University of Rome closes its doors to Pope Benedict

Here’s the Lesson They Didn’t Want to Hear

A group of teachers and students forced Benedict XVI to cancel his visit to “La Sapienza.” But the professor pope did not give up: he made public, a day early, the address that he had written for the occasion. It is the follow-up to the formidable lecture in Regensburg, on the ultimate questions of faith and reason.

By Sandro Magister

ROME — They welcomed him at the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. They offered him the lectern at the university of Regensburg. They’re waiting for him in New York, for an address to the United Nations.

But not at the Rome university “La Sapienza.” He’s shut out. Benedict XVI had to decline to deliver an address, on Thursday, Jan. 17, at the main university of the diocese of which he is bishop. The university that had already received visits from Paul VI in 1964,and from John Paul II in 1991.

The unprecedented cancellation of the pope’s visit was announced at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 15, in a curt press release from the Vatican press office.

The following day, Wednesday, the 16th, the cardinal secretary of state wrote in these words to the rector of the university that had invited Benedict XVI, professor Renato Guarino:

“Since at the initiative of a decidedly minority group of professors and students, the conditions for a dignified and peaceful welcome were lacking, it has been judged prudent to delay the scheduled visit in order to remove any pretext for demonstrations that would have been unpleasant for all.

“But in the awareness of the sincere desire on the part of the great majority of the professors and students for culturally significant words from which they can take encouragement for their personal journey in search of the truth, the Holy Father has arranged to send you the text he prepared personally for the occasion […] with the hope that all may find within it ideas for enriching reflections and examinations.”

And on the afternoon of that same day, “L’Osservatore Romano” published the complete text of the address that the pope was supposed to have read the following day at the “La Sapienza” university.

It is a lecture that is related to the one Benedict XVI delivered at the university of Regensburg on September 12, 2005. The subjects are the nature and tasks of the university, the relationship between truth and freedom, between faith and reason, among philosophy, theology, and the other branches of knowledge, between the Church and the modern world.

It is a lecture of capital importance for understanding the thought of pope Joseph Ratzinger, his incessant call upon reason — to take up the pursuit of truth, of goodness, of God, and along this journey to glimpse the guiding lights that have arisen throughout the history of the Christian faith.

The original text of the address, in Italian, is on the Vatican website:
“Per me motivo di profonda gioia incontrare …”

What follows here is an ample extract from this address, followed by some information on the background of the pope’s aborted visit to the university of Rome:

“I do not come to impose my faith, but to call for courage on behalf of the truth”

By Benedict XVI

[…] What can and should the pope say in meeting with his city’s university? Reflecting on this question, it seemed to me that it includes two more questions, the clarification of which should by itself lead to the answer. It is necessary, in fact, to ask: What is the nature and mission of the papacy? And again: What is the nature and mission of the university? […]

The pope is, first of all, the bishop of Rome, and as such, in virtue of apostolic succession from the apostle Peter, he has episcopal responsibility in regard to the entire Catholic Church. […] But this community that the bishop cares for — as large or small as it may be — lives in the world; its conditions, its journey, its example, and its words inevitably influence the rest of the human community in its entirety. […] The pope speaks as the representative of a believing community, in which throughout the centuries of its existence a specific life wisdom has matured. He speaks as the representative of a community that holds within itself a treasury of ethical understanding and experience, which is important for all of humanity. In this sense, he speaks as the representative of a form of ethical reasoning.

But now we must ask: And what is a university? What is its task? […] I think it can be said that the true, deep origin of the university lies in the thirst for knowledge that is proper to man. He wants to know about everything around him. He wants truth.

