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. (more…)