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The Pope and Intellectual Freedom

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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 John Couretas is Director of Communications, responsible for print and online communications at the Acton Institute. He has more than 20 years of experience in news and publishing fields. He has worked as a staff writer on newspapers and magazines, covering business and government. John holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in the Humanities from Michigan State University and a Master of Science Degree in Journalism from Northwestern University.


  • Makes me think DePaul and Loyola are lightweights compared to La Sapienza.


  • Sorry I disagree, Galileo did not WIN the argument. Such a win is scientifically impossible due to the relative nature of space. If one does not accept this FACT then one will never know the truth about the Galileo affair. The Church had its formula for Truth. It includes the four means of knowledge, sense, empirical investigation, philosophy and theology. Theology is the queen. To the Church of the 17th century if it was theologically correct it had to be scientifically correct also. The Bible reveals the world is geocentric and the Church in 1616 under Pope Paul V defined and declared it to be so. In 1633, the CHURCH under Pope Urban VIII confirmed this doctrine of faith declaring it was IMMUTIBLE. Galileo couldn’t prove or falsify either system yet insisted the universe was heliocentric. He was charged with heresy by the Holy Office or Inquisition that had the Pope in its chair and was used only in cases of serious heresy.

    So, how did the Antichrists win through in the end? Well they did it by stealth. They produced consequences (stellar aberration, stellar parallax, Foucault Pendulum) and irrespective that these consequences also had geocentric explanations called them proofs for heliocentrism. After the 17th century philosophers also redefined the meaning of ‘science’ to include ‘theoretical proofs’ such as Newton supposedly produced. Then the freemasonic-founded Royal Society of London supported this CONSENSUS. Thereafter anyone who disagreed was an academic outcast. The TRUTH of theology however, remained safe. Galileo remains suspect of heresy and his heliocentrism remains empirically unproven.

    What happened then? Pope John Paul II’s papal commission on Galileo (1981-1992) tells us: ‘In 1741, in the face of optical [stellar aberration] and mechanical [Newton’s Gravitation] proof that the earth revolves around the sun, Pope Benedict XIV had the Holy Office grant an imprimatur to the first edition of the Complete Works of Galileo.’ Later, in 1820, Pope Pius VII, in effect, allowed the flock to believe heliocentrism is true and allowed biblical exegesis to interpret the Bible accordingly. Neither pope abrogated or derogated the 1616 decree, so in fact it remains in force. Now secularists can chose what system they like, but Churchmen had no such choice. So, based on a LIE (that geocentrism has been falsified), popes chose to ignore the supremacy of theology and betray their predecessors. Thus began a paradigm shift in Catholicism, the beginnings of a heresy called MODERNISM. Vatican Council of 1870 dogmatically stated that Peter is not elected to produce anything new, but to protect the faith. Faith changed is faith abandoned. But there were Popes Benedict XIV and Pius VII allowing a new doctrine and biblical exegesis. The consequences of this betrayal spelled the end of Catholicism as a credible faith in the eyes of the intellectual world. Catholics however, under the belief that their popes could never lead them astray, supported the LIE, just like the 200,000 non thinking Catholics that descended on St Peter’s Square (HELIOPOLIS) to support the Pope’s ‘TRUTH’. ‘Science’, that consensus of the Antichrists, could now dictate the Catholic interpretation of Scripture. Now Copernicans and evolutionists like Cardinal Newman could go about their changes ‘legally’. Genesis was consigned to the myth bin for a start. The ‘rising of the SUN was reinterpreted in a way that could also be used for revising the rising of the SON. The authority of the Church was now worth zilch in their eyes too. The divine guidance the Church claims now looked very suspect. I could go on and on.

    Consequently, Churchmen had to create a new synthesis in which a discredited Church could be restored. Every plausible excuse and sophistry was invented to rewrite history before 1741 to render the decree of 1616 not worth the paper it was written on. They succeeded with this whitewash for not a word of the 1616 decree is to be found in Church history. Meanwhile every other decree by the same Holy Office remains Church doctrine to this day as can be found in any sources of Catholic Dogma and Doctrine. But are these worthless for the same reasons?