In this sense, the questioning of Socrates can be seen as the impulse from which the Western university was born. I think, for example — to mention just one text — of the dispute with Euthyphro, who defended before Socrates his mythical religion and his devotion. To this, Socrates poses the question: “Do you believe that there truly exist among the gods mutual warfare and terrible enmities and battles? Must we, Euthyphro, really say that all of this is true?” (6 b-c). In this question, which hardly seems devout — but which in Socrates, instead, originated in a deeper and more pure religiosity, from the search for the truly divine God — the Christians of the first centuries recognized themselves and their own journey. They did not accept the faith in a positivist manner, or as the way to escape from unrequited desires; they understood it as the dispelling of the fog of mythological religion, to make room for the God who is the creative Reason, and at the same time Reason-Love. For this reason, the reasoned reflection about the greatest God and about the true nature and meaning of the human being was not a problematic lack of religious devotion, but was part of the essence of their way of being religious. They therefore did not need to undo or set aside Socratic questioning, but they were able, and even required, to accept it and acknowledge as part of their own identity reason’s laborious search for understanding the whole truth. Thus in the domain of the Christian faith, in the Christian world, the university could and even had to emerge.

A further step is necessary. Man wants to know, he wants truth. Truth is in the first place a matter of seeing, of understanding, of theory, as the Greek tradition calls it. But the truth is never solely theoretical. In making a comparison between the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount and the gifts of the Holy Spirit mentioned in Isaiah 11, Augustine asserted a reciprocity between “scientia” and “tristitia”: simply knowing, he says, makes us sad. And in fact, those who see and learn only what happens in the world end up sad. But truth means more than just knowing: the knowledge of the truth has as its aim the understanding of the good. This is also the meaning of Socratic questioning: What is the good that makes us true? The truth makes us good, and goodness is truth: this is the optimism that lives in the Christian faith, because it has been granted the vision of the Logos, of the creative Reason that, in the incarnation of God, revealed itself at the same time as the Good, as Goodness itself.

In medieval theology, there was an extensive dispute about the relationship between theory and practice, about the right relationship between knowing and acting — a dispute the we need not elaborate here. In fact, the medieval university with its four faculties presents this correlation.

Let’s begin with the faculty that, according to the understanding at the time, was the fourth, that of medicine.

Even if was considered more an “art” than a science, nevertheless its insertion into the cosmos of the universitas clearly meant that it was placed within the domain of rationality, that the art of healing was under the guidance of reason and removed from the domain of magic. Healing is a task that requires increasing use of simple reason, but precisely for this reason it needs the connection between knowledge and power, it needs to belong to the sphere of ratio.

Inevitably there appears the question of the relation between practice and theory, between knowledge and action, in the faculty of jurisprudence as well.

The matter is one of giving the right form to human freedom, which is always freedom in reciprocal communion: law is the condition for freedom, not its antagonist. But here the question immediately arises: How can the criteria of justice be identified that make possible a freedom that is lived together, and that help man to become good?

At this point we need to jump back into the present: the question is how a juridical norm can be found that guarantees the ordering of freedom, human dignity, and human rights. This is the question that occupies us today in the democratic processes of opinion formation, and that at the same time fills us with anxiety over the future of humanity.

In my view, Jorgen Habermas expresses a vast consensus in current thought when he says that the legitimacy of a constitutional charter, as the precondition for legality, is derived from two sources: from the egalitarian political participation of all citizens, and from the reasonable manner in which political disagreements are resolved.

Concerning this “reasonable manner,” he notes that this cannot be solely a struggle for an arithmetical majority, but that it must characterize itself as a “process of argumentation sensitive to the truth” (wahrheitssensibles Argumentationsverfahren). This is well said, but it is a very difficult thing to transform into political practice. The representatives of that public “process of argumentation” are — we know — predominantly the political parties as the agents for shaping political will. In fact, these will unfailingly aim above all at attaining majorities, and in this they will almost inevitably pay attention to interests that they promise to satisfy; but these are often special interests and do not truly serve everyone. Sensitivity to the truth is constantly overruled by sensitivity toward interests. I find significant the fact that Habermas speaks of sensitivity to truth as an element necessary in the process of political argumentation, thus reinserting the concept of truth into philosophical and political debate.

But then the question of Pilate becomes inevitable: What is truth? And how is it recognized? If for this one turns back to “public reason,” as John Rawls does, the question arises once again: What is reasonable? How does a form of reason demonstrate itself as true? In any case, on the basis of this it becomes clear that in the search for the right to freedom, for truth, for just coexistence, attention must be paid to voices different from those of political parties and interest groups, without wanting to contest their importance in the least.

