Only Hard Questions Get Satisfying Answers: Pope Benedict XVI on the University

What’s the difference between a secular university enforcing “woke” ideology and a Catholic university guaranteeing Catholic fidelity?

I shared 10 quotes by Pope Benedict that changed my life. One issue was too complicated for that run-down, though it affected me more than anything else: Pope Benedict XVI’s answer to the question of academic freedom and Catholic higher education.

A number of us at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, have been talking about how best to do two things at once: On the one hand, to uphold the Catholic faith and its definitive expression by the magisterium; and on the other, to teach students to fearlessly ask the hardest questions of the faith that they have.

This is a challenge not just for Catholic colleges, but for secular universities also. Secular universities have made headlines for caving to political correctness so fully that often, ideas are banned because they are “offensive” to the existing worldview of students.

I discovered my answer to this question when I learned how Josef Ratzinger, when the future Pope Benedict XVI was a college student, discovered the power of hard questions — and the even greater power of true answers.

Ratzinger the Student

As author Brennan Pursell tells the tale in Benedict of Bavaria:

“Gottlieb Söhngen, a professor of fundamental theology … provided a formative influence on the young scholar. Ratzinger described Söhngen as a ‘radical and critical questioner.’ For him no subject was untouchable, nothing taboo, and at the same time he was a man deeply committed to his Catholic faith.”

The key to Sōhngen’s approach is that “His questioning was a sign not of professional arrogance or irreverence, but of the boldness of his belief. According to him, no Catholic should fear any question.”

Ratzinger described Sōhngen in Milestones, Memoirs 1927-1977.  “What particularly impressed me about him was that he was never satisfied in theology with the sort of positivism that could usually be detected in other subjects. Rather, he always asked the question concerning the truth of the matter and hence the question concerning the immediate reality of what is believed.”

If God is real and the Catholic faith is true, then the faith ought to be able to stand up to rigorous examination and shouldn’t demand that we accept its assumptions thoughtlessly.

The Answers

But Benedict insists on the second step of this process: Questions are not ends in themselves — they are means of finding answers.

Certainly, he said: “Only if we ask, and if with our questions we are radical, as radical as theology must be radical over and above any specialization, can we hope to obtain answers to these fundamental questions which concern us all.”

But then: “But I would add that for theology, in addition to the courage to ask, we also need the humility to listen to the answers that the Christian faith gives us; the humility to perceive in these answers their reasonableness and thus to make them newly accessible to our time and to ourselves.”

Matthew Ramage, in his book The Experiment of Faith, writes about how Ratzinger/Benedict’s approach transformed his personal approach to theology.

“Over the years I have entertained countless questions and concerns about the Christian faith, to some of which I feel like I have arrived at a relatively satisfactory response, others not. Like so many others I have had to ask: Does God exist, or is the divine merely our own projection? Is Jesus God in the flesh, or is his story really just ancient myth at its best? Are Christian moral teachings true to our biology and psychology, or are they relics of a human past out of which we are now rightly evolving?”

The book describes how Benedict gave him confidence to ask the questions, and light to find the answers.

But if asking questioning is so great, why put any limits on questions at all?

Benedictine College philosopher Andrew Jaeger said that hard questions have to have adequate answerers.

“Education without honest-to-God questions, questions which are the expression of one’s own known ignorance, is mere ideology. One of the challenges of education — as every sinner in a confession line knows — is that it takes lots of practice to figure out how to best examine one’s life. One thing that is necessary for education — the leaving of Plato’s cave — is an obedience to a tradition, because an education that isn’t faithful to a tradition is not education at all. Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor have written on this extensively.”

His fellow Benedictine College philosopher Jamie Spiering said that she sees her task as helping students both ask questions and accept answers.

“I’d like our students to learn to evaluate their lives; to think a little more about things they have always taken for granted, or things that they have never questioned before,” she said. “Like St. Paul says: ‘Test all things, hold fast to what is good.’ That’s what I want them to do with the world of ideas.”

I was personally first attracted to Benedictine College because of words Dean of the College Dr. Kimberly Shankman in the National Catholic Register. The paper was asking colleges if they publicly required the mandatum — the bishop’s stamp of approval — of their theology faculty.

Shankman said Benedictine College did, and that she didn’t consider it any more of an infringement on academic freedom as any of the many accreditation processes a university undergoes.

“The social science department is in the process of complying its teaching standards to be certified by the Kansas State Department of Education,” Shankman said in 2003. “That process is far more complicated, intrusive and overbearing than the mandatum. It’s mind-boggling how much more difficult that process is, and yet no one talks about the outside influence or the lack of academic freedom.”

Benedict said something similar in his address to American Catholic university presidents in 2008.

“In regard to faculty members at Catholic colleges universities, I wish to reaffirm the great value of academic freedom. In virtue of this freedom you are called to search for the truth wherever careful analysis of evidence leads you,” he said.

At the same time, just as biology departments conform to standards of biological truths, “Teachers and administrators, whether in universities or schools, have the duty and privilege to ensure that students receive instruction in Catholic doctrine and practice.”

“With confidence,” he said “Christian educators can liberate the young from the limits of positivism and awaken receptivity to the truth, to God and his goodness.”

Image: Wiki-media.

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. His book What Pope Francis Really Said is now available on Audible. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, Hoopes served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.