    At Vatican II, the attending Modernists decided to ridicule the Popes and theologians of 1616 and 1633 in Gaudium et Spes, even making reference to a forged book on Galileo. This is the first time a suspected heretic’s work was ever cited in a council of the Church. The Holy Ghost must have had a day off when this went through, yes? Then we had the ‘Copernican Cannon’ as Pope John Paul II used to call himself when Bishop of Krakow. Credited as a master in the ‘faith and reason’ or ‘faith and science’ category, all his thinking is dictated by the Copernican and the evolutionary LIES of course. Following him came Fr Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. He too has a reputation as a master in the subject of ‘faith and reason’. After all, didn’t he in the 1980s write In the Beginning, a new interpretation of Genesis, again dictated by his belief in the ‘science’ of the Antichrists. Hardly a good philosophy with which to reinterpret Genesis? But they all thought it was ‘great’, a ‘masterpiece’.

    Let us now ask why the Pope stayed away from La Sapienza University. Forget the left-wing anti-Catholic student element, they exist everywhere so the Pope would go nowhere if he feared their ‘threat’. Besides isn’t he a pope who went to Muslim Turkey amid threats of SUICIDE BOMBERS. No, Fr Ratzinger is a master at the old Hegelian method, otherwise known to Freemasonry as Equilibrium, i.e., thesis, anti-thesis, and then compromise. He did it with the Muslims, put his thesis forward using the quote of another, got his antithesis, passed on the blame to the guy he quoted, and then the compromise, a Pope ‘praying’ with the Arians in a Mosque in Turkey, an act that no doubt caused Pope Pius XI to turn in his grave, if dead popes are allowed turn in their graves. He tried it again in a speech in 1990, referring to the philosophy of Ernst Bloch and quoting the philosopher Paul Feyerabend as concluding the church’s position in Galileo’s trial was ‘reasonable and fair’, which Cardinal Ratzinger said was ‘drastic’ as, I suspect, meaning an unusual interpretation for our times, which it is. Now one could get the impression, if words mean anything, that Ratzinger was telling all the Galileo trial was reasonable and fair. He is Pope after all, so must paint a picture that shows the Church as acting reasonable and fair in 1616/1633, and reasonable and fair in 1741/1820 of course. Once caught out with his thesis he gets a cardinal to state that when he said ‘drastic’, he meant such an idea was ‘nonsense’. In other words, here is a pope telling the world that the Church he represents as Vicar of Christ acted unreasonable and biased. Now perhaps the 200,000 who went to cheer him, and the millions who did so from afar, will know what they were cheering him for.

    What stunned the Vatican was that 67 Professors of Physics had resurrected the Galileo case and used it to beat the Church with, just as it has done throughout the centuries. And why was the Vatican stunned? Because they now realise that all the backtracking and revisionism indulged in by Churchmen since 1741 hasn’t convinced the intellectual world of secularism. This of course threw Pope Benedict XVI into confusion, for he knows Copernican Churchmen haven’t a leg to stand on. The irony of the La Sapienza affair was that here were 67 Professors giving out to a post 1741 pope when BOTH believe the 1616 popes and theologians were irresponsible ignorant mediaevals who didn’t know the difference between faith and science.

    Does anybody want me to go on, or shall you wait for my book THE EARTHMOVERS.

  • Galileo’s belief and adherence to the Copernican system is something I find difficult to understand.

    Copernicus’ system involved more epicycles than Ptolemy’s, so as a calculating method it was not simpler.

    The only observational evidence Galileo had at the time he wrote Dialogo, were the Jovian satellites, and the phases of Venus. Neither conclusively supported a heliocentric system. The phases of Venus could be explained equally well in the Tychonic system. The four satellites orbiting Jupiter demonstrated objects could orbit another planet. So not everything had to orbit Earth. But that was no unambiguous refutation of the Ptolemaic system.

    As far as I am aware Galileo found no evidence of axial rotation of Jupiter, Venus, Mars or Saturn. Although he was a co-discoverer of the Sun’s axial rotation. He had no other observational evidence to support his argument for Earth’s diurnal motion. It was merely an assumption for which he could provide no suporting arguments.

