and modern university
Dr Hollis U Liverpool
News of Pope Benedicts remarks last week concerning
the behaviour of Muslims in the 13th century completely overshadowed
the historic event in Rome whereby the Vatican opened its
rare collection of papers and letters, dating back to 1920,
to historians and researchers.
Such a collection, not many may know, underscores, in a tangible
way, the contribution of the Catholic Church to western civilisation
in general, and to our Caribbean way of life in particular.
I say this because too many of our academicsCatholics
includednever find it their duty to show the debt that
western civilisation owes to the Catholic Church in areas
such as the university system, western and international law,
the sciences (social and natural), art, and the development
and practice of western forms of morality.
Let me deal in this article with the university systemsince
the Vaticans collection must inevitably attract universities.
It is a known fact that the ancient Egyptians were the first
to produce a literature of their nation and thus a library
in the form of clay cylinders, papyrus rolls and other portable
It is a known fact, too, that universities go back to the
Egyptian Mystery System which can be described as the centre
of organised culture and which led to the creation of other
centres of learning, particularly in Greece.
The world knows, too, following the Moorish invasion of Songhay
in 1591, of the University of Sankore in Timbuktu and of it
being the intellectual centre of Africa, with its professors
going on to establish other universities in the Arab world,
including the great University of Baghdad.
But it was out of the medieval world of the 12th century that
the modern university system, with its faculties, courses
of study, examinations and degrees, as well as its distinction
between undergrads and graduates, developed. It is the church,
according to historian Lowrie Daly, with its consistent interest
in the preservation and cultivation of knowledge, that paved
the way for such development (see The Medieval University,
1200-1400. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1961).
The church did so by building and granting papal charters
to universities all over Europe, to the extent that it was
established that only with the official recognition from the
Pope could a university confer degrees on its students. Moreover,
in the Middle Ages, universities that were granted charters
by emperors were recognised only in their particular state.
On the other hand, universities recognised and chartered by
the Pope entitled the bearers of its degrees to be recognised
worldwide. Furthermore, those who graduated with masters
degrees were granted the ius ubique docendi by the church,
allowing them to teach in any part of the world.
Thus Oxford University (Lloyd Best take note) was granted
a papal charter and official worldwide recognition by Pope
Innocent IV in 1254. Accordingly, the modern academic today
ought to understand the important role that the church played
in the dissemination of knowledge.
The churchs contribution to university life extended
to university students being protected by the church, offering
them the privilege of having their court matters heard in
an ecclesiastical court rather than a secular one.
Such privileges meant not only status being granted them,
but swifter and unbiased judgments and a more peaceful atmosphere
Moreover, it became common for universities to bring their
grievances to the Pope, to the extent that Popes Boniface
VIII, Clement V and VI, as well as Gregory IX intervened to
force university authorities to pay professors their due salaries.
It was from the early universities, fostered by the church,
that the levels of learning known as undergraduates, licentiates
and graduates emerged. Such levels were based on the abilities
of students to define and determine a question or case using
With the masters degree, a person was then qualified
to teach at the university. The idea of the application of
logic came from Aristotle, who himself learnt from Egyptian
scholars and borrowed openly from them.
But 12th and 13th century scholars also developed logic texts
of their own, including the text Summulae Logicales which
was written by Pope John the 21st and which became the standard
text for hundreds of years and went through 166 editions by
the 17th century.
The crowning of the churchs contribution to university
life can be seen in the part it played in the area of scholasticism,
which was based on the philosophy of men being able to detect
fallacies and form logically-sound arguments. Scholasticism
committed its practitioners to the application of reason and
authority in pursuance of issues of intellectual interest.
Of course, the church in the Middle Ages and beyond, through
its clerics, produced some of the greatest scholars in the
age of scholasticism.
There was St Anselm (1033-1109) and his Cur Deus Homo
which examined from a rational point of view why it was appropriate
and fitting for God to have become man.
There was Peter Abelard (1079-11420 and his Sic et Non
that, using the Bible and the preaching of the early church
fathers, cited all the apparent contradictions of thought
and teaching of the period.
There was Peter Lombard (1100-1160), whose Sentences became
the central textbook for students of theology for the next
And, of course, there is the greatest of all scholastics,
St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and his Summa Theologiae
that raised and answered thousands of questions in theology
and philosophy from the sacraments to the justification for
war, to vices which can be considered crimes. (Of course,
according to Aquinas, not all vices are crimes.)
Those people who do not believe that man possesses a soul
or who do not believe in the existence of God owe a duty to
themselves to read the wisdom of Thomas Aquinas before they
So important were universities that Pope Innocent IV described
them as rivers of science which water and make fertile
the soil of the universal church, and Pope Alexander,
in the 13th century, called them lanterns shining in
the house of God (see Henri Daniel-Rops, Cathedral and
Crusade, trans. John Warrington (London: JM Dent & Sons,
The framers of the University of T&T as well as the chancellors
of the University of the West Indies should use the opportunity
to send a few scholars to examine and discern knowledge from
the Vaticans collection in Rome, to note and study the
creation of the early university, to understand better the
overall spirit of inquiry that characterised medieval intellectual
life and to ascertain the churchs contribution to western
civilisation. In so doing, we in the Caribbean will have nothing
to lose but our ignorance.