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Theological Notebook: The Pope, Galileo, and the Sapienza University Affair

Did anyone pay any attention to the curious story about Pope Benedict XVI and the protests at Rome's Sapienza University this past week? I think that it might become one of those episodes that becomes larger in later history, as the significance of certain events gets taken as emblematic of historical shifts taking place at a given time. In this case, I think it might become the opposite of the infamous "Galileo Affair," to which the players in this event make direct reference. The incident of Galileo's trial before the Inquisition regarding the Copernican theory of the heliocentric solar system – the sun being the center of our star system and not the Earth being at the center of things – became the great symbolic myth of the Enlightenment philosophers in the 18th century, and their anti-Christian program: Galileo's trial became emblematic of obstinate, ignorant, anti-intellectual Religion being defeated by the always-wise, ever-progressive and irresistible onward march of Science into the future.

Yet anyone who does the slightest reading on the matter knows that this was hardly the case. The Galileo affair was an historical footnote until it was dusted off and used for Enlightenment propaganda. Galileo was not opposing a Religious view with a Scientific one: his world did not have our later, absolute division of such things. Copernicus himself was a cleric, likely a priest: one might just as easily say that the heliocentric system was then a "priestly" theory. Galileo was not challenging the authority of Scripture as such: there was no unified theory of Scripture in his post-Reformation world to oppose in such a simple dichotomy as "science vs. religion" or "science vs. the Bible" in the way people like to put things. In fact, he appealed in such things to a far older interpreter of Scripture who had high status in theology and philosophy – Augustine of Hippo, who had died over a thousand years earlier, and who, like Galileo, dismissed simple-minded literalism as unworthy of the depths of the documents of Scripture. Galileo's actual trouble came more from challenging the Aristotelian basis of the contemporary science of his day, that is, challenging the current scientific establishment, and claiming for his own experimental results an authority they did not yet possess. It also didn't help that he got into a political mess by getting petulant with the very Pope who had been supporting and authorizing his work. No scientist today who so "jumped the gun" on claiming success for his findings would be accorded the "scientific sainthood" Galileo is: his story has been co-opted by those creating their own narrative of the Modern "conflict of science and religion," ignoring entirely the origin of Modern science in a Medieval and Christian context, not a Modern and Secular one.

Which brings us to the curious events of this past week, events which I wonder whether in the future will come to seem equally emblematic, but in a reverse way. It seems clear to me that Western science and theology, with their commitments to the idea of an objective truth, against much of the thrust of contemporary Western philosophy which has given up on truth, are inevitably going to increase in their collaboration. As the myth of a conflict of science and religion begins to fade away with the Modern worldview as we move into Post-Modernity (whatever that is), I can't help but wonder if the anti-papal fervour displayed this week – is it overstating to call it hysteria? – might come to symbolize the ignorance of the dogmatically anti-religious viewpoint that doesn't recognize the fundamental harmonies between the quests of science and Jewish/Christian religion.

What's most striking to me is the way in which the faculty and student protesters – so locked into the myth of "science versus religion" – failed to understand the clear language of support that Ratzinger used in his 1990 statement (included below). If anything, Ratzinger defended the sciences against the philosophical skewing in the Modern philosophical school of the Enlightenment that produced the great modern myth of unwavering antagonism between the two quests for truth, and attempts to cut lose the sciences from any wider contextualization in the world, including in ethics, which is not the same thing as religion, but which religion and philosophy have always included. Making science ask questions of itself should hardly be interpreted as a fundamental attack on science itself. I hope the episode will have the effect of so embarrassing the traditional reactionaries who fancy themselves the speakers for their hostile vision of "science" so that people capable of actual rational conversation will come forward in leading dialogue with theology.

Included behind the cut are articles from the week:
Ratzinger's 1990 remarks on Galileo
University students attend audience after pope cancels visit
In undelivered speech, pope urges scholars, students to seek truth
All Things Catholic by John L. Allen, Jr.: Update on La Sapienza spat
The pope, modern science, and a canary in the coal mine
Do the homework: University fiasco shows scholars miss pope's point
Tens of thousands fill St. Peter's Square to show support for pope
Ratzinger's 1990 remarks on Galileo

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger
“The Crisis of Faith in Science”
March 15, 1990, Parma
Extracts taken from A Turning Point for Europe? The Church and Modernity in the Europe of Upheavals, Paoline Editions, 1992, pp. 76-79. English translation by NCR.

