JMC : Modernism / by Cardinal Mercier

A Letter to the University of Madrid on the occasion of its Inauguration.

October 27th, 1909.

GENTLEMEN, -- The date of the inauguration of your Catholic University recalls one of the most delightful moments of my life. It was at the end of October, 1882, when the Sovereign Pontiff, Leo XIII, decided to create in the University of Louvain a Chair of Thomist philosophy. For more than a quarter of a century traditional prejudice oppressed the faculties of Theology and Philosophy of the University. Kant's criticism of pure reason, of which few authors other than those in Belgium and France had made an original study, imposed upon too timid believers and thinkers, who were not in touch with the great mediaeval traditions, a vague feeling of rational weakness.

They mistrusted human reason, and rather than venture on personal research they resigned themselves in desperation to profess with Kant that speculative reason is incapable of proving with certitude the existence of a God, and also the foundation of a superior order of metaphysical, moral and religious truths; and they thought, moreover, to silence their consciences by believing that Christian faith abundantly makes up for the shortcomings of philosophy.

This is the capital error!

Man is a subject in whom reason comes first. Neither faith, that reason has not previously justified, nor an individual or social morality supported exclusively by instinct or feeling, can be validly and firmly imposed upon the human conscience. Sooner or later it will be evident that those who have worked against speculative reason have given pledges to scepticism.

The times have changed, Gentlemen, since 1882, in the sense that Christian revelation, in which the theologians and philosophers of the schools of Bonald, La Mennais, Ventura Ubaghs, Laforet sought refuge, is more and more unknown in the greater number of state Universities. Yet the times are not really changed; for the negative conclusions of the speculations of Kant weigh more heavily than ever upon those who in the most brilliant University centres give themselves to higher culture.

But now that the revelation of Christ has disappeared from the University horizon, the aspirations of the moral conscience, the need of an ideal, the law of joint responsibility between the individual and the community, and the need for action, offer the sole apparent city of refuge that remains indestructible on the summits of thought. Whence comes this demand of generous men whose voices plea throughout Germany and France, the Anglo-Saxon nations and Italy, this demand for "the moral ideal"? And we solemnly assemble to-day, Gentlemen, to substitute for this dream the real God, the God of Truth, in the temple of the Catholic University of Madrid. You understand that morality does not suffice for a being whose ruling quality is reason. And morality itself is but a tributary of truth, and consequently the predominating solicitude of him who is conscious of his rôle must be to accord to reason the first place in his thoughts, his desires, and in the expansion of his activities in the search for truth.

You give, then, a prominent place in your programme -- and in this you are right -- to Jurisprudence, politics, and sociology; but immediately after the place of honour that, as Christians, you reserve to the profouud study of your religion, you accord privileged rank to the study of speculative reason, Estudio superior de filosofia. Thus, Gentlemen, you do not fashion men of sentiment, destined to become to-morrow the prey of dilettantism, lost forces for the progress of civilisation, but you inspire your disciples with the worship of truth for itself, the disinterested worship of objective truth, no matter in what historical, philosophical, or scientific domain she offers herself to the consideration of the thinker.

Seek first the kingdom of God, said our Saviour in the Gospel, and all else will be added thereunto. I tell you also to seek humbly in the footsteps of your divine Master: seek, above all, truth, luminous convictions, the vigour of the intelligence; and the rest, that is morality, strong resolutions, strength of character, and consequently the way of happiness and unselfish devotion, useful to your neighbour and Christian society, will be your honour and your recompense.

I will be with you in my thoughts and in my heart next Saturday, regretting extremely that the absorbing occupations of my pastoral ministry deprive me of the joy and satisfaction that the spectacle of your splendid initiative would have afforded me.

May Providence bless your young Academy! May you, penetrated with sentiments of the responsibilities that you assume to-day to your noble country, to the neighbouring nations that contemplate you with confident admiration, show in the future in spite of the objects that may cumber your path, as much courage as you have to-day given proof of generosity.

Your great Saint Teresa said -- and I remember recalling these words to my audience at the inauguration of a course of philosophy at the University of Louvain -- "In the conduct of an enterprise that conscience counsels or commands, there is only one thing to fear -- that is, fear."

Weigh anchor, Gentlemen, unfurl your sails, take the helm, and under the safeguard of your Christian faith steer with confidence away from the reefs, your eyes ever on the star of eternal truth.


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