The papal speech not heard around the world
For the first time since Pope Benedict’s election in 2005, the Vatican has issued a speech he did not read. The Pope was to have visited Rome’s La Sapienza University on January 17 but student demonstrations (the kind that would have made anyone who was alive in the 1960s nostalgic) forced him to change his plans.
A small number of students and professors accused the Pope of being against science, citing a speech he made in 1990 when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. The students and professors argued that that speech showed he would have supported the church’s heresy trial against the astronomer Galileo in the 17th century. The speech did not, in fact, state that and the Vatican promptly said the protesters had misunderstood it.
As pictures from the university showed, the protest appeared to be more against a man accused by some Italians of interfering in politics with his positions against gay marriage and abortion, and his opposition to proposed legislation that would give unmarried couples more rights. While many Italian students do not like Benedict, Italian media reports said most believed he had a right to speak, even if he would be booed. A large group of students turned up at the Pope’s weekly audience on Wednesday with banners saying “If Benedict doesn’t come to La Sapienza, La Sapienza will come to Benedict” and “Students with the Pope.” One held up an Italian flag with the slogan “Viva il Papa.”
Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarciscio Bertone wrote a letter to the rector of the university explaining that the the pope would not show up because he could not be assured “a dignified and tranquil welcome“.
On the eve of the event that was not to be, the Vatican decided to release the text — which in itself hardly deserved such controversy. The speech is a long philosophical discourse on faith, reason, the search for truth and the reasons why a pope should speak at a university. Benedict said he was speaking as Bishop of Rome rather than as a professor (which he said he was doing at Regensburg in 2006, where he made the famous speech that upset many Muslims).
He cited philosophers down the ages, from Socrates in ancient Greece, St Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages and contemporary thinkers John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas (as well as Jesus Christ and Pontius Pilate). Many professors might have had difficulty following such an erudite speech, let alone the students who were ready to throw eggs if he had come to deliver it.
One phrase they might perhaps have appreciated was his admission that his own intellectual family had not always got things right: “Various things said by theologians in the course of history or put into practice by Church authorities have been shown by history to be wrong.” If he had gone to the university despite the protests, he might have added an impromptu comment that students sometimes err too.