We thus return to the structure of the medieval university. Beside the faculty of jurisprudence there were the faculties of philosophy and theology, to which were entrusted the study of man in his entirety, and with this the task of keeping alive the sensitivity to truth.

It might even be said that this is the permanent and true meaning of both faculties: to be custodians of the sensitivity to truth, not to allow man to be drawn away from the search for truth. But how can these fulfill their task? This is a question that always demands strenuous new efforts, and that is never posed and resolved definitively. Thus, at this point, not even I can properly offer an answer, but rather an invitation to remain on the journey with this question — on the journey with the great ones who throughout history have struggled and sought, with their responses and their restlessness for the truth, which continually beckons from beyond any individual answer.

Theology and philosophy form in this way a peculiar pair of twins, neither of which can be completely separated from the other, while each must preserve its own task and its own identity.

It is an historical merit of Saint Thomas Aquinas — in the face of the different response from the Fathers, because of their historical context — that he brought to light the autonomy of philosophy and with this the rights and responsibilities proper to reason, which ponders on the basis of its powers.

Differentiating themselves from the Neoplatonic philosophies, in which religion and philosophy were inseparably woven together, the Fathers had presented the Christian faith as the true philosophy, emphasizing also that this faith corresponds to the demands of reason in search of the truth; that faith is the “yes” to the truth, compared to the mythical religions that had become mere routine. But then, at the moment of the university’s birth, those religions did not exist anymore in the West, but only Christianity, and thus it needed to emphasize in a new way the responsibility proper to reason, which is not swallowed up by faith.

Thomas found himself working at a privileged moment: for the first time, Aristotle’s philosophical writings were accessible in their entirety: Jewish philosophy and Arab philosophy were present, as specific appropriations and continuations of Greek philosophy. Thus Christianity, in a new dialogue with the reasoning of the others that it encountered, had to struggle to establish its own reasonableness. The faculty of philosophy, which as a so-called “faculty of artists” until that moment had been only a preparation for theology, now became a true and proper faculty, an autonomous partner of theology and of the faith reflected in it.

We cannot here dwell upon the fascinating encounter that ensued: I would say that Saint Thomas’s idea about the relationship between philosophy and theology could be expressed in the Christological formula determined by the Council of Chalcedon: philosophy and theology must interact “without confusion and without separation.”

“Without confusion” means that each of the two must preserve its own identity. Philosophy must remain truly a search conducted by reason in its own freedom and responsibility; it must see its limitations and thus also its greatness and vastness. Theology must continue to draw upon a treasury of knowledge that it did not invent itself, that always transcends it and that, since it can never be completely exhausted by reflection, precisely for this reason continually gives new impetus to thought.

The principle “without confusion” is joined by that of “without separation”: philosophy does not revisit its subject from the starting point each time, thinking in an isolated way, but it takes its place in the great dialogue of historical wisdom, which it always welcomes and develops with both discernment and docility. But neither must it close itself off to what the religions, and in particular the Christian faith, have received and given to humanity as the guideposts of its journey.

A number of the things said by theologians over the course of history, or put into practice by the ecclesial authorities, have been shown to by false by history, and today these puzzle us. But at the same time, it is true that the history of the saints, the history of the humanism that was built on the foundation of the Christian faith, demonstrate the truth of this faith at its essential core, thus also making it a voice of public reason. Of course, much of what theology and faith say can be practiced only within the context of faith, and therefore cannot be presented as a demand on those to whom this faith remains inaccessible. At the same time it is true, however, that the message of the Christian faith is never a “comprehensive religious doctrine” in Rawls’ sense, but is a purifying force for reason, which it helps to be more itself. The Christian message, on the basis of its origin, should always be an encouragement to seek the truth, and thus a force against the pressure of power and special interests.

