Religion offers a guiding hand in a moral maze

October 22, 1999

The pope last month called for a frank open dialogue between believers and the university world. Below, Cardinal Pio Laghi says Catholic lecturers must play a central role in combating student moral apathy

Universities are increasingly expected to play a functional role preparing the professionals of the future and contributing to solving the problems of society. This is reflected in the university laws adopted by several countries.

But this is only a partial response to society's needs and, while it is certainly part of their purpose, it is not the sum total of a university. This emphasis has led the university gradually to lose sight of one of its essential purposes: to offer an education that encompasses the entire human person.

There has been a lessening of interest in the humanities in favour of scientific and technological studies - a tendency to mould Homo faber and almost forget the goal of casting Homo sapiens.

The church has a duty to show that she is the friend of knowledge and of science. Catholic university lecturers must be helped to bring about a synthesis between their faith and the learning they advance and teach. It sometimes seems that they live their faith exclusively outside the university, almost as if they think that the wisdom they teach is cut off from the faith they live.

While progress in science and in technology certainly contributes to societal, economic and industrial growth, there are questions as to its legitimate use. Philosophical reflection must assist scientific inquiry, to ensure that new discoveries are used for the genuine good of individuals and of society. Such reflections are indispensable to a convergence of the different branches of knowledge, showing the need for a synthesis of human thought that, while respecting the integrity of each discipline, leads to "wisdom".

Today's youth lacks the critical judgement needed for analysis of the different currents of modern thought, the lifestyles and the fashions promoted by the media, and the mountain of information emerging from the communications revolution. As a result, young people sometimes lack the personal convictions or desire to seek objective truth but allow themselves to be easily influenced by current behaviour.

More seriously, they come to the view that there are no objective values or truths, but only subjective interpretations. Metaphysics, morals and mankind's existential questions all become meaningless. Sometimes we face an ideological apathy that broadens into nihilism or cynicism, even if these are not made explicit.

University pastoral care must take these factors into consideration and interpret them in the light of rapid social, political, scientific and technological change and globalisation.

The church must look again with honesty at the methods of pastoral care, its organisation and whether or not full account is taken of different cultural and social contexts, and their faith to the Gospel message. Pastoral care needs to be able to make its presence felt discreetly within human knowledge and the various sciences, and to provoke fundamental questions such as the nature of humanity, its transcendent goals and the purpose of life, and encourage the correct solution.

It must have at its base the belief that the primary form of evangelisation is witness. Pope Paul VI's observation - "contemporary man listens more readily to witnesses than teachers, or if he listens to teachers it is because they are witnesses" - is as valid for those who do pastoral work in universities.

The document, The Presence of the Church in the University and in University Culture, published in 1994 by the Congregation for Catholic Education and by the Pontifical Councils for the Laity and for Culture stirred up much interest in university pastoral care. It answered a recognised need, but we still have much to do, given the rapid changes and the fact we cannot always count on there being persons prepared and qualified enough for such a complex and difficult field.

The Declaration of Vatican II, Granissumum educationis, em-phasised that "the future of society and of the church herself is closely bound up with the development of young people who engage in higher studies".

Young people must receive a Christian formation appropriate to their education, with an approach that is in tune with the demands of their way of thinking. First, though, we must give them ideals about the Christian life. Young people are won over by presenting them with genuine, difficult ideals.

It is possible also to channel them by indulging and giving in to them, but this is a superficial fascination. Likewise, they must be convinced that human reason is able to reach truth and can open itself to truth in its totality - in other words, to revealed truth.See Student Matters, pages i-viii.

Cardinal Pio Laghi is prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education, Vatican City.

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