* * *
In the last decade, creation’s resistance to allowing itself to be manipulated by humanity has emerged as a new element in the overall cultural situation. The question of the limits of science, and the criteria which it must observe, has become unavoidable.

Particularly emblematic of this change of intellectual climate, it seems to me, is the different way in which the Galileo case is seen.

This episode, which was little considered in the 18th century, was elevated to a myth of the Enlightenment in the century that followed. Galileo appeared as a victim of that medieval obscurantism that endures in the Church. Good and evil were sharply distinguished. On the one hand, we find the Inquisition: a power that incarnates superstition, the adversary of freedom and conscience. On the other, there’s natural science represented by Galileo: the force of progress and liberation of humanity from the chains of ignorance that kept it impotent in the face of nature. The star of modernity shines in the dark night of medieval obscurity.

Today, things have changed.

According to [Ernst] Bloch, the heliocentric system – just like the geocentric – is based upon presuppositions that can’t be empirically demonstrated. Among these, an important role is played by the affirmation of the existence of an absolute space; that’s an opinion that, in any event, has been cancelled by the Theory of Relativity. Bloch writes, in his own words: ‘From the moment that, with the abolition of the presupposition of an empty and immobile space, movement is no longer produced towards something, but there’s only a relative movement of bodies among themselves, and therefore the measurement of that [movement] depends to a great extent on the choice of a body to serve as a point of reference, in this case is it not merely the complexity of calculations that renders the [geocentric] hypothesis impractical? Then as now, one can suppose the earth to be fixed and the sun as mobile.”

Curiously, it was precisely Bloch, with his Romantic Marxism, who was among the first to openly oppose the [Galileo] myth, offering a new interpretation of what happened: The advantage of the heliocentric system over the geocentric, he suggested, does not consist in a greater correspondence to objective truth, but solely in the fact that it offers us greater ease of calculation. To this point, Bloch follows solely a modern conception of natural science. What is surprising, however, is the conclusion he draws: “Once the relativity of movement is taken for granted, an ancient human and Christian system of reference has no right to interference in astronomic calculations and their heliocentric simplification; however, it has the right to remain faithful to its method of preserving the earth in relation to human dignity, and to order the world with regard to what will happen and what has happened in the world.”

If both the spheres of conscience are once again clearly distinguished among themselves under their respective methodological profiles, recognizing both their limits and their respective rights, then the synthetic judgment of the agnostic-skeptic philosopher P. Feyerabend appears much more drastic. He writes: “The church at the time of Galileo was much more faithful to reason than Galileo himself, and also took into consideration the ethical and social consequences of Galileo’s doctrine. Its verdict against Gaileo was rational and just, and revisionism can be legitimized solely for motives of political opportunism.”

From the point of view of the concrete consequences of the turning point Galileo represents, however, C.F. Von Weizsacker takes another step forward, when he identifies a “very direct path” that leads from Galileo to the atomic bomb.

To my great surprise, in a recent interview on the Galileo case, I was not asked a question like, ‘Why did the Church try to get in the way of the development of modern science?’, but rather exactly the opposite, that is: ‘Why didn’t the church take a more clear position against the disasters that would inevitably follow, once Galileo had opened Pandora’s box?’

It would be absurd, on the basis of these affirmations, to construct a hurried apologetics. The faith does not grow from resentment and the rejection of rationality, but from its fundamental affirmation and from being inscribed in a still greater form of reason …

Here, I wished to recall a symptomatic case that illustrates the extent to which modernity’s doubts about itself have grown today in science and technology.


University students attend audience after pope cancels visit
By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service
15 January 2008

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- A day after he canceled a planned visit to Rome's Sapienza University because of threatened protests, Pope Benedict XVI welcomed a group of students who came to his general audience to show their support.

The students held up signs saying, "University students are with you" and another saying that because the pope was not going to the university the university was coming to him.

Responding to their cheers at the end of his Jan. 16 audience, the pope said, "Let us go forward together." And before offering the crowd his blessing, he added, "With particular joy, I greet the university students."

