01-10-2008 - Traces, n. 9

The Pope in France

At the Heart of Culture
From September 12th to 15th, the Pope was in France–first in Paris and then in Lourdes. Laurent Lafforgue was one of the 700 intellectuals who met him at the Collège des Bernardins.  Today, he explains why this visit was “a grace”

by Silvio Guerra

“A grace.” Laurent Lafforgue, the great mathematician (2002 winner of the Fields Medal, the equivalent in mathematics of the Nobel Prize), attended Pope Benedict’s address to the Collège des Bernardins. Lafforgue, who, at the age of 41, can already boast membership in the Académie des Sciences in  Paris, relates why he was so deeply struck by Benedict’s words.

What remains with you from the speech at the Collège des Bernardins (see page 46)?
The intelligence and simplicity of a rational thought, one which goes to the heart of essential questions, are blessings. Such teaching is good for whomever receives it.

Why is the relationship between faith and reason still the heart of the matter?
The encounter and the dialogue between faith and reason will remain relevant as long as men live. In our period, this dialogue has been and remains definitely riddled with conflict. This is why our societies (and, ultimately, all of us) are lacerated. Like all the really important questions, the dialogue between faith and reason will never be superseded, but needs to be explored endlessly.

The whole speech at the Collège des Bernardins was centered on the ultimate foundation of all true culture…
Benedict sees this foundation as “the search for God and the readiness to listen to Him.” At the Esplanade des Invalides he said, “Never does God… ask man to sacrifice his reason! Reason never enters into real contradiction with faith!” Precisely for this reason, true culture is possible. At Tarbes-Lourdes-Pyrénées airport, the Pope declared: “I consider culture and its proponents to be the privileged vehicles of dialogue between faith and reason, between God and man.” I would be tempted to read into this nothing less than a definition of culture through the deepest reason for its existence. The ultimate foundation of culture lies in its being the place of dialogue between faith and reason. In 1980 at UNESCO, John Paul II said that “the nation exists ‘through’ culture and ‘for’ culture.” We can understand this statement, cited by Benedict in his speech to the bishops of France: every historical nation embodies a special form of dialogue between faith and reason, between God and man.

How can this theme serve to tackle the challenge of education today?
To educate, we have, above all, to have an idea of what the destiny of man is. As the Pope said at the Esplanade des Invalides, it is “the happiness of living eternally with God.”  At the Collège des Bernardins, he showed how this quest for God justifies, constructs, and guides culture. And he did this in a very concrete way, talking about grammar, the profane sciences, schools, libraries, song, music, hermeneutics… Culture, by definition, is transmitted at the very moment that it is developed. And this transmission of culture is the object of education. The speech of the Holy Father therefore restores its ultimate foundation to education.

The Pope said that the “roots of European culture are in the search for God.” In a secular culture, French culture above all, is this not a discriminatory statement against all those who seek without necessarily knowing they are seeking God?
In recent decades, we have observed the self-destruction of the culture and education system in the West. This process has been so rapid and radical because most of the representatives of culture have long since ceased to believe intimately in them. This is because culture and knowledge (like many other aspects of life) have lost their ultimate foundations. I do not think I have ever heard a speech better calculated to enable us to find the ultimate foundations of culture, nor words so strongly in favor of grammar and literature–words that the Pope found in Jean Leclercq: “Eschatology and grammar are intimately connected with one another in Western monasticism... The longing for God includes love of the word.”

Secularists will argue that grammar and literature can do without any reference to God.
Yes. But then why, in recent decades, have the teaching of grammar and literature deteriorated so greatly? If they want to prove that culture and its transmission can do without God, they should do just one thing: reconstruct a secular culture and education system worthy of this name! An immense program… The Pope illustrates the truth of what he says by the wonderful quality of his thought and his teaching. It is up to us Catholics to show ourselves worthy of the example he gives us.

The Pope has said that the Word “introduces us into communion with those who walk in the faith.” Addressing the Rimini Meeting in 2007, you spoke of the “community character of the work of mathematicians,” united in the search for the truth. How is your work related to this statement by the Pontiff?
Mathematicians are orientated toward seeking truths that do not depend on any of them, and to share them with others. In this way, they create a community bond. But Benedict is speaking of something much stronger: “The Word that paves the way to the search for God is a Word that belongs to the community” and “makes us attentive to one another.”  In short, it is the Word itself that creates the community. Of this community, the community of mathematicians is only a figure, a necessarily partial and imperfect image.

What impressed you most during Benedict’s visit and what value did it have for your experience as a Christian?
It meant a lot to me. Personally, the most important moment was the Mass at the Esplanade des Invalides, on the feast day of Saint John Chrysostome (called the “Eucharistic doctor”). In the sermon, the Pope wonderfully reminded our hearts that the Eucharist is the center of Christian life. I am convinced that this visit will prove important for the whole Church and French society, and produce enduring fruits.

And as a mathematician, what do you make of it?
Being a Christian mathematician is often inconvenient. In my milieu, Christians are rare, an effect of the dramatic historical split between faith and reason. For all the others–or nearly all–the image of the Church is that imposed by the media. They are convinced that Catholicism has no intellectual riches (in reality, they are unaware of them), and so they despise it. The Christian communities that I know have often been led to lose interest in these riches in the tradition of the Church, with the result that anti-intellectualism has spread widely (and this is another effect of the split between faith and reason). 
As a Christian mathematician, therefore, I feel out of place both among Christians and among mathematicians. After the speech at the Collège des Bernardins, however, even my mathematician colleagues, despite their prejudices, recognize that they were in the presence of a great spirit, who at least deserves to be taken seriously. And the Christian community saw an extraordinary example of intelligence placed in the service of Christ with simplicity and humility.  All this fills me with joy.