So far I have spoken only of the medieval university, seeking in any case to make clear the permanent nature of the university and its task. In modern times, new dimensions of knowledge have been discovered, which in the university are mainly emphasized in two great areas: first of all, in the natural sciences, which have been developed on the basis of the connection between experimentation and the supposed rationality of the subject; and in the second place, in the historical and humanistic sciences, in which man, gazing into the mirror of his history and clarifying the dimensions of his nature, seeks to understand himself better.

In this development, what has opened before humanity is not only an immense measure of knowledge and power. The understanding and recognition of the rights and dignity of man have also grown, and for this we can only be grateful.

But man’s journey can never be called complete, and the danger of falling into inhumanity is never simply dispelled by fiat: we can see this in the panorama of today’s events! The danger for the Western world — to speak only of this — is now that man, precisely in consideration of the greatness of his wisdom and power, could surrender before the question of the truth. And this means, at the same time, that in the end reason collapses under pressure from special interests and under the lure of utility, being forced to recognize this as the ultimate criterion.

Expressed from the point of view of the university’s structure, this means: there is the danger that philosophy, no longer feeling itself capable of fulfilling its true task, would degrade into positivism; that theology, with its message addressed to reason, would be confined to the private sphere of a more or less substantial group. But if reason — engrossed in its own presumed purity — becomes deaf to the great message that comes to it from the Christian faith and its wisdom, it dries up like a tree whose roots no longer reach the water that gives it life. It loses its courage for the truth, and thus diminishes instead of increasing.

Applied to our European culture, this means: if this wants only to construct itself on the basis of its own circular reasoning and of what it finds convincing at the moment, and — preoccupied with its secular character — separates itself from the roots by which it lives, it then does not become more reasonable and more pure, but disintegrates and collapses.

With this I return to the point of departure. What can the pope do or say in the university? Certainly he must not seek in an authoritarian way to make others accept the faith, which can only be given in freedom. Beyond his ministry as pastor in the Church, on the basis of the intrinsic nature of this pastoral ministry it is his task to keep alive the sensitivity toward truth; to invite reason continually to take up the pursuit of truth, of goodness, of God, and along this journey to glimpse the guiding lights that have arisen throughout the history of the Christian faith, and thus to perceive Jesus Christ as the Light that illuminates history and helps us find the way toward the future.

The background on the failed visit. And Benedict XVI’s thought on Galileo

Two hours before the visit was cancelled, on the afternoon of Tuesday, Jan. 15, “L’Osservatore Romano” published a front-page column that foreshadowed the cancellation and explained the reason for it.

The author of the note was not an ecclesiastic of the Vatican curia, but Giorgio Israel, a Jewish professor of the history of mathematics at the same “La Sapienza” university of Rome that the pope was supposed to have visited.

That it should be a non-Catholic intellectual to explain what happened, in the newspaper of the pope, was emblematic of how Benedict XVI looks at what a university should be: a “cosmos” of reason in its various dimensions and specializations, which are called to listen to each other, to work together, to critique each other; a “cosmos” of which the faiths are also a living part, on the same footing as the sciences, each with its distinctive characteristics.

But this is not what the opponents to the pope’s visit wanted: a handful of professors, 67 out of a total of 4,500, and a few dozen students, out of a total of 135,000. But these were strongly supported by a segment of secular Italian culture, also small in size but very present and noisy in the media.

Here, then, is what professor Israel wrote in the edition of “L’Osservatore Romano” printed on the afternoon of Jan. 15:


By Giorgio Israel

It is surprising that those who have chosen as their motto the famous phrase attributed to Voltaire — “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” — should oppose the pope’s delivering an address at the “La Sapienza” university of Rome. It is all the more surprising in that the Italian universities are places open to every sort of expression, and it is inexplicable that the pope alone should be barred from entering.

What could have been so serious as to have prompted the setting aside of Voltairean tolerance? One of the pope’s opponents, the professor Marcello Cini, explained this in the letter of last November in which he condemned the invitation issued by the university’s rector, Renato Guarini, to Benedict XVI. What appears “dangerous” to him is that the pope should attempt to open a conversation between faith and reason, to re-establish a relationship between the Judeo-Christian and Hellenistic traditions, that he would not want science and faith to be separated by an impenetrable seal.