The Vatican announced Jan. 15 that the pope was canceling his visit following a letter of protest signed by 67 professors and threats of a demonstration by students.

"After the well-known events of these days in relation to the visit of the Holy Father," who was invited by the university rector to speak Jan. 17, "it was deemed opportune to defer the visit," said the Vatican's Jan. 15 statement.

"Nevertheless, the Holy Father will send the speech foreseen" for the opening of the academic year, the press office said.

The university, which claims to be the largest in Europe, was founded in 1303 by Pope Boniface VIII and became independent in 1870.

Andrea Frova, a professor of physics and one of the organizers of the professors' letter of protest, told the Italian newspaper Il Giornale that he and his colleagues were "offended by the fact that a pope hostile to science" was invited to give a major lecture at a formal university event.

However, he said, the letter was written in November when there was still time to cancel the papal visit without fanfare and was meant to be an internal university communication.

Frova said he did not know how newspapers got a copy of the letter, but "I want to be very clear on one point: It was not our intention to unleash protests, hostile actions or violence of any kind."

The professor said it did not make sense "to entrust the inauguration of our academic year to a foreign head of state who also is the head of the Catholic Church."

In addition, he said, the fact that the pope was invited to speak last at the event meant that there would be no opportunity for public questions, comments or debate.

But mostly, Frova said, the 67 professors -- most of whom are scientists -- objected to the invitation because "this pope has always had a closed, even hostile, attitude toward science."

Frova said, "Even in his last encyclical, Ratzinger (the pope) sets science and faith in opposition: His argument is that if science arrives at conclusions that are in any way opposed to faith, science must retreat."

In that encyclical, "Spe Salvi" (on Christian hope), Pope Benedict wrote, "Francis Bacon and those who followed in the intellectual current of modernity that he inspired were wrong to believe that man would be redeemed through science. Such an expectation asks too much of science; this kind of hope is deceptive. Science can contribute greatly to making the world and mankind more human. Yet it can also destroy mankind and the world unless it is steered by forces that lie outside it."

The protesting Sapienza professors also objected to remarks that then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger made about the church's 17th-century condemnation of Galileo Galilei. They quoted him quoting another author defending the church's condemnation, although they did not point out that the future pope said he found the author's remarks "drastic."

In fact, in the speech, he had said, "Faith does not grow from a resentment and refusal of rationalism, but from its basic affirmation."

Cardinal Camillo Ruini, papal vicar for Rome, issued a statement Jan. 16 inviting Romans to gather in St. Peter's Square Jan. 20 for the pope's midday Angelus as "a gesture of affection and serenity" and to demonstrate "the joy we experience in having Benedict XVI as our bishop and our pope."

The cardinal said the opposition of a small group of university professors and students does not reflect "that love, that trust, that admiration and gratitude for Pope Benedict XVI that is in the heart of the people of Rome."

Italian President Giorgio Napolitano sent Pope Benedict a letter of support late Jan. 15, saying, "I am convinced this event would have offered a precious opportunity for reflection on themes of great relevance for Italian society, as well as all societies."

The president said the "manifestations of intolerance" and the threat of demonstrations were "inadmissible" and incompatible with the climate of freedom and dialogue that should mark a university.


In undelivered speech, pope urges scholars, students to seek truth
By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service
16 January 2008

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Even before protests led him to cancel his visit to Rome's Sapienza University, Pope Benedict XVI knew there would be some people who questioned why the leader of the Catholic Church should be delivering a formal address to a secular university.

In the text prepared for his suspended Jan. 17 visit, the pope wrote that he would speak as a "representative of a community that safeguards a treasure of knowledge and ethical experience that is important for all humanity," and he encouraged all involved in the university to seek the truth.

The Vatican published the remarks the pope had prepared for his visit a few hours after a group of Sapienza students attended the pope's Jan. 16 general audience to show their support.

The students held up signs saying "University students are with you" and another saying that, because the pope was not going to the university, the university was coming to him.

Pope Benedict's visit to the university was canceled after 67 professors wrote a letter protesting his visit on charges that the pope was "hostile to science" and after a group of students threatened to demonstrate while he was speaking.

The Vatican had said "it was deemed opportune to defer the visit" because of the protests.

