Academic Convocation for the Conferral of Honorary Degrees

Notre Dame Rome Center

January 27, 2014

Trustees, distinguished members of the Roman Curia, members of the Focolare movement, university administrators, faculty, staff, students and all our guests.  We are delighted to be here in Rome for this convocation and to give honorary degrees to two admirable servants of Christ and his Church, Cardinal Tauran and Maria Voce.  We take inspiration from the two of you, and we will pray for your and your work.

In the words of Pope John Paul II’s Ex corde ecclesiae, Catholic universities are “born from the heart of the Church”.  For over eight hundred years they have been institutional witnesses to the Church’s profound confidence in the harmony of faith and reason.  The University of Notre Dame is proud to stand in that tradition.

As a Catholic university, Notre Dame is shaped by the wondrous mystery of the incarnation of Jesus Christ, his teaching of the new commandment of love, his redemptive death and his resurrection.  Equally important, though, is the doctrine of creation.  This is the belief that the world was created out of nothing by God, and that human beings were made in God’s image and likeness.  Part of the doctrine of creation is the God made an intelligible world—a world that could be understood—and that he gave human beings intellects that, through study and inquiry, could gain knowledge of that world.  As the Psalmist says:  

When I behold the heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars which you have set in place—
What is man that you should be mindful of him,
or the son of man that you should care for him?
You have made him little less than the angels,
And crowned him with glory and honor . . .
 (Psalm 8, NAB)

A prominent part of the glory and honor God has given us is the ability to understand His creation.

The doctrine of creation is not a specifically Christian doctrine, but is shared with other great religious traditions, such as Judaism and Islam.  And it is extremely important for a university.  For the belief in a world created and made intelligible by God, and the belief that God has given humans intellects capable of understanding that world, are critical for a university whose mission is to seek knowledge and understanding of the world.

A recently retired professor at Notre Dame, Alvin Platinga, has recently published a book on science and religious faith.  He argues that despite superficial conflicts between science and religion, there is in fact a deep concord.  For scientific inquiry only makes sense on the assumption that the world is susceptible to being understood, and that our minds are such that they have the capacity to understand it through cooperative inquiry.  The doctrine of creation, shared by the great religions, undergirds that assumption. 

It is not as clear that an atheistic picture of the world provides equally strong support for this assumption.  Plantinga quotes another philosopher, Friederich Nietzsche who, as you may know, was no friend of religion and religious faith.  Yet Nietzsche wrote: “Only if we assume a God who is morally our like can “truth” and the search for truth be at all something meaningful and promising of success.  This God left aside, the question is permitted whether being deceived is not one of the conditions of life.”  Even Nietsche, then, the philosopher who first proclaimed, “God is dead”, acknowledged the connection between a belief in God, on one hand, and a robust confidence in the power of human reason to understand the world, on the other.

We often think that the job of reason is to show that faith is reasonable—and it is.  This is why we have rational proofs for God’s existence and respond on the basis of rational arguments against objections to faith.  Yet Plantinga is suggesting—and I agree—that faith in turn gives us an important basis for confidence in human reason.  It provides support for the assumption that humans, engaged in cooperative inquiry, can discover profound and often hidden truths about the universe. 

Perhaps then that is the deeper reason why universities were “born from the heart of the Church”—why they arose in the thoroughly Catholic culture of faith in Europe in the Middle Ages.  Because of the shared conviction that God made humans in his image and likeness and gave us minds that could understand the world, people believed that sustained, cooperative inquiry by dedicated scholars would be fruitful.  These beliefs gave rise to the creation of universities, institutions dedicated to inquiry into and teaching of the highest truths about the world.

Notre Dame proudly continues the great tradition of Catholic universities, and strives to be a living institutional witness to the harmony of faith and reason.  Yet it will only be such a witness if its physicists and philosophers, its economists and engineers, and all its scholars engage in inquiries and make discoveries that are at the very highest level.  If our scholarly work is inferior to our secular peers, we will fail to witness to our confidence in the intelligibility of God’s world, and to our commitment to using the gifts God has given us to understanding it.

Thus at Notre Dame we have built centers of research excellence in astrophysics, nano-technology, economics and business, philosophy and history.  We are leaders in classical and sacred architecture, sacred music and medieval studies.  And at the intellectual heart of Notre Dame is a Department of Theology of truly international renown in which theology is the study of the love of God incarnate in Jesus Christ.

As Ex corde ecclesiae recognizes, a university must foster and defend academic freedom that enables creative inquiry and wide-ranging uninhibited discussion.  Many of the most revolutionary discoveries in human history were initially met with skepticism and opposition, and it was only with time and continued discussion that their truth came to be understood and accepted. Notre Dame, like other great universities, is committed to providing ensuring for its scholars the academic freedom that is necessary for great discoveries to be made, discussed, investigated and verified.  We do this because we are confident in the harmony of faith and reason and so believe that truth must never fear truth.

A Catholic university not only has the mission of discovering truth, but also of applying those discoveries in the service of humankind.  We are currently considering the major undertaking of creating a new School of Global Affairs devoted to research at the nexus of economic development, peacebuilding, human rights, global health, democratization and human security.  These are areas other universities study, but Notre Dame will undertake this effort within the framework of integral human development articulated by Pope Paul VI in Populorum Progressio in 1967 and developed in the teachings of successive Popes.  This is a development that focuses on the entire human person in his spiritual, moral, social and cultural dimensions, as well as the economic and political.  It will be distinctive in specializing in the role of religion and the ethics of development.

This, then, is the mission of Notre Dame: to provide witness to the Gospel by being a truly great, truly Catholic university.  We ask for your prayers.

We are honored today to count among our honorary alumni two individuals, Cardinal Tauran and Maria Voce, whose lives have given such powerful witnesses to Christ.

Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C.
President, University of Notre Dame