This design is intolerable for Cini because he imagines that in reality it is dictated by the perverse intention — which Benedict XVI is thought to have cultivated since he was “head of the Holy Office” — to “bring science under control” and place it back inside “the pseudo-rationality of the dogmas of religion.”

Moreover, according to Cini, the pope had also produced the sinister effect of provoking vehement reactions from the Muslim world. We doubt, however, that Cini would ask a Muslim religious representative to issue a “mea culpa” for the persecution of Averroes before setting foot in “La Sapienza.” We are certain, on the contrary, that he would welcome him with open arms in the name of the principles of dialogue and tolerance.

The opposition to the pope’s visit is therefore not motivated by an abstract and traditional principle of secularism. The opposition is of an ideological character, and has as its specific target Benedict XVI, in that he permits himself to speak of science and of the relationship between science and faith, instead of limiting himself to speaking of faith.

The letter against the visit signed by a group of physics professors was also inspired by a sentiment of distaste for the very person of the pope, whom they presented as an obstinate enemy of Galileo.

They upbraid the pope for having used — in a conference he gave at “La Sapienza” on February 15, 1990 (cf. J. J. Ratzinger, “Wendezeit far Europa? Diagnosen und Prognosen zur Lage von Kirche und Welt,” Einsiedeln-Freiburg, Johannes Verlag, 1991, pp. 59 e 71) — this phrase from the philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend: “At the time of Galileo, the Church remained more faithful to reason than Galileo himself. The trial of Galileo was reasonable and just.”

But they did not bother to read, in full and attentively, that address by the then-cardinal Ratzinger. Its theme was science’s crisis of faith in itself, and it gave as an example of this the changing attitudes about the Galileo case. If in the eighteenth century Galileo was the emblem of the Church’s medieval obscurantism, in the twentieth century attitudes changed and it was emphasized that Galileo had not furnished convincing proofs of the heliocentric system, culminating in the statement by Feyerabend — whom Ratzinger describes as “an agnostic-skeptic philosopher — and that of Carl Friedrich von Weizsacker, who went so far as to establish a direct line between Galileo and the atomic bomb.

Cardinal Ratzinger did not use these citations to seek retaliation and stitch together justifications: “It would be absurd,” he said, “to construct a hasty apologetics on the basis of these statements. The faith does not grow from a standpoint of resentment and rejection of rationality.”

Instead, he used the citations as proof of how much “modernity’s self-doubt has today affected science and technology.”

In other words, the address from 1990 can well be considered, by those who read it with a minimum of attention, as a defense of Galilean rationality against the skepticism and relativism of postmodern culture.

Besides, anyone who is at all familiar with the recent statements of Benedict XVI on this topic knows very well how he looks with “admiration” on Galileo’s famous statement that the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics.

How could it happen that university teachers should run headlong into such a disaster? A teacher should consider it as a failure of his profession to have sent such a careless, superficial, and patchy letter, which leads to real and genuine distortions.

But I am afraid that intellectual rigor is of little interest here, and that the intention is to strike blows at any cost. Nor does secularism have anything to do with it, a category foreign to the behavior of some of the signatories, who have never said even a single word against Islamic fundamentalism or against the denial of the Holocaust. In this incident there has emerged a part of secular culture that makes no arguments, but demonizes. It does not discuss, like true secular culture does, but creates monsters. In this sense, this threat against the pope is a dramatic event, in both cultural and civil terms.

In addendum to what professor Israel wrote, it should be noted that the conference delivered by then-cardinal Ratzinger at the Rome university “La Sapienza” on February 15, 1990, with the passages on Galileo Galilei, was a re-presentation of a conference he had given earlier in Rieti on December 16, 1989. Ratzinger again repeated the conference, with the necessary adaptations, in Madrid on February 24, 1990, and in Parma on March 15 of the same year.