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican secretary of state, said in a letter to the university rector that while the climate necessary "for a dignified and tranquil welcome" would be lacking because of the protests by a small portion of the university community the pope still wanted to share his thoughts with those who were interested.

The university, which claims to be the largest in Europe, was founded in 1303 by Pope Boniface VIII and became independent in 1870.

In his prepared remarks, the pope wrote, "What should the pope do or say at the university? Certainly, he must not try, in an authoritarian way, to impose on others' faith, which can be given only in freedom."

The pope wrote that his role in speaking at a university that includes believers and nonbelievers is to encourage professors, researchers and students "to seek the truth, the good, God" and to not allow power, technology or selfish interests to silence consciences or belittle those seeking meaning in their lives.

"The danger in the Western world today is that man, precisely because of the greatness of his knowledge and power, gives up in the face of the question of truth," he said.

In the prepared text, Pope Benedict acknowledged that church people have not always been right about everything.

"Various things said by theologians over the course of history or put into practice by church authorities have been shown to be false," he said, but the example of the saints and the Catholic Church's influence on the development of humanism and of various cultures "demonstrates the truth of this faith in its essential nucleus."

Interacting with those who do not believe, he said, the church is dedicated to promoting a search for truth and the common good, a search it believes can be found fully only by recognizing Jesus Christ as savior.

Andrea Frova, a professor of physics and one of the organizers of the professors' letter of protest, told the Italian newspaper Il Giornale that he and his colleagues were "offended by the fact that a pope hostile to science" was invited to give a major lecture at a formal university event.

The professor said it did not make sense "to entrust the inauguration of our academic year to a foreign head of state who also is the head of the Catholic Church."

In addition, he said, the fact that the pope was invited to speak last at the event meant that there would be no opportunity for public questions, comments or debate.

But mostly, Frova said, the 67 professors -- most of whom are scientists -- objected to the invitation because "this pope has always had a closed, even hostile, attitude toward science."

Frova said, "Even in his last encyclical, Ratzinger (the pope) sets science and faith in opposition: His argument is that if science arrives at conclusions that are in any way opposed to faith, science must retreat."

In that encyclical, "Spe Salvi" (on Christian hope), Pope Benedict wrote, "Francis Bacon and those who followed in the intellectual current of modernity that he inspired were wrong to believe that man would be redeemed through science. Such an expectation asks too much of science; this kind of hope is deceptive. Science can contribute greatly to making the world and mankind more human. Yet it can also destroy mankind and the world unless it is steered by forces that lie outside it."

The protesting Sapienza professors also objected to remarks that then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger made about the church's 17th-century condemnation of Galileo Galilei. They quoted him quoting another author defending the church's condemnation, although they did not point out that the future pope said he found the author's remarks "drastic."

In fact, in the speech, he had said, "Faith does not grow from a resentment and refusal of rationalism, but from its basic affirmation."

Cardinal Camillo Ruini, papal vicar for Rome, issued a statement Jan. 16 inviting Romans to gather in St. Peter's Square Jan. 20 for the pope's midday Angelus as "a gesture of affection and serenity" and to demonstrate "the joy we experience in having Benedict XVI as our bishop and our pope."

The cardinal said the opposition of a small group of university professors and students does not reflect "that love, that trust, that admiration and gratitude for Pope Benedict XVI that is in the heart of the people of Rome."

Italian President Giorgio Napolitano sent Pope Benedict a letter of support late Jan. 15, saying, "I am convinced this event would have offered a precious opportunity for reflection on themes of great relevance for Italian society, as well as all societies."

The president said the "manifestations of intolerance" and the threat of demonstrations were "inadmissible" and incompatible with the climate of freedom and dialogue that should mark a university.


All Things Catholic by John L. Allen, Jr.: Update on La Sapienza spat

The big Vatican story this week was the pope’s withdrawal from a scheduled appearance on Thursday at Rome’s La Sapienza University, a public institution, following protests from the physics faculty and some student groups over his alleged hostility to modern science. (The 1990 comments from then-Cardinal Ratzinger on the Galileo case cited by the protestors can be found here: Ratzinger's 1990 remarks on Galileo.

