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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXIII, No. 1
Eastertide 2008

The Church has an Open Mind
but not an Empty Head

by Dr. Donald DeMarco

While waiting for a prescription to be filled at one of those super drug stores that sells everything from aspirin to aspartame, I wandered into an elaborate Hallowe’en display. A row of ghoulish-looking talking heads caught my attention. I activated the voice box on one of them and listened to its eerie warning: “Don’t let your mind be so open that your brains fall out.” This grim enunciation was punctuated by several seconds of sardonic laughter.

The message is a paraphrase of something that Arthur Hays Sulzberger, publisher of The New York Times from 1935-61, once said: “I believe in an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out.” Sulzberger would be amused to learn that his esteemed vehicle of communication has now shifted from the print medium to talking Hallowe’en heads.

The peculiar experience of receiving this philosophical bromide proffered by a talking head in a drug store — a place better known for dispensing physical bromides — was almost frightening. But it appeared that the disquieting Hallowe’en head was commenting on an even more frightening, as well as pervasive problem in our society, where many seem to have either lost their heads or have had them systematically emptied of moral content.

As a longtime university professor, I might observe that many students pay good money to have their brains subtly re-programmed by large doses of “open-mindedness” — a/k/a “relativism” — dispensed by their professors. Someone once said, “a diplomat is a man who says you have an open mind instead of telling you that you have a hole in the head”. The same could be said of some university professors.

A case in point is a recent incident involving the pope and higher education. In January, Pope Benedict XVI was scheduled to speak at La Sapienza, a famous Roman science university, founded by Pope Boniface VIII in 1303. Some faculty and students responded by strongly protesting the Holy Father’s visit. Approximately 100 students and some teachers staged a protest at the university’s rector’s offices. In addition, students threatened to drown out the pope’s words by blaring rock music over loudspeakers.

As a consequence, the pope cancelled his appearance at La Sapienza. The text of his address, however, was made available over the Internet (and it appears in this issue of Voices.) People could then read what the pontiff had to say, and understand his eagerness to encourage dialogue between faith and science.

Protesters, according to some reports, found a single line from a 1990 lecture by then - Cardinal Ratzinger to be offensive. In this lecture, given at La Sapienza, the cardinal had quoted philosopher Paul Feyerabend, who said that the trial of Galileo was “rational and just” — although Cardinal Ratzinger called these words “drastic”. Furthermore, Cardinal Ratzinger, in the well known Ratzinger Report (1985), had written: “The great Galileo said that God wrote the book of nature in the form of mathematical language. He was convinced that God gave us two books: that of Sacred Scripture, and that of nature. And the language of nature — this was his conviction — is mathematics, which is therefore a language of God, the Creator.”

Yet, Andrea Sterbini, a computer-science professor and one of 67 faculty members at La Sapienza who protested the pope’s visit, stated: “I think the pope’s visit is not a good thing because science doesn’t need religion. The university is open to every form of thought but religion isn’t.”

This comment suggests that Sterbini himself is not even open to science. If he and other open-minded academics of his ilk were truly open-minded, they might have been impressed by the many distinguished historians of science who have meticulously traced the rise of modern science from Christian roots. To cite but one example, in his classic study, Science in the Modern World, renowned 20th-century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, though not himself religious, observed that “the faith in the possibility of science, generated antecedently to the development of modern scientific theory, is an unconscious derivation from medieval theology.”

Canadian journalist David Warren (who possesses that increasingly rare combination of an open and a functioning mind) supported Benedict XVI in an article titled “The closed minds of today’s intellectuals” (The Ottawa Citizen, January 19, 2008). He took strong exception to Sterbini’s comments. “In those two sentences”, Warren writes, “my reader may see exposed the grounding of every politically correct proposition in the postmodern, so-called liberal mind. The speaker assumes there is an official ‘open-minded’ position that must be protected by law or force. He then insists on banning any deviation from this official ‘open-minded’ position.”

Giorgio Israel, a Jewish mathematician at La Sapienza, was equally critical of the Protesters. In an interview with L’Osservatore Romano, he complained that the creed of openness to other viewpoints has been suspended toward the pope. He denounced the protest as “part of the secularist culture that has no argument, so it demonizes, it does not argue as a real secular culture, but creates monsters.” (The interview was reported by Catholic News Agency, January 17.)

Had the pope presented his address, his audience at La Sapienza would have heard him say that “In its freedom from political and ecclesiastical authorities, the university finds its particular function.” But that function, he went on to explain, is more than the mere acquisition of knowledge. For, as Augustine has pointed out, scientia (knowledge) alone becomes tristitia (sadness). The university should be open not only to knowledge of the truth, but also to the good that truth contains.

Finally, he would have humbly exhorted his listeners to be open to all the riches that truth can introduce to them: “What does the pope have to do with, or to say to the university? Surely he must not attempt to impose the faith on others in an authoritarian way since it can only be bestowed in freedom. Beyond his office as Shepherd of the Church, and on the basis of the intrinsic nature of his office, there is his duty to keep the sensitivity to truth alive; to continually invite reason to seek out the true, the good, God, and on this path, to urge it to glimpse the helpful lights that shine forth in the history of the Christian faith, and in this way to perceive Jesus Christ as the Light that illuminates history and helps us to find the way to the future.”

The Church has always been open to knowledge, whether it be scientific, poetic, philosophical or theological. The Catholic religion is most certainly not an enemy of science. We have less to fear from religion than from scientism, which is the hardening of science into a false religion. Perhaps those who refused to listen to what the pope had intended to say because they wanted to keep their minds open need to realize how closed their minds really are. The validity of the thesis behind Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, namely, that the so-called “liberal open mind” is really closed continues to be reaffirmed and, clearly, this phenomenon is not limited to Americans.

I fancy that an English physicist by the name of William Henry Bragg would have been delighted, if he had the opportunity, to attend the pope’s address. Professor Bragg, who had the distinction of sharing a Nobel Prize in physics with his son, William Lawrence Bragg, in 1915, once remarked that “religion and science are indeed opposed to each other, but as the thumb and forefinger are opposed, so together they can grasp.”

Then, again, La Sapienza academics might have objected even to his appearance.

Donald DeMarco is Professor Emeritus of St. Jerome’s University (Canada) and adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College & Seminary (Connecticut) and Mater Ecclesiae College (Rhode Island).

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