SANTIAGO, Chile — In the august surroundings of Chile’s pontifical Catholic University, Pope Francis on Wednesday night gave one of the smartest addresses of his pontificate, one that gives Catholic educational institutions a clear direction for our times.
As I’ve often pointed out, Francis is, if not gloomy, certainly apocalyptic about these times. He believes contemporary society increasingly faces a life-or-death choice.
He sees the technology-driven forces of globalized postmodernity dissolving the bonds of belonging, sweeping away institutions and turning us into consuming individuals obsessed with gratification and increasingly divorced from cultural and religious roots.
In such a society, as he put it in Santiago, “points of reference that people use to build themselves individually and socially are disappearing,” such that “the new meeting place today is the “cloud, characterized by instability since everything evaporates and thus loses consistency.”
The result of this disappearing public consciousness, under the wave of individualism, makes it hard to build a nation, or indeed any community, and, as the pope sees it, the consequences are stark.
“Without the ‘us’ of a people, of a family and of a nation, but also the ‘us’ of the future, of our children and of tomorrow, without the ‘us’ of a city that transcends ‘me’ and is richer than individual interests, life will be not only increasingly fragmented, but also more conflictual and violent,” Francis said.
The mission of the university, in this context, is to generate what Francis called “educational processes that are transformative, inclusive and which foster coexistence.” That sounds fairly banal, but Francis makes clear that by “processes” he doesn’t mean content, but teaching a new way of reasoning and thinking “in an integrated way” — a forma mentis.
The term he uses for this in Spanish is alfabetización integradora, a new kind of literacy that enables people to think in an integrating way.
He goes on to explain what he means — “how to reflect on what we are feeling and doing; to feel what we are thinking and doing; to do what we are thinking and feeling” — but a clear account of what this will look like is not the speech’s strongest suit. As so often with Francis, it is thrown out as a deep intuition, but left for others to develop.
Ironically, the reason for that reticence is not that he has little to say, but that he has too much. His own doctoral work, which was fed by and, in turn, fed decades of his work on dialectical polarities, offers a systematic method of thinking in ways that allow for the interplay of contrasting ideas and values, creatively integrating them in a higher plane.
What Francis put forward in Santiago was an argument for that kind of thinking, not a systematic way to achieve it.
Yet he grounded that case in theology, arguing that the temptation in any academic setting is to subject creation — namely, what is God-given — to the autonomous designs and desires of knowledge. In other words, the Fall is not the result of knowledge per se, but the divorce of knowledge from its divine roots.
(This, of course, is the argument of Laudato Si’: the “technocratic paradigm” has produced a mindset antagonistic to creation that leads to the instrumentalization, commodification and exploitation of the natural world and fellow creatures).
Every academic setting, Francis said, will contain “the temptation to reduce creation to certain interpretative models that deprive it of the very Mystery that has moved whole generations to seek what is just, good, beautiful and true.”
“Whenever a “professor”, by virtue of his wisdom, becomes a “teacher”, he is then capable of awakening wonderment in our students,” Francis said, adding: “Wonderment at the world and at an entire universe waiting to be discovered!”
(The use of words is interesting, if controversial: Francis here contrasts a ‘professor’ as one who teaches his own schemes with a ‘teacher’ who introduces his or her students to the wonder of the good, beautiful and the true).
Francis had two other points to make in support of this big idea.
The first is the academic equivalent of the ‘evangelized popular culture’ he speaks about in Evangelii Gaudium.
Just as the Church needs to be reconnected with Christ present in the religiosity of ordinary people, here he urges that the university classroom connect with what he calls “the wisdom of the peoples who make up this richly blessed land” – including, of course, its pre-conquest peoples.
This “enriching synergy” between “scientific rigor and popular insight” will help forestall today’s intellectual fissures between reason and action, Francis says, between thinking and feeling and knowing and living, and between profession and service.
The second idea is that the university’s forma mentis should be at the service of “national coexistence,” becoming what he calls “a laboratory for the future of the country” – one that “embodies the life and progress of the people,” and which can “overcome every antagonistic and elitist approach to learning.”
To Anglo-Saxon ears, the idea of a university at the service of a national agenda will sound dubiously authoritarian, the kind of language used by Generals Franco or Perón in the 1950s.
But Francis’s assumption is that the nation-building mission of a university will be a heroic, even prophetic action, in a future in which the state is largely powerless before the forces of global technocracy.
“Prophetic” is precisely the word he uses at the end to describe the role of the Catholic university in the liquid future.
“This prophetic role demanded of us prompts us to seek out ever new spaces for dialogue rather than confrontation, spaces of encounter rather than division, paths of friendly disagreement that allow for respectful differences between persons joined in a sincere effort to advance as a community towards a renewed national coexistence.”
As a slogan, it might take a little tightening. But no one can say the pope hasn’t given Catholic universities a mission.