The Papacy: A Defender of Academic Freedom?

By Albert de Zutter

Copyright 2012

While Pope Benedict XVI recently called on American Catholic colleges and universities to submit themselves to the “mandate” of local bishops, it is interesting to note that in the time of St. Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the pre-eminent teacher of classical Catholic theology and philosophy, the pope issued a proclamation protecting universities from interference by their local bishops.

Surprising? Perhaps not so surprising as the realization that the concept of academic freedom did not arise out of the period of the Enlightenment, as many might surmise; it arose during medieval times, specifically in the 13th century in the context of universities, all of which were Catholic, and some even established by popes.

In his history of France (Histoire de la France), Pierre Miquel says that the University of Paris, at which Aquinas and his mentor Albert the Great taught, had undergone considerable development during the reign of Louis IX (later to be canonized Saint Louis). Its schools, called faculties, attracted students from all over Europe. “Liberated from the tutelage of bishops, the university was protected by the chancellor from the king’s police,” Miquel writes (all translations are mine).

The university received juridical recognition in 1231, having acquired its independence following a long struggle against the police, and a two-year strike, the author says. “Her charter of independence was established by the pope himself. She (the university) had the responsibility and the right to determine the content, the form of instruction and the method of conferring degrees.”

Miquel goes on to say that both “masters” and students tired of instruction focused narrowly on theology. They wanted to read and comment on the works of Aristotle and the Arab philosopher Averroes. “The church reacted violently, condemned these ungodly books and attempted to retake control of the students,” says Miquel. “Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas, both Dominicans, undertook a commentary on Aristotle. In their reflections they reconciled Greek reason with the Christian faith. Their efforts were well compensated. Students acknowledged them as masters and their prestige in Europe grew immense; never were they more listened to than when they were the victims of attack by the high clergy. The distrust of the traditional hierarchy toward them rendered them credible.”

Writing in Theological Studies (No. 58, 1997), William Hoye, professor of systematic theology in the Catholic Theology Faculty of the University of Munster, Germany, says that “the first known mention of academic freedom in Western history occurs in an official document of a pope.” That pope was Honorius III (1216-1277).

“In 1220 the young University of Bologna turned to the pope for support in a conflict it was waging with the local civic government. Pope Honorius III responded by repeatedly encouraging the university to defend its ‘scholastic freedom’ (libertas scolastica) and to take extreme measures to resist the attempts of the city government to undermine the independence of academic life by requiring students to pledge an oath of allegiance to the city,” Hoye wrote.

Hoye comments that “neither church nor state, nor a constitution, can grant academic freedom . . . the pope justly presupposed its existence and value as being grounded in the very nature of academic life, arising from within and not from without,” and urged students not to allow their “scholastic purity to be marred.” Says Hoye: “Both the idea of the university and the idea of academic freedom can be called gifts of medieval Christianity to the modern world.”

He goes on to say that the right to strike was granted to the University of Paris by Pope Gregory IX in 1231. “In this case, incidentally, the threat came not from the secular arm but from the bishop of Paris, who wanted to have the right to determine who should be allowed to teach at the university (as well as who should be suspended).” By contrast, today’s “mandate” grants those very rights to local bishops.

If, then, academic freedom needs to be guarded against both church and state, as it appears medieval popes and Thomas Aquinas (the “angelic doctor”) himself maintained in the 13th century, how can that be reconciled with today’s concern about doctrinal purity in Catholic colleges and universities? And a layman might also legitimately ask how theology can expand our understanding of the faith if it is limited to what a bishop – even a brilliant bishop, much less one of limited ability – thinks is within the bounds of what he considers to be “orthodoxy.” It would seem that any gains in understanding can only come through exploration and controversy that exceeds the comfort zones of diocesan bishops and Vatican doctrinal watchdogs.

Hoye finds a partial answer in the words of the angelic doctor. Aquinas laid down three rules for the interpretation of Scripture and revelation:

  1. The claim that a revelation text has only one specific meaning must always be avoided.
  2. The meaning one attributes to the text must be a truth in its own right.
  3. The meaning must respect the wording of the text.

In other words, new understandings of authoritative texts, whether in Scripture or revelation (sometimes referred to clumsily as “the deposit of faith”) are always possible (a notion developed in Cardinal Newman’s “The Development of Doctrine”); the new understanding must stand the test of reason and compatibility with the known truth, and it must ring true. In the end, says Hoye, what the human author had in mind in writing the authoritative text “is not decisive; truth is decisive.” I read that to mean that what the original human author — be it Moses, Matthew or Mark — had in mind may only be the first of many insights.

Hoye concludes: “No wonder then that truth becomes an absolute within the university. What better way could there be to ground and motivate the search for truth which is the vital principle of academic life?”

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