The Vatican rarely cancels a papal event once it’s been made public, so obviously they took threats of disruption seriously.

An avalanche of commentary followed. No less a figure than Giorgio Napolitano, the President of Italy (and a member of the country’s center-left political forces), weighed in: “I consider unacceptable these exhibitions of intolerance and pre-announced offensives, which created a climate incompatible with a free and serene exchange,” he said.

On Wednesday, the Vatican released the address that Benedict would have delivered on Thursday at La Sapienza. In it, Benedict argues that it is not the role of the papacy, or the church, to impose religious faith upon the secular academy; at the same time, he calls upon the academy to see the church as a repository of moral and spiritual wisdom that can’t simply be exiled from the sphere of rationality.

Benedict acknowledges that a secular university must be “bound exclusively by the authority of the truth,” not by ecclesiastical or political powers, and says that modern society “needs institutions like this.”

Especially in light of those conciliatory remarks, one might regard the La Sapienza episode as a “made-in-Italy” case of overreaction. There are, however, at least two worthwhile lessons one might draw, which I develop in a daily update posting here: The pope, modern science, and a canary in the coal mine.


The pope, modern science, and a canary in the coal mine
Posted on Jan 14, 2008 10:07am CST.
By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
New York

Normally speaking, a visit by a pope to a Roman university to launch the academic year would not be a particularly scintillating news story. Benedict XVI’s appearance at Rome’s La Sapienza this coming Thursday, however, is likely to draw above-average attention, in the wake of a letter from 63 professors and students, including the entire physics faculty, demanding that the invitation be withdrawn. Some student groups have also threatened a sit-in.

Their charge? That Benedict XVI is an enemy of science and reason.

Specifically, the letter points to a speech given on March 15, 1990, by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in Parma, Italy, in which he addressed the notorious Galileo case. On that occasion, Ratzinger quoted Austrian philosopher Paul Feyerabend that “the church’s verdict against Gaileo was rational and just.”

The physics professors described themselves as “indignant as scientists faithful to reason, and as teachers who dedicate our lives to the advancement and diffusion of knowledge. These words offend and humiliate us. In the name of the secularity of science, we hope that this incongruous event can still be cancelled.”

In media interviews, the professors have also cited Benedict’s recent encyclical, Spe Salvi, as hostile to modern science.

The rector of Rome’s La Sapienza, a public university, quickly confirmed that the papal lecture will go forward.

It’s tempting indeed to see this as one of those “only-in-Italy” dust-ups.

The 18-year-old speech cited by the pope’s critics, for example, offered a reflection by Ratzinger on what he saw as a change in the secular intellectual climate, re-evaluating Galileo as part of a growing awareness of the ambivalence of scientific progress -- especially under the shadow of the bomb. In that context, Benedict quoted the judgment of Feyerabend, an agnostic and skeptic, on Galileo, along with similar statements from Ernst Bloch and C.F. Von Weizsacker.

Here's what Feyerabend wrote, as quoted by Ratzinger: "“The church at the time of Galileo was much more faithful to reason than Galileo himself, and also took into consideration the ethical and social consequences of Galileo’s doctrine. Its verdict against Gaileo was rational and just, and revisionism can be legitimized solely for motives of political opportunism.”

Ratzinger actually called the statement “drastic" -- upon reflection, a fairly striking term from a figure who, at the time, headed the historical successor to the Inquisition.

Ratzinger concluded the speech by saying, “It would be absurd, on the basis of these affirmations, to construct a hurried apologetics. The faith does not grow from resentment and the rejection of rationality, but from its fundamental affirmation, and from being rooted in a still greater form of reason.”

In a nutshell, therefore, Benedict is being faulted by the physics professors for quoting somebody else’s words, which his full text suggests he does not completely share. (Readers who remember Regensburg can be forgiven a sense of déjà-vu.)

An English translation of Ratzinger’s 1990 comments in Parma is here: http://ncrcafe.org/node/1541

As for Spe Salvi, here’s what Benedict wrote about science:

“Francis Bacon and those who followed in the intellectual current of modernity that he inspired were wrong to believe that man would be redeemed through science. Such an expectation asks too much of science; this kind of hope is deceptive. Science can contribute greatly to making the world and mankind more human. Yet it can also destroy mankind and the world unless it is steered by forces that lie outside it.”

