February 7, 2008
Just two weeks ago, a small group of radical students joined together with sixty-seven professors to protest Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to their university. The Pope was scheduled to give the inaugural address for La Sapienza University on January 17. Students orchestrated their protest by hosting "an anti-clergy week." They carried banners announcing that their university was a lay institution and the Pope was not welcome.
In 2006, Pope Benedict’s Regensburg address had sparked protests from Muslims around the world. Despite the anger aimed at him, the Pope did not cancel his visit to Turkey. However, the harsh words in the heart of Rome kept him away from the university.
The students fueled their antagonism against the Church by showing a film on Galileo. The case of Galileo is famous and just as misunderstood. This 17th-century physicist who taught that the earth revolves around the sun ran into difficulty with the Church.
The historical context of Galileo’s day is far removed from our times. Some scientists stood with Copernicus and argued for a heliocentric universe. Others remained committed to Ptolemy’s geocentric universe. Since there were no proofs yet for either theory, both could be held by rational individuals. At the same time that scientists were putting forth a theory that seemed to contradict the biblical view of the universe, Protestants were accusing the Church of not taking Sacred Scripture seriously.
Many churchmen did accept Copernicus’ theory, as did Galileo. Galileo was not seen as an enemy of the Church. In fact, Pope Urban VIII liked Galileo. So did the head of the Inquisition, Cardinal Robert Bellarmine. However, the Church was not yet ready to adopt a scientific theory that appeared to be at odds with Scripture. She had not yet learned to disengage the cosmological question from the theological issue.
Galileo was simply asked not to speak as a theologian. But he chose to do otherwise and he suffered the consequences. Galileo was disciplined not so much for his theory as for his disrespect for Church authority. A greater disrespect some students of La Sapienza University now nurture along with their teachers. These protesters have paid no attention to history. But the Church has!
In 1992, Pope John Paul II issued a declaration saying the denunciation of Galileo was an error. It resulted from "tragic mutual incomprehension" of the real issue. It did not recognize the legitimate autonomy of theology and science. The final report of the commission set up by Pope John Paul II to examine the Galileo case states: “Certain theologians, Galileo’s contemporaries, being heirs of a unitary concept of the world universally accepted until the dawn of the seventeenth century, failed to grasp the profound, non-literal meaning of the Scriptures when they described the physical structure of the created universe. This led them unduly to transpose a question of factual observation into the realm of faith” (
L’Osservatore Romano, November 1, 1992).
The students of La Sapienza have ripped the Galileo case out of its historical and cultural context. They have made the Galileo case into a myth to propagate an antagonism between faith and science that simply does not exist. They seem to have forgotten the historical fact that their hero Galileo himself had faith. Like Descartes and Newton, he believed in a God whose work of creation could be discovered by reason. His faith was not antagonistic to science in his day. But the students’ understanding of science is antagonistic to religion today.
These enlightened moderns refuse to learn the historical lesson that the Galileo case clearly teaches. If we wish to keep tragic misunderstandings from occurring in our day, then we must foster and not deny the continuing dialogue between science and theology.
If the students had done their homework and let reason, not passion, dictate their actions, they would have welcomed the Pope. Then they would have heard him speak directly to the issue that troubles them. As a servant of truth, he was coming to enter into dialogue with those who seek the truth through the disciplines taught at the university.
The Pope was going to tell them, “Philosophy must truly remain a quest conducted by reason with freedom and responsibility” (
L’Osservatore Romano, January 23, 2008, pg. 4). He was coming to invite them to explore truth “in company with the great minds throughout history” (
ibid, pg. 4). He was willing to remind them that “passion for the truth … invariably points beyond each individual answer” (
ibid). This is something our age needs to hear.
When the protesters of La Sapienza closed their doors to the Pope’s visit, they turned their backs on their own history. The 13
th century birth certificate of the university lists Pope Boniface the VIII as its founder. In fact, over the years, popes, like Pope Eugene IV, had supported the university until it was taken over by the Italian State in 1870.
Today, it is not the Church that refuses to learn from history. The speech Pope Benedict prepared to deliver at the university reflects humility in the face of truth as did Pope John Paul II’s words in 1992. The Pope admits, “Various things said by theologians in the course of history, or even adopted in the practice by ecclesiastical authorities, have been shown by history to be false, and today make us ashamed” (
Today, it is the radical secularists who are ready to jettison the past. They want reason to be free to construct itself without any reference to history. As a result, they choose to jettison the accumulated body of knowledge in the great religious traditions of the world. They choose to cast out this heritage of wisdom “with impunity into the dust-bin of the history of ideas” (
ibid, pg. 3) and leave us all impoverished. Thank God for the gift of Pope Benedict who speaks with a richer message!