Protests prompt pope to cancel university speech

Times Staff Writer

It’s a big deal when the pope agrees to speak at an event that isn’t church-related.

It’s an even bigger deal when public protest forces him to cancel.

Veteran Vatican-watchers said they’d never seen anything quite like it. Pope Benedict XVI on Tuesday abruptly called off plans to speak at Rome’s prestigious La Sapienza university, after students and professors rallied to proclaim him pontiff non grata.

More than 60 professors signed a letter to the public school’s rector saying the pope’s appearance, which had been scheduled for the opening of the academic year Thursday, was an affront to people of science and to the “secular” nature of the institution.

Students staged a sit-in Tuesday, waving banners with angry slogans (“Knowledge needs neither fathers nor priests”) and launching what they dubbed “anti-cleric week.”


“This pope unfortunately is not particularly friendly to science,” physics professor Andrea Frova, one of the La Sapienza academics who signed the petition, said in an interview.

Frova and the others said they were offended by a comment made by the pope 17 years ago, when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, that called the heresy trial of 17th century astronomer Galileo “reasonable.” (In fact, Ratzinger was quoting another philosopher in that passage, part of a long speech on the Roman Catholic Church and Europe.)

The issue goes beyond Galileo, Frova said, and to the church’s position today on stem cell research, evolution and genetic engineering.

“History changes; the scientific problems are different today than in the time of Galileo, but the attitudes of the church stay the same,” he said.

The pope would be welcome at the university to debate these issues, Frova said, but not to deliver a speech in which there would be no opportunity for discussion or response.

Given the incidents of the last few days, a brief Vatican press statement said, “it was considered opportune” to scrap the event.

Is the pope hostile toward science? Benedict is a strong intellectual who has emphasized the importance of reason in the practice of faith. Yet he also says evolution is the work of a divine creator, and helped defeat Italian laws that liberalized scientifically assisted fertility.

Italy lives in the shadow of the Vatican, and mainstream politicians rarely challenge or criticize the pope. Officials in both the government and the opposition were quick to lament the protests that waylaid Benedict.

Prime Minister Romano Prodi expressed “solidarity” with the pope and condemned the “unacceptable attitudes of intolerance.”

The left-wing minister for family policy, Rosy Bindi, who has clashed with the church on reproductive health and similar issues, said she was “very saddened” by the episode. “This is not a pretty day for our democratic republic,” she said.

“You don’t have to agree with what he says, but the right to speak must not be denied to anyone,” Universities Minister Fabio Mussi said, according to the Italian news agency Ansa.

Pier Ferdinando Casini, head of a main Christian Democratic party, said that with professors like this, “we must fear for the future of our children.”

The students who led the protests celebrated their “victory for laicism,” whereas the rector of La Sapienza, Renato Guarini, said he was dismayed that a “small publicity-seeking minority” had managed to derail a papal visit to an institution founded, as it happens, by one of Benedict’s predecessors, Pope Boniface VIII -- 700 years ago.