Whatever one makes of that, it’s hard to construe it as an attack on science and reason.

Moreover, there’s plenty of evidence that Benedict XVI is not hostile to science, as long as it doesn’t pretend to render religious faith irrelevant. The pope recently appointed a Princeton hydrologist to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, for example, who strongly supports the theory of evolution and the science of global warming.

Given all this, one could easily conclude that the fracas at La Sapienza is one of those equal-and-opposite flare-ups from anti-clerical forces in Italy, whose resentments over the church’s centuries of power and influence sometimes breed over-the-top reactions.

Yet two other points are worth noting.

First, the Parma address illustrates a bit of professorial style from Benedict that also got him into trouble in Regensburg, which is quoting someone else’s provocative words in order to set up a discussion. (In fact, the Parma address makes it far more clear that these were not Ratzinger’s ideas, because he was discussing a movement in secular agnostic thought – a camp in which he would clearly not include himself.)

Going forward, the lesson to be learned is that a public figure, and especially a pope, can’t quote incendiary language without immediately and unambiguously distancing himself from it – at least, without paying a PR price down the line.

Second, the La Sapienza contretemps is perhaps less about Benedict’s specific thoughts on science, than broader perceptions that he is “rolling back the clock” on Catholicism’s opening to modernity, associated above all with the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). In early December, secular Italian writer Eugenio Scalfari published a piece in La Repubblica on Spe Salvi titled precisely, “The pope who rejects the modern world.”

Setting aside their merits, one can at least understand how people form such impressions. This Sunday, for example, Benedict XVI celebrated Mass in the Sistine Chapel in which he employed a pre-Vatican II altar with his back to the congregation for parts of the liturgy, and read his homily from an old wooden throne on the left of the altar used by Pius IX in the 19th century.

Critics charge that such gestures reveal a pope determined to pretend that Vatican II never happened, while Benedict insists that he is simply trying to reinforce a sense of continuity, emphasizing the importance of tradition, without repudiating the steps forward associated with Vatican II, such as religious freedom, ecumenism, and inter-faith dialogue.

One can debate such positions endlessly, but perhaps the immediate significance of the La Sapienza episode, at least from a PR point of view, is as a sort of “canary in the coal mine” – a warning of a potentially dangerous public impression about Benedict’s agenda that, at times, may cloud even innocent words and gestures.

It’s at least something to ponder.


Do the homework: University fiasco shows scholars miss pope's point
By John Thavis
Catholic News Service
18 January 2008

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- It was a first, at least in modern times: In Rome, the center of the Catholic world and the capital of Catholic Italy, a pope felt unwelcome to give a speech at the public university.

When Pope Benedict XVI canceled his planned visit to Sapienza University Jan. 17, it marked a setback in the pontiff's difficult dialogue with the contemporary scientific and intellectual world.

The cancellation came after more than 60 professors wrote a letter protesting the visit, saying the pope was "hostile to science." Students planned demonstrations against the event, and the Vatican decided a no-show was the best response.

A number of factors, some of them outside the pope's control, contributed to the controversy.

Many observers pointed to a long history of anti-clericalism in Italy, a large part of which was under papal rule until the late 19th century. This legacy has left Italians extremely sensitive to potential political interference by the Vatican.

That helps explain why a small but vocal minority argued that for a pope to inaugurate the academic year at Italy's largest public university -- even though it was founded by a pope 700 years ago -- inappropriately crossed the line between church and state.

"The church is always pushing its power a little bit forward toward the Italian state," said Piergiorgio Odifreddi, a professor of mathematics at the University of Turin.

"And the longer the institutions don't oppose this, the further they go, erasing the boundary between secularism and religion," he said.

But beyond the historical antagonisms in Italy, the university fiasco suggests that Pope Benedict's message about reason and faith is missing much of its target audience. It's a key issue in his pontificate.

The pope has explained at length why, in his view, the modern tendency to exclude God and religion is a dangerous development. He has offered carefully worded arguments to show why science and technology alone cannot furnish ethical or moral standards, and why one can speak legitimately of a divine "creative reason" at the origin of the created world.

