were theological “master classes”.
Significantly, it was not long before Pope Benedict began to turn his attention specifically to the place of education in a secular and pluralist culture. The use of the phrase “educational emergency” became a leitmotif of his papacy. This startling phrase did not refer to lack of schools and teacher in the developing world, but to something far more difficult to solve. It is the loss of confidence in our ability to know the truth and the concomitant reduction of education to training for work. Here is what he said in 2007:
“We may add that this is an inevitable emergency: in a society, in a culture, which all too often makes relativism its creed -- relativism has become a sort of dogma -- in such a society the light of truth is missing; indeed, it is considered dangerous and ‘authoritarian’ to speak of truth, and the end result is doubt about the goodness of life -- is it good to be a person? is it good to be alive? -- and in the validity of the relationships and commitments in which it consists. So how would it be possible to suggest to children and to pass on from generation to generation something sound and dependable, rules of life, an authentic meaning and convincing objectives for human existence both as an individual and as a community?”
Benedict’s contribution to educational thinking is one of his great achievements. So J. Steven Brown, himself an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the Catholic University of America, has done educators a great service in editing this collection of important writings.
A foreword by John Garvey, the President of CUA, serves as a gateway to Benedict’s thought and the Church’s rich legacy of writing on education. Garvey highlights Benedict’s proposal that education is more than the acquisition of knowledge. If this were all….
Instead, education must be grounded friendship between God and the human person. This friendship is expressed in “cultivating virtue and love of neighbour”. Benedict hence integrates the “Augustinian insistence that love for God is both the proximate and the final end of all we do as Christians” with the challenges of utilitarianism, pluralism and secularism which surround and threaten to suffocate the academy today. The broader vision as here articulated is a challenge to those who wish to see education as the servant of both the state and the perceived needs of employers.
A typical example of this way of thinking is the listing of generic “graduate attributes” on the websites of many universities and the linking of these so-called transferable skills with future employment prospects. Pope Benedict argues that education, properly understood, must look beyond such pervasive performativity towards the broadening of intellectual horizons.
The editor has grouped 63 addresses on education by Pope Benedict under seven themes: the relationship between faith and reason; the compatibility of freedom and truth; education and love; pedagogy and learning; education in faith and community; culture and the university; and the relationship between science, technology and theology.
The relationship between faith and reason is the key to understanding Benedict’s educational philosophy and, indeed, all of his thinking. The connecting thread in the first section is the human person’s search for truth and meaning in life. This has a religious or spiritual implication but it is rooted in a search for understanding the deeper meaning of events in everyday life. In essence, it is a search for truth, an exploration of what is and is not valuable in this life and of what, ultimately, leads to human flourishing.
For Benedict, the university is where the encounter with truth happens as the present-day “seekers” encounter the work of those who have engaged with this question in the past and whose intellectual heritage continues to enrich the present. Real Catholic education, hence, allows students to think in authentic freedom about what it means to be human and, crucially, opens the mind to that which is beyond our immediate comprehension.
Is a Catholic education necessarily different from a secular one? Benedict argues that, given the understanding of secular as a rejection of that which cannot be demonstrated empirically, a Catholic education is essentially different to other forms of education. It could not be otherwise. Benedict laments the re-orientation of the university to that of a training school or college and would like to see authentically Catholic institutions act as trailblazers for the eventual retrieval of the university as a place of liberal study.
Like Cardinal Newman’s influential collection of essays, The Idea of A University, published in the 19th century, A Reason Open to God is a thought-provoking book for people of any faith and none. Universities today have lost sight of their original mission as places of cultural enrichment and religiously-inspired study. Perhaps this volume will act as a spur to deeper thinking and a more critical approach to the prevalence of moral and cultural relativism. Let us hope so: it would be a great pity to see such a worthy piece of work gather dust on the shelves of university libraries.
Leonardo Franchi is Head of the St. Andrew’s Foundation for Catholic Teacher Education, University of Glasgow, Scotland.