(Update: The Wall Street Journal picked this story up as well, and Touchstone Magazine has a blog entry on it.)
Earlier this week, protests from students and faculty at Sapienza University convinced the Vatican to reschedule a visit and speech from Pope Benedict XVI. They protested in reaction to a 1990 speech that he (then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) gave in which he, the view of some students and faculty, endorsed the actions of the Church against Galileo in 1633.
There’s plenty of news coverage of the event. Even the January 15 episode of Off the Wall began with Emmanuel Goldstein’s rant on the same topic. Conversely, the La Sapienza website reports it with significantly less hysteria (in English).
(Note that Sapienza University was founded in 1303 by Pope Boniface VIII, who is not generally considered a nice guy. In Dante’s Inferno, he appears in hell for simony. However, he was committed enough to the study of the natural world, science and wisdom (Italian: sapienza, Latin: sapientia) to create a new university to support it.)
Read the sources for yourself: Here is the 1990 speech that the University is protesting. Here is the speech that Pope Benedict indented to give.
His original 1990 talk doesn’t seem as hysterical as the 2008 reaction to it. He does bring up some historical perspective in saying, “This episode, which was little considered in the 18th century, was elevated to a myth of the Enlightenment in the century that followed.” The Galileo case is often turned into a “myth of the Enlightenment” with him as the scientific proto-martyr, but other interpretations of history tell a different story.
Diogenes Allen’s Christian Belief in a Postmodern World brings other historical evidence into play. The Church doesn’t come off terribly well, but it hardly comes off as the cruel oppressor of free thought.
Giorgio Israel, a Jewish mathematician and professor at Sapienza, was quoted as saying:
[This attitude] is particularly surprising since Italian universities are supposed to be places open to any kind of position, and it makes no sense that only the Pope is denied access,” he said. “[It] has been explained by Marcello Cini – one of the intellectuals opposing the Pope’s visit – in his letter to the University’s Dean. What Cini regards as ‘dangerous,’ is the fact that the Pope may try to open a dialogue between faith and reason, to reestablish a connection between the Judeo-Christian and the Greek tradition, and that science and faith may not be separated by an impenetrable wall.
Israel’s remarks are very much in line with what Benedict’s proposed speech had to say:
The university could, indeed had to be born within the Christian world and the Christian faith. We must take another step. Man wants to know; he wants the truth. Truth pertains first and foremost to seeing and understanding theoria as it is called in the Greek tradition. But truth is not only theoretic.
If however reason, concerned about its supposed purity, fails to hear the great message that comes from the Christian faith and the understanding it brings, it will dry up like a tree with roots cut off from the water that gives it life. It will lose the courage needed to find the truth and thus become small rather than great.
And, in its closing,
And so let me go back to the initial point. 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.
Similarly he must again and always invite reason to seek out truth, goodness and God, and on this path urge it to see the useful lights that emerged during the history of the Christian faith and perceive Jesus Christ as the light that illuminates history and helps find the way towards the future.
The fruitful relation of Christianity to science is echoed in today’s Office of Readings selection from Athanasius who wrote in the fourth century on the orderliness of nature:
This (Jesus Christ) is the Word that created this whole world and enlightens it by his loving wisdom (Latin: sapientia). He who is the good Word of the good Father produced the order in all creation, joining opposites together, and forming them into one harmonious sound. He is God, one and only-begotten, who proceeds in goodness from the Father as from the fountain of goodness, and gives order, direction and unity to creation.