Pope Benedict XVI. Wikimedia Commons

Universitas: A Lived Experience

The heart of a Catholic university is an experience of the relationship between faith and reason. When faith and reason are split, the experience of universitas disappears

Responses to Pope Benedict XVI’s lecture on faith and reason have not paid much attention to his beginning comments on what a true Catholic university is like. The key to appreciating the purpose of the true university is an experience, the Pope said, the “experience of universitas.” He explains this as “the experience of the fact that despite our specializations, which at times make it difficult to communicate with each other, we made up a whole, working in everything on the basis of a single rationality with its various aspects and sharing responsibility for the right use of reason.” It is in this way that the “universitas” becomes a “lived experience.”

The heart of a Catholic university is, therefore, an experience of the relationship between faith and reason. When faith and reason are split, the experience of universitas disappears.

In the encyclical Deus Caritas Est, talking about the point at which faith and politics meet, Pope Benedict refers to a “purification of reason” by faith. I believe that an example of this “purification of reason” is precisely that “broadening” of reason described in the Regensburg speech, namely, the coming together of reason and faith in a way that “overcomes the self-imposed limitations of reason to the empirically falsifiable,” thus revealing the “vast horizons” of reason. When this does not occur, faith leads to a reduction of Christianity to pietism and moralism, and reason becomes a rationalism unable to lead us to a judgment that respects the totality of what it means to be human.

It is interesting that the Pope sees this process of decomposition beginning with Catholic thought itself in the “late Middle Ages” with trends that “would sunder this synthesis between the Greek spirit” (the primacy of logos or reasonableness) and the “Christian spirit.” This is similar to Von Balthasar’s view that the origin of the decomposition of the Catholic synthesis can be understood in terms of the split between “theology and sanctity,” that is, between faith and experience, beginning in the late Middle Ages.

The way from this split to our current situation was brilliantly outlined by Fr. Giussani in his list of five “withouts” that mark each step along the way down: God without Christ, Christ without the Church, the Church without the world, the world without an “I,” and the “I” without God.
The moment the first split occurs, the way is open to all the others. God without Christ, writes Fr. Giussani, is “the denial of the fact that only through Christ is it possible for God, the Mystery, to reveal Himself to us for what He is. God without Christ, or fideism, characterizes all the positions that, by eliminating the reasonability of faith, presume to define God as the idolatry of a particular, felt or inherited from a particular ethnic or cultural tradition, or fixed by one’s own imagination.” This is exactly the Pope’s argument in his speech.

The Catholic universities today are divided into two camps: those whose Catholic identity has nothing to do with achieving the experience of reason broadened by faith, and those for whom the preservation of a Catholic identity is entirely a matter of doctrinal orthodoxy. Instead, what is required is for the university to be the place where an encounter with the living Christ creates a true community of scholars and students bound by the experience described by the Pope as a “profound sense of coherence within the universe of reason,” untroubled even by the most radical skepticism.