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When Ratzinger Defended Galileo at La Sapienza


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.

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.

They upbraid the pope for having used — in a conference he gave at "La Sapienza" on February 15, 1990 (cf. J. J. Ratzinger, "Wendezeit für 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 Weizsäcker, 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.

"Two hours before his visit to "La Sapienza" university of Rome was cancelled, on the afternoon of Tuesday, January 15, L'Osservatore Romano published a front-page column (above) 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.

"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:

"Ratzinger's 1990 remarks on Galileo" — Sandro Magister



Sandro Magister. "When Ratzinger Defended Galileo at 'La Sapienza'." (January 17, 2008).

This article was provided thanks to Sandro Magister. Reprinted with permission.

The Author

 Sandro Magister manages Chiesa and write from Rome.

Copyright © 2008 Chiesa
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