But as the commentary flowed in the wake of the pope's university cancellation, it became apparent that many of the protesting professors had very little knowledge of what the pope has actually said or written.

One rallying cry, that the pope was "against Galileo," was apparently based on an erroneous page on the Italian Wikipedia, a Web site billed as an encyclopedia that anyone can contribute to or edit. The page, which has since been corrected, said that in a 1990 speech the future pope endorsed a modern philosopher's opinion that the church's trial of Galileo Galilei was "reasonable and just."

In fact, the pope cited the quotation but called it "drastic."

The professors and students might have done a little research and discovered that Pope Benedict has spoken highly of Galileo. In a talk to young people at the Vatican in 2006, he said "the great Galileo" had understood mathematics as the language of God the creator.

On a related issue, Marcello Cini, the physics professor who organized the university protest, told the newspaper Corriere della Sera that a pope shouldn't be given an academic forum when he "tells our biological colleagues that they shouldn't take Darwin seriously."

That, too, seems to be an impression based perhaps on Italian newspaper headlines, rather than anything the pope has said or written. The pope, in fact, has not taken issue with evolutionary theory as an explanation of the "how" of creation, as long as it does not exclude a divine cause.

That point was made most recently in a lengthy article Jan. 16 in the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, by Fiorenzo Facchini, a biology professor at the University of Bologna, who wrote that there is no real opposition between evolutionary science and belief in creation.

"God is able to have created a world with the capacity to change and to evolve through natural causes," he said.

A reasonable enough proposition, it would seem. The article went unnoticed in Italy.

The pope has laid down some serious challenges in areas like genetic manipulation, embryonic experimentation, abortion and euthanasia, all of which implicate the world of science and academic research.

But he has been careful to approach these human life questions not under the banner of "religion versus science" but as a call to conscience on the universal ethical values of natural law.

In short, the pope is calling for a "moral use of science," as he told diplomats in early January.

Perhaps the biggest and more basic area of disagreement is whether the pope has any place speaking at a public university at all.

"He wanted to give directives to the largest state university. It's like a physicist going to the Sistine Chapel to sing for the pope at Christmas," said one of the Sapienza protest organizers.

This idea that the two realms should not overlap is something the pope sees as a growing danger.

"The development of modern science has increasingly confined faith and hope to a private and individual sphere, in such a way that today it is clear, sometimes dramatically clear, that man and the world need God -- the real God -- and otherwise remain without hope," he said last December.

There was a short-term benefit, at least, in the decision to cancel the pope's university appearance: Many Italian cultural and political leaders rushed to defend the pope and his right to speak his mind. The Diocese of Rome quickly organized a show of support in St. Peter's Square.

But in the long term, the pope wants to reach the people who are not in the square.


Tens of thousands fill St. Peter's Square to show support for pope
By John Thavis
Catholic News Service
21 January 2008

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Tens of thousands of Romans filled St. Peter's Square in a show of support for Pope Benedict XVI, three days after he canceled a university appearance because of protests.

The pope, expressing disappointment at the cancellation, said the university should always be a place of respect for differing opinions.

When the pope appeared at his apartment window for the noon blessing Jan. 20, he was met with a long cheer from the people in the square. Crowd estimates ranged from 100,000 to 200,000.

The Diocese of Rome had urged people to turn out in great numbers to demonstrate support for the pontiff. The crowd included political leaders, students and families, many of them carrying homemade signs.

"Free to listen to you!" proclaimed one banner held aloft by university students.

The pope said he had looked forward to opening the academic year at Rome's Sapienza University, but "unfortunately the climate made my presence at the ceremony inopportune."

The pope canceled the university appearance after 67 professors objected to the visit, saying the pope was "hostile to science," and after a group of students threatened to demonstrate while he was speaking.

Recalling his days as a professor, the pope told the crowd that for many years the university was "my world," a place of truth-seeking, frank and open dialogue and respect for people's opinions.

"As a professor -- shall we say, emeritus -- who has met so many students in my life, I encourage you all, dear university students and professors, to always be respectful of the opinions of others and to seek truth and goodness with a free and responsible spirit," he said.

The pope's brief talk was met with a sustained ovation, and he added off-the-cuff: "Let's go forward in this spirit, working for a fraternal and tolerant society."

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