Pope Benedict XVI. Photo by Kancelaria Prezydenta via Wikimedia Commons

From La Sapienza to Reason

The door slammed in the Pope’s face by the Roman university? Is it a “regrettable incident,” to be forgotten in a hurry or remarkable opportunity to get to the bottom of the relationship between faith, knowledge, and the search for the truth?
Stefano Filippi

The mobilization began at once, as soon as the “Letter of the 67” was made public, even before Benedict XVI canceled his visit to La Sapienza (wisdom) University.  It was not just a response to the anti-papal front, as the cultural climate in Italy pretends, liking nothing better than drawing battle lines, squabbling, scrapping, and making declarations that all get the same kind of airing on the TV news programs, whatever their value. It was something more than a mere show of support for the Pope, who at that time (the opening days of the new year) was still almost completely isolated.  It was already clear that this was just the opening shot in a cultural battle, a debate about faith and reason, just one of the many fronts opened by the teaching of Benedict XVI.

There was a first appeal to the academics, a text addressed not generically to the academic world but to members of the faculty, a request for colleagues to express a judgment. In a few days, the document (a letter to Professor Ruggero Guarini, Rector of La Sapienza) received some 650 signatures: ten times more than the letter of the “67 scientists faithful to reason.” The signatories were all teachers and researchers, mostly in scientific fields. Starting from the Catholic world, the collection of signatures soon covered the whole social spectrum. 

“That letter was backed by people’s spontaneous desire to express disappointment and regret that the Rome faculty failed to grasp the great opportunity and privilege of welcoming a colleague,” said Marco Bersanelli, who teaches Astrophysics at the University of Milan. “Because Joseph Ratzinger isn’t just the Pope, he’s a colleague, a great scholar.”

Pushing scientism. 
“It speaks volumes about the cultural impoverishment of our university.” Bersanelli is echoed by another of the signatories of the document, Giovanni Maria Prosperi, Distinguished Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Milan. “This isn’t science, it’s scientism, meaning the ideological claim to explain the whole of reality without moving beyond the limits of the scientific method. But rationality, correctly understood, requires us to measure ourselves against broader horizons.” 

The “Letter of the 600,” which expressed support for Guarini and encouraged him to take a stand against “prejudice and intolerance,” finds unacceptable “the tone, the form, and the substance of the letters” in which the Pope was asked to stay away from the university. 

“The attitude of the Pope and of the Church,” we read, “with its strong appeal to reason and against relativism, seems much more respectful and in conformity with the scientific spirit of many currents of modern thought.” It continues: “The idea that knowledge obtained by the methods of the natural sciences cannot claim to be exhaustive of all that the human spirit aspires to know seems not in the least damaging to Science, but rather aligned with the most modern epistemology. We think it is, at any rate, a thesis worthy of respect and which ought to be the object of serene cultural debate.”

An ideological attitude
. When the Pope decided against visiting La Sapienza, the document seemed irrelevant. In reality, the cultural battle is just beginning. 
“If you read the speech penned by Benedict XVI,” explains Bersanelli, “you at once note the disproportion between the rigid and ideological attitude of the 67 signatories and the elevated concept of reason expressed by the Pope, the true defender of freedom and secularism.” Yet this concept of reason is kept under wraps in Italian universities. Having gotten over the dust-up at La Sapienza, people are now acting as if nothing had happened. There’s an attempt to pretend it was all an accident, but actually the universities are rife with closed minds and intolerance. And the watchword remains a mistaken “secularism.” Confirmation? Rita Levi Montalcini, Nobel Laureate for Medicine, visited Milan to receive an honorary degree in Industrial Biotechnologies from the Università Bicocca. When asked by journalists if she favored the invitation to the Pope, she responded, “I’m a member of the Vatican [of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences], so I was unable to sign a document I approve of wholeheartedly.” In short, she was ready to silence Ratzinger.

The most interesting game
. So the mobilization continues, taking the form of an Appeal for Reason and Freedom in the Universities. Launched by 90 professors, within days the number quadrupled, gaining the support of four rectors (Lorenzo Ornaghi of Università Cattolica, Giuseppe Dalla Torre of LUMSA, Roberto Sani of Macerata, and Paolo Scarafoni of Università Europea di Roma) and numerous deans of faculties. There was widespread support of its “defense of that breadth and fullness of reason, of that freedom for research and discussion, which we consider essential to the exercise of our responsibility as teachers, for the present and future of the university and therefore for our life as a society and for our civilization.” Signatories now include the President Emeritus of the Constitutional Court Annibale Marini, the constitutionalist (and former Deputy of the PCI-PDS) Augusto Barbera, the jurist (and former Senator of AN) Giuseppe Valditara, and the mathematician and member of the French Academy of Sciences Laurent Lafforgue. Others include Giancarlo Cesana, Giorgio Vittadini, Giorgio Feliciani, Francesco Botturi, Lorenza Violini... In three days, the website (www.appellouniversita.net) gained 350 signatories, many from abroad, and it is just beginning. But it is in the lecture theaters and tutorial rooms, in relations between teacher and teacher, that the most interesting game is being played out, and where the most unexpected things happen. 

Some rectors read the appeal, nod approvingly, but then refuse to sign, counseling prudence and the need to wait until the storm blows over. Many deans of faculties do the same, in some cases waiting to see if the rector will sign and so approve  their support. Something unbelievable happened at the Milan Politecnico. A long motion was presented condemning “the regrettable and inopportune happenings in Rome,” confirming that the university is “a place open to dialogue” and thanking the Pope “for the elevated content of his text.” After an hour and forty minutes of discussion, the motion passed, but with one small editorial cut: the direct reference to Benedict XVI. The document praised the idea of the university fostered by Ratzinger without mentioning him.

Much of the academic world is shaken by what happened at La Sapienza, seeing what is at stake and refusing to let things slide. At Università Cattolica (Catholic University in Milan), the Pope’s speech was read in the Great Hall packed with 700 people–undergrads, faculty, and technical staff. From the universities in Milan (Politecnico and Cattolica), public meetings spread to universities across Italy to discuss the text of the appeal and above all the contents of Benedict XVI’s discourse.

A secular stand
. Unexpected support flowed in–for example, from Professor Bruno Bosco, who holds the chair of Science of Finance at Bicocca. Bosco is well known for his militancy on the political left and studies of the Tobin Tax and the Cuban economy. But on the day the Pope canceled his visit, he proposed that his students spend the two-hour lecture discussing the event of the day. The students were agreeable. And mute. So he offered his opinion: “If the Pope were to come to the Bicocca, I would regard it as an undeserved honor.” Applause from the benches, then, again, silence. 

When the appeal was submitted to him, he signed it immediately. “I don’t agree with every point,” he commented, “but at this moment I wish to affirm a true secular position. The future of the university is at stake.”