The text of the conference was then included in a volume published by Johannes Verlag in Germany 1991, and in 1992 in Italy by Edizioni Paoline, under the title “Svolta per l’Europa? Chiesa e modernità nell’Europa dei rivolgimenti [A Turning Point for Europe? The Church and Modernity in the Europe of Upheavals].”

Here you will find the passage from the book with Ratzinger’s observations on the Galileo case, in an English translation by the “National Catholic Reporter”:

“In the last decade …”

The official position of the Church of Rome on the Galileo case is still the one expressed by John Paul II in this address from Oct. 31, 1992, to the Pontifical Academy of Science:

“La conclusione della sessione plenaria …”

As pope, Benedict XVI has never directly intervened on this topic. But of extraordinary interest for understanding his thought is the reply that he gave in Saint Peter’s Square on April 6, 2006, to a 17-year-old high school student who had asked him “how to harmonize science and faith.”

Here is the pope’s reply:


By Benedict XVI

The great Galileo said that God wrote the book of nature in the form of the language of mathematics. He was convinced that God has given us two books: the book of Sacred Scripture and the book of nature. And the language of nature — this was his conviction is mathematics, so it is a language of God, a language of the Creator.

Let us now reflect on what mathematics is: in itself, it is an abstract system, an invention of the human spirit which as such in its purity does not exist. It is always approximated, but as such is an intellectual system, a great, ingenious invention of the human spirit.

The surprising thing is that this invention of our human intellect is truly the key to understanding nature, that nature is truly structured in a mathematical way, and that our mathematics, invented by our human mind, is truly the instrument for working with nature, to put it at our service, to use it through technology.

It seems to me almost incredible that an invention of the human mind and the structure of the universe coincide. Mathematics, which we invented, really gives us access to the nature of the universe and makes it possible for us to use it.

Therefore, the intellectual structure of the human subject and the objective structure of reality coincide: the subjective reason and the objective reason of nature are identical. I think that this coincidence between what we thought up and how nature is fulfilled and behaves is a great enigma and a great challenge, for we see that, in the end, it is “one” reason that links them both.

Our reason could not discover this other reason were there not an identical antecedent reason for both.

In this sense it really seems to me that mathematics — in which as such God cannot appear — shows us the intelligent structure of the universe. Now, there are also theories of chaos, but they are limited because if chaos had the upper hand, all technology would become impossible. Only because our mathematics is reliable, is technology reliable.

Our knowledge, which is at last making it possible to work with the energies of nature, supposes the reliable and intelligent structure of matter. Thus, we see that there is a subjective rationality and an objectified rationality in matter which coincide.

Of course, no one can now prove “as is proven in an experiment, in technical laws” that they both really originated in a single intelligence, but it seems to me that this unity of intelligence, behind the two intelligences, really appears in our world. And the more we can delve into the world with our intelligence, the more clearly the plan of Creation appears.

In the end, to reach the definitive question I would say: God exists or he does not exist. There are only two options. Either one recognizes the priority of reason, of creative Reason that is at the beginning of all things and is the principle of all things “the priority of reason is also the priority of freedom”, or one holds the priority of the irrational, inasmuch as everything that functions on our earth and in our lives would be only accidental, marginal, an irrational result  reason would be a product of irrationality.

One cannot ultimately “prove” either project, but the great option of Christianity is the option for rationality and for the priority of reason. This seems to me to be an excellent option, which shows us that behind everything is a great Intelligence to which we can entrust ourselves.

However, the true problem challenging faith today seems to me to be the evil in the world: we ask ourselves how it can be compatible with the Creator’s rationality. And here we truly need God, who was made flesh and shows us that he is not only a mathematical reason but that this original Reason is also Love. If we look at the great options, the Christian option today is the one that is the most rational and the most human.

Therefore, we can confidently work out a philosophy, a vision of the world based on this priority of reason, on this trust that the creating Reason is love and that this love is God.

English translation by Matthew Sherry, Saint Louis, Missouri, U.S.A.

Sandro Magister is a journalist and reporter for the weekly magazine L’espresso, for which he has written since 1974. He specializes in religious news, in particular on the Catholic Church and the Vatican.

Posted with permission from www.chiesa.

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