Friday 29th September, 2006



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Church and modern university

By Dr Hollis U Liverpool

News of Pope Benedict’s 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 academics—Catholics included—never 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 system—since the Vatican’s 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 materials.

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 master’s 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 church’s 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 of study.

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 sound logic.

With the master’s 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 church’s 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 five centuries.

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 die.

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, 1957), 311).

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 Vatican’s 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 church’s contribution to western civilisation. In so doing, we in the Caribbean will have nothing to lose but our ignorance.




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