Thursday 1 October 2009

Pope Benedict in the Czech Republic

I think I agree with Auntie Joanna - Pope Benedict has been saying some very good things during his visit to the Czech Republic, and it has all rather been ignored by the media, the media in this case including Catholic blogs.

As you will have realised, this blog has a bit of an excuse - it has been rather excited by the visit of the relics of St Therese (well, OK, rather obessessed by it). So this is an attempt to make amends.

As is usual, Blog-by-the-Sea has a summary of coverage with useful links. The website of the Holy See has a page from which you can link to the texts of all the Pope's addresses during the visit. I am choosing to comment on the Pope's address during his meeting with the academic community in Prague.

In political, cultural and educational discourse in this country (the UK), there is a contradictory and inconsistent reference to reason. On the one hand, religious beliefs are attacked as being "unscientific" and "irrational"; while on the other, the ideas used to promote homosexual/lesbian/transgender rights by those who attack religion for its resistance on these matters, demand a profoundly unscientific attitude to the human body. There is no really consistent idea of the appropriate use of reason - and so our school system can have as its mantra "raising standards", whatever that might mean; and individual schools develop mission statements or strap-lines that make no reference to truth or wisdom. Not that these things are usually bad in themselves - it's just that they don't define what one might call reason or education. They could equally apply to Strictly Come Dancing, for example.

Firstly, an extract from Pope Benedict's address that talks about the relation of reason to a historical tradition, something to which Pope Benedict referred more fully in the address that he prepared for La Sapienza, but was in the event not able to deliver:

From the time of Plato, education has been not merely the accumulation of knowledge or skills, but paideia, human formation in the treasures of an intellectual tradition directed to a virtuous life. While the great universities springing up throughout Europe during the middle ages aimed with confidence at the ideal of a synthesis of all knowledge, it was always in the service of an authentic humanitas, the perfection of the individual within the unity of a well-ordered society. And likewise today: once young people’s understanding of the fullness and unity of truth has been awakened, they relish the discovery that the question of what they can know opens up the vast adventure of how they ought to be and what they ought to do.
Secondly, an extract which discusses the situation of an education that has abandoned consideration of reason and truth:

The idea of an integrated education, based on the unity of knowledge grounded in truth, must be regained. It serves to counteract the tendency, so evident in contemporary society, towards a fragmentation of knowledge. With the massive growth in information and technology there comes the temptation to detach reason from the pursuit of truth. Sundered from the fundamental human orientation towards truth, however, reason begins to lose direction: it withers, either under the guise of modesty, resting content with the merely partial or provisional, or under the guise of certainty, insisting on capitulation to the demands of those who indiscriminately give equal value to practically everything. The relativism that ensues provides a dense camouflage behind which new threats to the autonomy of academic institutions can lurk. While the period of interference from political totalitarianism has passed, is it not the case that frequently, across the globe, the exercise of reason and academic research are – subtly and not so subtly – constrained to bow to the pressures of ideological interest groups and the lure of short-term utilitarian or pragmatic goals? What will happen if our culture builds itself only on fashionable arguments, with little reference to a genuine historical intellectual tradition, or on the viewpoints that are most vociferously promoted and most heavily funded? What will happen if in its anxiety to preserve a radical secularism, it detaches itself from its life-giving roots? Our societies will not become more reasonable or tolerant or adaptable but rather more brittle and less inclusive, and they will increasingly struggle to recognize what is true, noble and good.
It is not by any means the first time that Pope Benedict has spoken in these terms about the role of education, be it in the school or the university. And yet, His Holiness' thinking on this question is totally neglected in public debate on education in our country. Should we be surprised?

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