The moral dimension of study and research


On April 1, 1980, Pope John Paul II delivered the following address to some six thousand university students from forty-three countries, participants in the "UNIV '80" international congress.

Beloved sons,

Welcome to Rome in these days of Holy Week, during which you have wished to celebrate once more your congress on the situation of the university in the world. I greet you and thank you for your visit and for the meaning it takes on in the heart of each of you.

With this initiative of yours, you continue to bring into focus the reality, the problems and ideals of the university world, in which the consciences of so many young people, who are so dear to me, are formed -or can be warped. I know that, in your university commitment, you wish to serve man, with an industrious and constructive effort; therefore, you study and meditate to offer ideas and proposals that will open ever new spaces of hope in the difficult situation through which the university is passing at this end of the century.

Particular problem

1. This congress of yours in Rome has been preceded by a whole year of work. You have made surveys in over four hundred universities of the five continents and you have carried out many thorough discussions and meetings at the local level. In this way you have succeeded in distinguishing lights and shadows in the world panorama of university life more and more clearly.

Of the problems raised by this sector, I would like to dwell in particular on one: that of the fragmentation of university culture, and its repercussions on human formation. We are living at a time when scientific progress is accelerated in all areas. This expansion of knowledge is manifested today in the accumulation of an unimaginable quantity of data. It is not only the scientific and experimental disciplines that are involved in this fragmentation of knowledge, but also the humanistic ones, philosophical as well as historical, juridical, linguistic, etc. Man cannot and must not halt these advances of scientific progress, since he is urged by God Himself to subdue the world (cf. Gn. 1:28) with his own work. In this task, however, he must not forget the necessity of integrating his commitment of study and research in a wider framework of reference; otherwise, carrying out his scientific and cultural studies, he will run the risk of losing the very notion of his own being, the full and complete meaning of his own existence, and consequently he will act in lacerating disagreement with his own peculiar identity.

Investigating self

2. In fact, when man loses sight of the interior unity of his being, he runs the risk of losing himself, even if at the same time he can cling to many partial certainties about the world or marginal aspects of human reality. For these reasons, we must stress that every member of a university, whether teacher or student, needs urgently to give space, within himself, to the investigation about himself, about his own concrete ontological status; he needs to reflect on the transcendent destiny, engraved in him as God's creature. It is here, in this knowledge, that the thread is found which gives harmonious unity to man's whole activity.

I call upon you, therefore, to discover, in the complete and grandiose interior unity of man, the criterion by which scientific activity and study must be inspired, in order to be able to proceed in harmony with the deep reality of the person, and therefore in the service of the whole man and of all men. Scientific commitment is not an activity that concerns only the intellectual sphere. It involves the whole man. The latter, in fact, throws himself with all his strength into the pursuit of truth, precisely because truth appears to him as a good. There exists, therefore, an inseparable correspondence between truth and good. This means that the whole of human operation possesses a moral dimension. In other words: in whatever we do -even our studies- we feel deep in our hearts a need of fullness and unity.

In order that science should not be presented as an end in itself, as an exclusively intellectual task, objectively and subjectively alien to the moral sphere, the Council recalled that "the moral order touches man in his total nature" (Inter mirifica, no. 6). In the last analysis -and each of us knows this by experience- man either seeks himself, his own affirmation, personal utility, as the ultimate purpose of his existence, or he turns to God, the supreme Good and real ultimate Purpose, the only one able to unify, by subordinating them and directing to Himself, the many purposes that constitute the object of our aspirations and our work at different times. Science and culture, therefore, take on a full, consistent and unified meaning, if they are ordained to reaching man's ultimate purpose, which is the glory of God.

To seek the truth and set out to attain the Supreme Good: this is the key to an intellectual commitment, which overcomes the risk of allowing the fragmentation of knowledge to divide the person interiorly, splitting up his life into a multitude of sectors independent of one another and, as a whole, indifferent to man's duty and destiny.

Christ's guidance

3. The connection between intelligence and will seems explicit above all in the act of conscience, that is, in the act in which each one evaluates the reason of good or evil inherent in a concrete action. To form one's own conscience appears, in this way, as a duty not to be postponed. To form one's conscience means discovering more and more clearly the light that starts man on the way to reaching in his own conduct the true fullness of his humanity. It is only by obeying the divine law that man realizes himself fully as man: "Man has in his heart" -I am again quoting the Council- "a law written by God. To obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged" (Gaudium et spes, no. 16).

If the history of mankind, right from its first steps, is marked by the dramatic weakening produced by sin, it is also, however, and above all, the history of divine Love. The latter comes to us and, through the sacrifice of Christ, man's Redeemer, forgives our transgressions, illuminates consciences and reintegrates the capacity of will to aim at good. Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life (cf. Jn. 14:6); Christ guides every man, enlightens him, and vivifies him. Only with the grace of Christ, with His light and His strength can man take his place at the supernatural level that belongs to him as a son of God. Furthermore, only with this grace does it become possible for him to realize also all the good proportionate to his human nature itself.

Formation of conscience

4. Beloved in Christ, in your commitment for man's dignity, for the defense of the interior unity of those who operate on different fronts of knowledge, the formation of consciences occupies, therefore, a pre-eminent place. This formation is opposed by religious ignorance and, especially, by sin, which spread in man's conscience a darkness that prevents him from discerning the light offered to him by God (cf. Saint Augustine, In Io. Ev., Tr. I, 10. Well, precisely because our weakness is obvious, Christ the Redeemer has come towards us as a Doctor who heals. Approach Him with living faith, receiving the sacraments frequently, and you will experience within yourself the power and light of the blood which was shed for us on the cross. Say to Him trustfully, like the blind man in the Gospel: Domine, ut videam!i (Lk. 18:41) "Lord, let me receive my sight," and you will discover the deep meaning of what you are and of everything that you do.

These reflections bring us to the feet of a unique chair which, especially during these days of Holy Week, Christ invites us to approach in order to fill ourselves with a new wisdom: the chair of the cross, the lessons of which I already encouraged you last year to listen to. Let us stop in front of the Son of God, who dies to free us from our sins and restore life to us. From the cross of Christ a light of extraordinary clarity passes into men's intelligence. We are given the wisdom of God, and the highest meaning of our existence is manifested to us, since He who hangs from this tree is "the true light that enlightens every man" (Jn. 1:9). And our will receives from the cross new joy and strength, which enable us to walk "speaking the truth in love" (Eph. 4:15).

The living book

The cross is the living book from which we learn definitively who we are and how we must act. This book is always open in front of us. Read, reflect, enjoy this new wisdom. Make it your own, and you will walk also along the paths of knowledge, culture and university life, spreading light in a service of love, worthy of children of God.

And look also to the Blessed Virgin, standing by the cross of Jesus (Jn. 19.25), where she is given to us as our mother: she is our hope, the seat of true Wisdom.

And may the Lord accompany you every day, sustain your witness and make your work fruitful.

On my part, I willingly grant you the apostolic blessing, which propitiates abundant heavenly favors; and I invite you to extend it to your friends and to all your dear ones.


English translation by L'Osservatore Romano. Web publishing, with permission, by the Newman Center at California Institute of Technology

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