Pope Benedict stumbles again over someone else’s quote
Pope Benedict’s decision to scrap his planned speech to Rome’s La Sapienza University after protests by professors and students there is the second time he has stumbled publicly because of his old professor’s habit of enlivening lectures with quotes from other sources that function as rhetorical straw men to be knocked down.
In this case, the protesters branded Benedict as anti-science because of comments he made in 1990 about Galileo. Discussing the famous case, he quoted a passage in which the unconventional philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend defended the Church for forcing the legendary Italian scientist to recant his view that Earth circled the sun. Benedict described Feyerabend as “agnostic-sceptic” (certainly not a compliment from the Vatican’s former doctrinal watchdog!). He characterised Feyerabend’s stand as “much more drastic” than another defence of the Church’s view offered by the “Romantic Marxist” Ernst Bloch. In fact, Benedict said he cited these two views to illustrate “the extent to which modernity’s doubts about itself have grown today in science and technology”.
In his ill-fated speech in September 2006 at the University of Regensburg in Germany, Benedict quoted Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus (1350-1425) as saying that Islam was a violent and irrational religion that had been spread by the sword. In this case, he did not make clear right away whether he agreed with these words or not. Many Muslims assumed he did and rioting — sometimes bloody — broke out in the Islamic world. The Pope later distanced himself from the quote, without apologising for using it.
The Vatican daily L’Osservatore Romano has run a long front-page story explaining that the 1990 quote on Galileo was actually “a defence of Galilean rationality against the scepticism and relativism of post-modern culture”. John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter has provided an English translation of Benedict’s original text here.
The veteran theology professor Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict’s real name) often argues on a philosophical level where non-specialists can easily get lost. Given his liking for this style of academic argument and the long paper trail he built up before being elected Pope in 2005, one wonders how many other texts are out there that Benedict’s critics could use or misuse against him.