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The Speech Not Given

The academic year at the Sapienza University of Rome was supposed to open with a speech by the pope. But things took a different turn. Following a series of student protests, the Vatican canceled Benedict XVI’s scheduled visit. The incident, which took place in 2008, reveals a glaring lack of willingness to engage in dialogue in the academic world and underscores the significance of the Sapienza address’s subject matter. Benedict shows why it is indispensable to enquire after the truth and why the wisdom of the great religious traditions cannot be “cast with impunity into the dustbin of the history of ideas.”


by Dr. Thorsten Paprotny

[Translate to English:] Dr. Thorsten Paprotny iim Portrait vor einem Bücherregal

During his pontificate, Benedict XVI frequently presented his thoughts on reason and faith, as well as on the intricate web of relationships between theology and philosophy. At the University of Regensburg in 2006 he encouraged dialogue between the world’s religions and cultures; here, he advocates for a deeper “sensibility to the truth”.

Papst Benedikt XVI. mit gesenktem Kopf und Lesebrille in der Hand.

The speech that came by mail

The relativization of the concept of truth is something that Benedict XVI frequently identified as a hallmark of the times, appearing in the form of a “rigidly secularized rationality”, and this was also the case in the speech he was to give at the Sapienza University of Rome, where he had been invited by the rector to speak at the opening of the academic year on January 17, 2008.  Two days before the event was to take place, the Pope canceled his visit after students and faculty members announced that they would protest. The speech he had prepared was sent by mail.

In his speech, Benedict XVI recalls the “historic source of human wisdom”. In keeping with the spirit and the letter of Nostra aetate, he respectfully acknowledges the religions of the world, which “often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men” (Nostra aetate, 2) The “wisdom of the great religious traditions”, he says, are a reality that “cannot be cast with impunity into the dustbin of the history of ideas.”

Dangers to theology and philosophy

Benedict discusses the fruitful interaction between faith and reason, and speaks of how philosophy and theology likewise share a common task, namely to be “custodians of the sensibility to truth”. Nevertheless, he continues, the “strange pair of twins” – i.e., philosophy and theology – are under threat, and the Pope names some of the dangers: “Theology must continue to draw upon a treasury of knowledge that it did not invent, that always surpasses it, the depths of which can never be fully plumbed through reflection, and which for that reason constantly gives rise to new thinking.” Theology, he says, requires critical reflection: “Various things said by theologians in the course of history, or even adopted in practice by ecclesiastical authorities, have been shown by history to be false, and today make us feel ashamed.”

Studenten demonstrieren gegen die Rede des Papstes an der Universität "La Sapienza“. Auch 63 der insgesamt 4.500 Dozenten der Sapienza-Universität hatten gegen die Ansprache Benedikts XVI. mobil gemacht und die Einladung des Papstes als Verstoß gegen die Trennung von Staat und Kirche abgelehnt.

Philosophy is determined by others, flexibly adapting to both economic and political interests.

Philosophy seems to have alienated itself from the ontological concept of truth or, in the manner of positivism, to have detached itself from it entirely. Benedict provides a precise analysis of the situation philosophy finds itself in today: “Sensibility to the truth is repeatedly subordinated to sensibility to interests.” Philosophy is now, as it were, determined by others, flexibly adapting to both economic and political interests.

The search for truth, however, remains, according to Benedict, and it remains the task of people today, particularly theologians and philosophers. “So, at this point, I cannot offer a satisfactory answer either, but only an invitation to continue exploring the question – exploring in company with the great minds throughout history that have grappled and researched, engaging with their answers and their passion for the truth that invariably points beyond each individual answer.”

Truth is more than knowledge

For Benedict, truth goes beyond knowledge; it aims at knowledge of the good: “What is the good which makes us true? The truth makes us good and the good is true: this is the optimism that shapes the Christian faith, because this faith has been granted the vision of Logos, of creative Reason which, in God’s incarnation, revealed itself as the Good, as Goodness itself.”

In the case of philosophy, the encounter with the dimension of faith acts as a “purifying force for reason”, allowing it to become “more fully itself” and not to capitulate before the question of truth. Rightly understood, philosophy and theology can purify, enrich, and nourish one another – and inspire once more the necessary reflection on the “concept of truth”.

Zum sonntäglichen Angelus-Gebet nach der Absage der Rede versammelte sich eine riesige Menschenmenge auf dem Petersplatz, um dem Papst Solidarität zu bekunden.

An invitation to reason

The Pope – and this applies in the same way to Benedict’s predecessor in the Petrine Office as well as his successor –  is widely perceived to be a “voice for the ethical reasoning of humanity”. But in what capacity does he appear in the space that is the university? This leads Benedict VXI to ask: “What should the Pope do or say at the university? Certainly, he must not seek to impose the faith upon others in an authoritarian manner – as faith can only be given in freedom. Over and above his ministry as Shepherd of the Church, and on the basis of the intrinsic nature of this pastoral ministry, it is the Pope’s task to safeguard sensibility to truth; to invite reason to set out ever anew in search of what is true and good, in search of God; to urge reason, in the course of this search, to discern the illuminating lights that have emerged during the history of the Christian faith, and thus to recognize Jesus Christ as the Light that illuminates history and helps us find the path towards the future.”

Insufficient willingness to engage in dialogue

The glaring lack of openness on the part of so many members of the University of Rome at that time, the unwillingness to extend any sympathy to the person or the thoughts of the Pope make it clear how indispensable it is for all of those engaged in academic pursuits in every discipline to approach one another with an open mind and a willingness to engage in dialogue. Philosophers and theologians should feel encouraged to promote a new “sensibility to truth” entirely in the spirit of Benedict XVI, both inside and outside of the university.

[Translate to English:] Dr. Thorsten Paprotny iim Portrait vor einem Bücherregal

The author, Dr. Thorsten Paprotny, taught from 1998 to 2010 in the Philosophy Department and from 2010 to 2017 at the Institute of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Hanover. He now works as a freelance publicist and author.