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La Sapienza and the Problem of the University

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jan 21, 2008

Between January 15th and 20th, the world witnessed a masterstroke in Benedict XVI’s handling of opposition at Rome’s La Sapienza University. The Pope succeeded in transforming a run-of-the-mill academic protest into a fundamental question about the university itself.

Pope Benedict was scheduled to address a convocation at La Sapienza on January 17th. Sixty-seven professors, along with students under their influence, protested the visit on the grounds that the Pope is hostile to science. As the date drew near, a group of about 100 students occupied one of La Sapienza’s buildings. Their specific objection was that Benedict had given an address on the Galileo affair while still a Cardinal in which he had cited a philosopher who believed that Galileo’s trial had been “rational and just”. (The protestors seemed unaware that Cardinal Ratzinger had disagreed with this assessment.)

To the surprise of many, Benedict decided to cancel his visit because, in Tarcisio Cardinal Bertone’s words, the “prerequisites for a dignified and tranquil reception were not present.” Indeed, the protestors had planned to greet the Pope with loud rock music, anti-clerical posters, and parades of militant homosexuals. The cancellation dismayed not only the Rector of the University who had issued the invitation but other faculty and many political leaders, including the President of Italy and the Mayor of Rome. All these immediately condemned the “inadmissible intolerance” of the protestors.

Despite the cancellation of his own visit, Benedict sent his address to La Sapienza, where it was read by a faculty member at the planned convocation. In it, the Pope discussed in his usual measured way both the purpose of a university and what the Pope should say on such an occasion. He noted the importance of keeping openness to truth at the heart of the university, and the importance of the Pope in bearing witness to a long tradition through which many generations have come to a deep respect for truth. The address was greeted by a standing ovation. The Rector announced immediately that he intended to offer a new invitation “in accord with the desire of the majority of Sapienza’s academic community.” Meanwhile, over 200,000 people attended the Pope’s Sunday Angelus to show their support for his position.

By handling the affair as he did, Benedict both circumvented a distracting media show and ensured that the focus remained on disrespect for truth as the central problem. The Pope’s cancellation powerfully reinforced the message in his address: A university is worthless if it cannot provide the necessary atmosphere for seeking truth through a serious engagement with ideas. What might have been portrayed as a conflict between two positions was instead brought into focus as La Sapienza’s own embarrassing inability to establish even the minimum pre-requisite for the achievement of its only possible purpose. Through this shift in perception, Benedict has brought us one step closer to the recovery of the purpose of universities throughout the world.

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