    Then there are the parallax observations.

    In 1999 Leos Ondra sought original sources to accurately date the first telescopic double star observation. He unearthed an obscure article published in 1949 by Umberto Fidele. On following up Fidele’s work, Ondra found that Mizar had first been observed by Galileo and his former Benedictine student of mathematics, Benedetto Castelli in 1617. Galileo had resolved its components and measured their angular separation and sizes, but the observations had not been published.

    A method devised by Ludovico Ramponi was sent to Galileo in a letter dated 23rd July 1611. Ramponi suggested the use of a double star as an experimental test of whether the Earth moved. In seeking evidence to support the Copernican Heliocentric system, Galileo knew he could use a double star to determine stellar parallax, because the Earth’s orbit would provide a moving platform, which should manifest itself in the course of its annual motion about the Sun. Ramponi wrote to Galileo on 21st May 1612 asking whether he had observed the apparent shift of a star due to the Earth’s orbit. Galileo did not reply.

    Based on his subsequent 1617 observations, Galileo’s notes (“Analecta astronomica” published posthumously) give the apparent size of Mizar’s two components to be 6 & 4 arcsecs, with a gap of 10 arcsecs, corresponding to a centre separation of 15 arcsecs, in good agreement with modern measurements. (14″.7)

    Using these measurements Galileo, assuming the two stars were roughly the same size as the Sun, determined Mizar A to be 1/300th the Sun’s apparent size, or at 300 times the Sun’s distance, and Mizar B to lie at 450 times the Sun’s distance.

    Knowing their respective distances Galileo must have expected Mizar to provide conclusive proof that the Earth was in motion. The parallax of Mizar A would be ±11.5 arcmins & Mizar B ±7.6 arcmins. Thus their motion relative to each other would be approximately ±4 arcmins, easily dwarfing their 15 arcsec separation.

    Galileo must have thought he would see the components swing around each other dramatically over a period of weeks or months. But Mizar A & B did not budge. There was no way for Galileo to know that diffraction, caused by the wave nature of light, hid the true sizes of Mizar A & B, and no way for him to know they were impossibly remote; no way therefore for him to know their parallax was also impossibly small. He must have been perplexed by the absence of parallactic motion. Logically all Galileo could have concluded was that the Earth was at rest.

    Yet in the “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems – Ptolemaic & Copernican” published in 1632, Galileo states that the Earth moves and that stars are suns at differing distances, knowing full well he had singularly failed to obtain any observational evidence to support his belief.

    But Galileo in his “Dialogo” went further. In it he makes it clear that the question of annual parallax is the critcal issue. Furthermore, the search for this phenomenon is viewed as a problem in its own right. This problem, Galileo declared, had not so far been tackled or even comprehended by anyone.

    Through correspondence with Kepler in 1597, Galileo knew before attempting to measure the parallax of Mizar A & B that Tycho Brahe’s estimated minimum distance of the stars, assuming the Copernican system correct, to be 7.85 million earth radii. The Sun was then assumed to lie at 226 Solar radii. The Sun was supposed to be 66 times bigger than the Earth, giving distances to the stars of roughly 523au.

    We are obliged to conclude Galileo & Castelli’s measurements of Mizar A & B, and their inability to see any parallactic shift, were deliberately witheld. They knew their measurements were accurate. The calculated distances inferred a parallax easily measureable with their telescopes, and much larger than those estimated by Tycho Brahe. Galileo must also have been aware that Tycho Brahe’s measurements were accurate to ±24arcsecs. A parallax of ±11.5 arcmins aught to have already been detected.

    We will probably never know whether Galileo tried to get to the bottom of why this crucial observational test failed. Yet it is clear he intentionally left the impression he was handing the quest to find the parallax onto posterity to bolster his own authority as a proponent of Copernicanism.

  • T

    You are saying Galileo had information that would have made it logically impossible to support Copernicanism but deliberately withheld it? That kind of goes against the text books, and would rather change the story. Can you back that up with a source?

  • The source of the above information on Galileo is my article on the web: