WSJ: Papal Inquisition

From the Wall Street Journal on Pope Benedict and La Sapienza.


Papal Inquisition
January 17, 2008; Page A16

American universities aren’t the only places where politically incorrect speakers are silenced nowadays. This week in Rome, of all places, Pope Benedict XVI found himself censored by scholars, of all people, at one of Europe’s most prestigious universities.  [As I said in another entry, this is a PR nightmare for La Sapienza and the lefty groups the protesting profs and students identity with.]

On Tuesday the pontiff canceled a speech scheduled for today at Sapienza University of Rome in the wake of a threat by students and 67 faculty members to disrupt his appearance. The scholars argued that it was inappropriate for a religious figure to speak at their university.

This pope’s specific sin was a speech he gave nearly 20 years ago in which, they claimed, he indicated support for the 17th-century heresy trial against Galileo. The censoring scholars apparently failed to appreciate the irony that, in preventing the pope from speaking, they were doing to him what [some people falsely claim] the Church once did to Galileo, stifling free speech and intellectual inquiry.

One of Benedict’s favorite themes is that European civilization derives from the rapprochement between Greek philosophy and religious belief, between Athens and Jerusalem. In the speech he wasn’t allowed to give, the pope planned to talk about the role of popes and universities.

It is a pope’s task, he wrote, to "maintain high the sensibility for the truth, to always invite reason to put itself anew at the service of the search for the true, the good, for God." La Sapienza — which means "wisdom" — was founded by one of the pope’s predecessors in 1303. Another unappreciated irony.



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  1. RichR says:

    sad. this whole thing is sad. La Sapienza is rightly embarrassed by this threat/protest. Such a prestigious university shunning the most prestigious visitor on earth is just sad. I also think 24-hours news media is partly to blame, too. Sixty people are plastered all over the airwaves and determine the fate of a papal visit to hundreds or thousands. Lost graces abound……

  2. RichR says:

    Oh yeah, and kudos to the Pope for sticking by the Church’s decision to censor Galileo. He was trying to force the Church’s theological hand by appealing to the masses with a scientific theory he had failed to produce sound, scientific proofs to substantiate. Many priest theologians subscribed to the heliocentric theory, but there was not enough proof at the time to make it a fact. In fact, they originally propsed that the sun was the center of the universe, not merely a solar system.

  3. Jordan Potter says:

    Fr. Z said: As I said in another entry, this is a PR nightmare for La Sapienza and the lefty groups the protesting profs and students identity with.

    Indeed. These 67 professors are allegedly scientists, and yet they apparently lack open-mindedness and basic reading comprehension skills. If they think the Holy Father is anti-science based on the words they have cited, then they must not know how to read. And it’s really embarrassing for a university to employ professors who don’t even know how to read and seem to lack the ability to reason.

  4. Jonathan Bennett says:

    I take it this university is no longer run by the Church.

  5. Joe says:

    I see Marini, the former papal liturgist, has cancelled his US book tour under pressure from Cardinal Bertone. Is this not also a suppression of free speech?

    And what on earth do you mean by saying that the Church is falsely accused of suppressing the scientist Galileo’s free speech? They showed him the instruments of torture — a harrowing experience in itself. Had he persisted in claiming the right of free speech, tehy would have tortured him.

    Ratzinger’s falsification of the Galileo story is detailed by ex-Vatican astronomer Coyne SJ. Because of it, the Vatican’s effort to bring closure to the Galileo affair was unsuccessful.

  6. Melody says:

    Joe- No one disputes that there was injustice in the Church’s handling of Galileo. What is false is the modern casting of Galileo as the poor persecuted scientist and sole defender of reason against the big, bad forces of religion. You might note that Copernicus received no such similar censure for his heliocentric theory a few years earlier. Galileo was also a personal friend of the reigning pope. Problems arose when Galileo insisted without sufficient proof that his theories were facts and furthermore drew theological conclusions from them. Had he simply used the word “theory” he would have been left alone.

  7. Fr Renzo di Lorenzo says:

    Sorry if this is rather off-topic, Fr Z...


    A while back you encouraged me to start a blog. I kind of did.

    For some reason, blogger, etc, always send back errors, so I did this:

    However, I have absolutely no idea even how to log in as administrator. I try, but nothing happens, and I can’t make heads or tails of the help pages. I think it’s written in martian.

    Since you encouraged me, can you help? You said you have a blog. What is it? E-mail there?

    If anyone else can help me with this… please!

  8. The ironic thing is that if one looks at the speech that the protesters found objectionable, then-Cardinal Ratzinger seemed to be at pains to make a judgement one way or the other about Galileo. His point was to show that secular thinkers were having second thoughts about the aftermath of the whole Galileo affair.

  9. Correction: then-Cardinal Ratzinger seemed to be at pains not to make a judgement one way or the other about Galileo.

  10. Tom says:

    The deeper I dig on this subject, the more I find. Yet, I sleep well at night in the confidence that Pope Benedict will not say something foolish.

  11. Fabrizio says:


    I see Marini, the former papal liturgist, has cancelled his US book tour under pressure from Cardinal Bertone. Is this not also a suppression of free speech?
    No, because if colonels don’t want to obey generals, they don’t join the Army, or, children are not being deprived of their “freedom of speech” when their father tells them to shut up and hear wiser opinions. This is why we have “fathers” in the Church, all obeying the Holy Father who serves God (the Father) as Vicar of God (the Son) in God (the Holy Spirit). Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom of saying whatever one wishes regardless of circumstances and duties. At least among adults who don’t whine, which pretty much excludes 99% of liberals, so I guess I am not really replying ….

    And what on earth do you mean by saying that the Church is falsely accused of suppressing the scientist Galileo’s free speech? They showed him the instruments of torture—a harrowing experience in itself. Had he persisted in claiming the right of free speech, they would have tortured him.
    He never saw “the instruments of torture” because a) that would be in the records and it isn’t b) torture was not used in Rome in Galileo’s time and for his charges (the issue of idiocies about the Church and “torture” would require a whole blog, however it was already disappearing back then) c) Galileo recognized to be wrong (he was in fact wrong) after the preliminary (and very scientific) discussions and under the scrupolous Inquisitorial procedure torture or pressure under any form was forbidden at that early stage.

    Galileo was wrong on two accounts: 1) he gave the wrong “proofs” of heliocentrism and the Earth’s motion (with which the Pope, like all his 13 most recent predecessors, agreed, that’s why they had been and kept funding Copernicanism that was at risk of being destroyed by mass executions of scientists in Calvinist and Lutheran countries). One of such proofs was ebb tides, which his Jesuit adversaries of the Specola Vaticana rightly attributed to the Moon’s magnetic influence. 2) he wanted to make theology starting form his observation which is obviously non-sense.

    Galileo was “condemned” to say the 7 penitential Psalms (the horror!), for having satirized the Pope in a very vulgar way in one of his books. The place of the “execution” was his villa in Tuscany, called “the Jewel” and paid for by Papal funds. Galileo continued to work on (and teach, like the Jesuits of his time) heliocentrism, mathematics, physics and related technologies with the Pope’s financial aid.

    Anti-Catholic canards are just that: canards. Only the superstitious ignorance of these dark times we live in, and the power of conformist education/media could lead people to actually believe them.

    Ratzinger’s falsification of the Galileo story is detailed by ex-Vatican astronomer Coyne SJ.
    Respondeo dicendum “PIFFLE!”. Fr.Coyne – “ex” Vatican astronomer for a reason – should know better than to think than in his capacity of director of the Specola he can give silly interviews defending materialistic evolution and shrugging off what Cardinals and the Pope, who appointed him and pay for his bills, have to say. His credibility is zero, and so are his teaching and now even scientific authority. If he ignores the facts and sides with the enemies of the Church who cares what he says?

    The Galileo affair could last only thanks to Protestant and Illuminist propaganda, which oviously made inroads also among Catholics. That not all those who opposed Galileo did so for the right reasons iscertainly true and something we must not forget, but that the Church, the Bride of Christ was always also the promoter of true progress is a fact that would become startingly evident if only people forsake their conformist laziness and began to read at least atheist scholars like Feyrabend, Bloch and Lea who recognized that the Church was defending civilization and humanity from the arrogance of scientists. When such vigilance had to retreat, we had Auschwitz, Gulags and the current hooro of abortion, euthanasia and eugenics.

  12. Sid Cundiff says:

    Holy Father’s vision of the Occident is correct. The West had two golden ages. The first, which can loosely be called “Jerusalem”, extends all the way back to Sumer, back 6000 years, and reached its first full flowering in ancient Israel. The Second, called loosely “Athens”, begins with Homer and reaches its flowering first in 5th Century BC Athens, and then in Augustan Rome.

    Since the Edict of Milan A.D. 313, these two Golden Ages have worked in a dynamic, often in tension, less often but more ideally in balance. The Baroque Age saw these two working in balance. To inter the church of Santa Maria in Campitelli, where the Corinthian column is transfigured by “Jerusalem”, or to see Bernini’s The Ecstacy of St. Teresa at Santa Maria in Vittoria, where the god Eros with his arrow is transfigured into Divine Love – to see these places is to see Jerusalem and Athens in balance. The AD 13th Century may have also been such a time.

    The Enlightenment (better the “Endarkenment”) upset this balance. Holy Father is leading the way toward the restoring the balance.

    As for the achievements of Galileo, let his case and the case of natural science and technological “progress” be submitted to a jury of 12, 6 from the city of Hiroshima, 6 from Nagasaki.

    In fact, both the Church and Galileo were correct. When the balance between Athens and Jerusalem is restored, this will be seen.

  13. Jordan Potter says:

    Jonathan Bennett said: I take it this university is no longer run by the Church.

    Yep. In 1870 the armies of the newly-invented Kingdom of Italy occupied La Sapienza and the university was forcibly and illegally seized from the Church. Or, as Catholic News Service tells the story, La Sapienza “was founded in 1303 by Pope Boniface VIII and became independent in 1870.” Much as kidnapped children “become independent” of their parents with the help of their kidnappers.

  14. techno_aesthete says:

    Bene detto, Fabrizio. (pun intended)

  15. Domenico says:

    On the afternoon of Tuesday, January 15, “L’Osservatore Romano” published a front-page column:
    by Giorgio Israel
    ( where is possible to read also excerpts of the talk-not-talked of the Pope)
    The author of the note was a professor of mathematics at the same “La Sapienza” university of Rome, Jewish as the family name reveals.
    In particular he comments in full the conference the card. Ratzinger gave at “La Sapienza” on February 15, 1990. It is worth reading.

    There is a discussion of this point also in the John L Allen Jr Daily Column ( Ratzinger’s 1990 remarks on Galileo

  16. Domenico says:

    This is part of the note of prof. Giorgio Israel on ‘L’Osservatore Romano’:

    Cardinal Ratzinger did not use these citations [of Paul Feyerabend and of Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker] 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.

  17. Rob F. says:

    RichR said, “Oh yeah, and kudos to the Pope for sticking by the Church’s decision to censor Galileo.”

    As a matter of fact, the Pope did not stick by that decision. No one should; Galileo was innocent of the charge brought against him, which was, as I recall, insubordination. It is easy enough to exscuse the verdict, however, seeing as Galileo pled “guilty” when the charge was changed from felony to misdemeaner. It was a plea-bargain, basically. If Galileo had fought it, I’m sure he would have been found not guilty. I agree with those commenters (and the Pope himself) who said that the “trial” of Galileo has been blown out of proportion by enlightenment propaganda.

    What the Pope did say is that we Christians should not be like the atheist philosophers Ernst Bloch, P. Feyerabend, and C.F. Von Weizsacker who scapegoat Galileo and blame him for the atomic bomb and blah blah blah. “The faith does not grow from resentment and the rejection of rationality, but from its fundamental affirmation and from being inscribed in a still greater form of reason…” Likewise, I would caution you against accusing Galileo of “trying to force the Church’s theological hand”. This was not the charge that the Church brought against Galileo.

  18. Madkins says:

    “I see Marini, the former papal liturgist, has canceled his US book tour under pressure from Cardinal Bertone. Is this not also a suppression of free speech?”

    This statement is wrong because “pressure” -as implied here- is not a threat, but simply that Marini would face consequences (some sort of clerical discipline that would be embarrassing at worst etc.) if he were to openly oppose the Magisterium; let me remind you that this is normal. In a company, if a member of the board starts publicly trashing the CEO, will there be consequences? Of course. He could trash the CEO and get fired, but he still has his freedom. So, what does this have to do with free speech? Make no mistake, Marini is still free to make a very embarrassing and divisive decision… but if he does there will be consequences for his ‘career’.

  19. Rob F. says:

    In my above post, I mistakenly said Carl Friedrich Baron von Weizsaecker was an atheist philosopher. I was wrong. This illustrious physicist was a Christian.

  20. Melody says:

    Fr. Renzo,
    I’m glad you started a blog! ^_^ In case you can’t access comments on your blog, my email is Perhaps I can translate those help pages into everyday English.

  21. John Fannon says:

    As a physicist who has taught astronomy, I would first like to pay tribute to Galileo’s genius. His telescope was very primitive, yet with it he not only was able to observe the moons of Jupiter, but to realise that they moved around the planet in a regular fashion. To appreciate just how great an achievement this was, just take a pair of binoculars and observe Jupiter. (The planet is in the morning sky at present). If you can stop the binoculars shaking and you know what you are looking for, you can just see the satellites. Remember that the modern optics are far superior to what Galileo had. Galileo did not expect to see anything, and yet he recognised these tiny points of light for what they were. At that time Jupiter’s satellites were ‘unknown unknowns’. The mark of true genius is to recognise a totally new concept for what it really is.

    But at the same time it is not difficult to appreciate how others might not have been able to see the objects. And therefore there was controversy. Some could see them, others with the best will in the world could not.

    Galileo was also trying to convince people that the earth had three motions: its daily rotation, its movement in orbit around the sun and its spinning like a wobbly top on its axis (which gives the precession of the equinoxes).

    It didn’t help that Galileo was short tempered and arrogant and managed to antagonise both enemies and friends. Modern day authors such as Arthur Koestler (‘The sleepwalkers’) and Willy Ley (‘Watchers of the Skies’) were in no doubt that Galileo brought a lot of his troubles on himself.

    Also theories that the earth went round the sun could not answer a point made centuries earlier by Aristotle. ‘If this were so, why do not the the stars change their positions relative to each other as the earth shifts in its orbit?’ The answer is that the stellar distances are inconceivably large that they can only be measured in terms of yardsticks like ‘light years’. Stellar parallax, as it is called was not observed until late into the eighteenth century, and it is very small (less than a second of arc) for even the nearest stars.

    So when today’s commentators nod their heads sagely and accuse the Church of obscurantism and suppression of free speech over the Galileo affair, they are speaking from the lofty pinnacle of four centuries of scientific advance and refinement of measurements. If they had been in Galileo’s time, and received the facts as they were known then, I wonder which side they would have been on?

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