The Pope and intellectual freedom
Religion & Liberty Online

The Pope and intellectual freedom


Update: Ecumenical News International is reporting that the rector of Rome’s La Sapienza University has said he plans to re-invite Pope Benedict XVI to address his institution. The English text of the Pope’s speech is available here.

This week Benedict XVI canceled a visit to La Sapienza University in Rome, an institution founded by Pope Boniface VIII in 1303. The decision was made after a number of professors and students had announced protests claiming that the pontiff’s presence would undermine the autonomy and free scientific inquiry of the university. After canceling the visit which was planned for the opening of the academic year on January 17th, the Vatican released the speech which Benedict XVI would have delivered. In the speech he defends the intellectual freedom and autonomy of universities. His emphatic pledge for the unimpeded and autonomous search for truth is an embarrassment for his opponents who are now themselves being accused of intolerance by large parts of the Italian public.

The controversy began when in November 2007 an emeritus professor of physics, Marcello Cini, wrote an open letter to the rector of La Sapienza, Renato Guarini, published by the communist newspaper Il Manifesto. In this letter Cini launched a ferocious attack on the rector for having invited the pope. He lamented that the pope’s right to speak at the ceremony would mark an “incredible violation of the traditional autonomy of the university”. He argued that there is no place for any teaching of theology at modern universities, or at least public universities like La Sapienza. This categorical ban would include the pope’s ceremonial speech planned for the opening of the academic year. Cini claimed that Pope Benedict’s right to speak would signal a leap backwards of at least 300 years. In addition to these “formal” concerns, Cini attempted to discredit the pope’s conviction that reason and faith are compatible as explained in his Regensburg lecture in 2006. Cini maintained that this idea is merely the continuation of the battle against science which was fought by the inquisition in previous centuries and would serve no other purpose than to impose religious dogma and pseudo-scientific methods.

At the time when it was published Cini’s letter did not cause a great stir in the mainstream media but it chimed in with the anti-clerical attitudes of the readership of Il Manifesto. It was taken up by 67 professors and lecturers of La Sapienza who signed a petition against the visit of the pope which was sent to Guarini a few days before the opening of the academic year. The signatories declared that they fully agree with Cini’s letter and added that further proof of the pope’s anti-rational outlook was demonstrated by a speech he made as cardinal in the Italian city of Parma in March 1990. On that occasion he cited the Austro-American philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend who wrote in one of his books that at the time of the trial of Galileo Galilei the church remained more faithful to reason than Galileo and that his trial was rational and just. As scientists they felt offended by these words and urged the rector to withdraw his invitation to the pontiff in order to cancel this “incongruous” event. What they did not say, however, is that Pope Benedict never endorsed or defended these provocative remarks and that his citation of Feyerabend is curious in so far as this former Berkeley philosopher represents a polar opposite to the pope’s own philosophy. Feyerabend embraced an extremely relativistic view of the world which he himself called “epistemological anarchism” and was opposed not only to religion but to the search for truth in general.

There was, however, no space for any nuances in the petition and the pope was merely portrayed as an enemy of Galileo and free science, groups of La Sapienza students joined the campaign against the pontiff’s visit by announcing sit-ins and marches against his “obscurantism”. They also promised “extraordinary gestures” to involve as many students as possible in the “battle against the pope’s interference with Italian institutions”. But while they were preparing for the big event, the Vatican simply canceled the visit citing (with some justification) security reasons.

From this point onwards, the debate took a different turn. Whereas Benedict’s academic opponents had tried to claim the moral high ground by defending free scientific inquiry against the alleged intellectual intolerance of the pope, they now found themselves accused of censorship and prejudice. Representatives from nearly all sides of the political spectrum expressed regrets that the hostility towards the pope had reached such unbearable intensity. Rome’s mayor, Walter Veltroni, from the center-left’s Democratic Party, called this escalation a “defeat for the culture of freedom and for the fundamental principles of the exchange of ideas and respect for institutions”. Former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi even asserted that “the whole affair hurts and humiliates the Italian university as an institution and even the Italian state in general”. He also accused the opponents of the pope of “fanaticism”.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the public reaction to the pope’s cancelled visit is that not Catholics but also a huge number of non-Christians who sided with the pope. While religion is a more divisive issue in Italy than in most other European countries with traditional Catholicism often being opposed by an especially aggressive form of secularism, it is clear that in this case the pope has the support of the great majority of Italian citizens.

Speaking to a professor and a student from La Sapienza made me realize that the campaign against the pope had only involved a relatively small minority of people. The professor told me that he knew of no colleagues which had objected to the pope’s speech and that they were appalled by the actions of the anti-pope minority. The student said while many at the university are not religious, they have no doubt that the responsibility for this escalation does not lie with the pope. I was also reminded that the academics signing the petition against the pope were not especially successful in attracting support. Given that 4500 professors and lecturers teach at La Sapienza their collection of 67 signatures is not very impressive.

What further highlighted the awkward nature of the arguments put forward against the pope was his release of the speech that was supposed to be delivered at La Sapienza and which was read in his absence on the day of the opening of the academic year. Benedict praised the academic community at La Sapienza for its high scholarship and particularly emphasized the importance of that “autonomy which, on the basis of its founding principles, has always been part of the nature of the university, which must always be exclusively bound to the authority of the truth. In its freedom from political and ecclesiastical authorities, the university finds its special role, and in modern society as well, which needs institutions of this nature.”

In his prepared remarks, Benedict reveals his great respect for the freedom of thought by answering a central question regarding his visit to the university: “What does the Pope have to do or say in a university? He certainly should not try to impose in an authoritarian manner his faith on others, which can only be freely offered. Beyond his ministry as Pastor of the Church and on the basis of the intrinsic nature of this pastoral ministry, it is his task to keep alive man’s responsiveness to the truth.”

John Couretas

is a writer and editor based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.