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Benedict XVI's Commitment to Faith and Reason in Universities

Timothy O'Donnell on New Pope's Mission in Academia

FRONT ROYAL, Virginia, MAY 17, 2005 (Zenit) - Our new Holy Father will continue the good work initiated by Pope John Paul II in his apostolic constitutions "Sapienta Christiana" and "Ex Corde Ecclesiae."

So says Timothy O'Donnell, president of Christendom College, whose faculty members take an oath of fidelity to the magisterium every year.

O'Donnell shared with us why he thinks that Pope Benedict XVI will carry on his predecessor's legacy by stressing the synthesis of faith and reason in the Catholic intellectual tradition.

Q: How is Christendom College acquainted with the newly elected Pope Benedict XVI?

O'Donnell: I first met Cardinal Ratzinger in 1996 during a trip to Rome. I was able to meet with him at the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and introduce him to the work of Christendom College. He was a very gracious man and showed a keen interest in the work of Christendom.

I told him that every year the entire faculty at our liberal arts college voluntarily takes the oath of fidelity to the magisterium of the Catholic Church in the presence of our bishop. Cardinal Ratzinger was moved by this and expressed his gratitude and admiration for our work.

I told him that this takes place each year at our opening Mass as a way of signifying to our entire student body that there can be no real conflict between faith and reason, nor is there to be found any limitation on academic freedom through joyfully embracing the teaching of the Church.

He also expressed to me at that time his delight that Christendom College prided itself not only on its academic excellence but also on its fidelity to the magisterium of the Catholic Church.

It is because of this and Christendom's strong support from the late Jan Cardinal Schotte, Secretary General for the Synod of Bishops, that Cardinal Ratzinger graciously agreed to become the honorary chairman of our 25th anniversary dinner committee in 2002.

On several other occasions he has also welcomed groups of Christendom students and pilgrims to the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and to his early morning Masses in Vatican City.

Q: What was your impression of him as an intellectual?

O'Donnell: It was clear from our conversation that Cardinal Ratzinger is a man of refined intellect, who is deeply sensitive to the trends of contemporary thought. He sees clearly the dangers of a brutal secularism with its accompanying moral relativism, which would strip human life of its true meaning and dignity.

I found myself impressed not only by the clarity of his thought, but also by his gentleness and kindness, which was quite contrary to the unfair portrayal given to him in by some the media at that time.

Q: Benedict XVI was a university professor who understands the workings of academia. How do you think this will impact his pontificate?

O'Donnell: I believe that Pope Benedict XVI's experience as a university professor will have a great impact on his pontificate, perhaps very similar to the impact that John Paul II's university experience had on his pontificate.

I think that our current Holy Father will continue the good work initiated by Pope John Paul II in his apostolic constitutions "Sapienta Christiana" and "Ex Corde Ecclesiae."

I think he will find it particularly important to continue to speak to the vital role that must be played by Catholic institutions of higher learning in an effort to once again re-engage the culture and communicate effectively to the world the great synthesis of the Catholic intellectual tradition, which unites both faith and reason and recognizes in both of them a common source in Almighty God.

This can only be achieved if the university maintains a strong Catholic identity with a special commitment to the Gospel as it is communicated through the magisterium.

Q: How do you expect the new pope to deal with implementation of "Ex Corde Ecclesiae," the document that required verification of a theologian's fidelity to the magisterium?

O'Donnell: I believe that "Ex Corde Ecclesiae" will be very important to Pope Benedict. Evidence of this can be seen in a beautiful document that his Congregation put out entitled, "On the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian."

This lucid document should go a long way to helping theologians who are seeking the truth with sincerity to recognize that there is a special ecclesial dimension to their mission within Catholic education that does require fidelity to the deposit of faith as it is communicated by the Church, without which they are not really doing Catholic theology at all.

They may be performing an important task in the field of religious studies but that, however, deals primarily with what man believes about God rather than the proper subject of theological study that has for its object God and his loving revelation to man.

"Ex Corde Ecclesiae" insists upon the special bond that should exist between the Catholic theologian and the Church in the service of truth. This beautiful and vital ecclesial dimension of the work of the Catholic theologian needs to be embraced joyfully in service to the Church and all humanity.

The apostolic constitution speaks of the Catholic university as being "consecrated" in a special way to the search for and acquisition of truth. It must therefore be open to everything relating to God, man and the created order. The Catholic theologian has a crucial role to play in this essential mission.

As the Second Vatican Council taught in "Dei Verbum," sacred Scripture, sacred Tradition and the magisterium are like three pillars that are so interconnected "that one can't really stand without the others." They should be used and joyfully accepted by the theologian in his effort to help explicate the Faith in service to the Church and a world that hungers for the saving truth of Christ.

Q: A corollary: Do scholars have anything to fear under Benedict XVI's papacy?

O'Donnell: The fact that Pope Benedict XVI is a man of great intellect and scholarly ability should reassure scholars everywhere that they have nothing to fear.

Sadly, often times this fear stems from a belief that they will loose their "freedom." As the Pope beautifully stated in his opening homily, "this yoke of Christ... does not weigh down on us, oppressing us and taking away our freedom."

Pope Benedict, like all true academicians, is totally committed to the search for and acquisition of truth. It must be remembered that truth is the object of the intellect. Once truth has been discovered there is a special obligation to submit to the truth when it is recognized. This is what the human heart and mind were made for by the God who loves us.

We must remember that, contrary to popular opinion, an open mind is not in itself a perfection. The mind is made for truth. The purpose of scholarly endeavor is the acquisition and comprehension of truth.

To that end, scholars, who share this love for the pursuit and acquisition of truth, should rejoice that a man of such intellect, learning and deep faith has been elevated to the papal throne.

I believe his pontificate will be a grace for our broken, suffering world. The election of Pope Benedict should be a source of joy and hope for all those who love the Church, love the Faith and are committed to "communicating the whole truth about man," which is revealed most fully in Jesus Christ.

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Keywords

Pope, Benedict, Universities, O'Donnell, School, Faith, Reason

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