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Angry scientists protest Pope's visit to Roman university January 14, 2008

A group of Italian academics have protested plans for a visit by Pope Benedict XVI to a leading university in Rome, charging that the Pope should not be honored in an academic setting because he has shown hostility toward scientific advance.

Some 67 professors signed a protest statement calling for cancellation of a visit by the Holy Father to La Sapienza university on January 17. Led by Andrea Frova, a physics professor at La Sapienza, the protesters said it would be "inappropriate" for an institution committed to scientific progress to honor the Pope, arguing that the Church has worked to suppress science.

To bolster their position, the 67 protesters cite a 1990 speech in which then-Cardinal Ratzinger defended the Church's disciplinary action against Galileo in 1633. In that talk, the future Pope cited the verdict of the agnostic scholar Paul Feyerabend, who said: "The Church in the age of Galileo clung to reason more than Galileo himself did." He found that the heresy verdict against Galileo was, by the standards of the times, "rational and just."

Although he did not endorse Feyerabend's conclusion-- Pope John Paul II had already acknowledged that the Church erred in condemning Galileo-- Cardinal Ratzinger did stress that the Church was not hostile to science, and in fact Galileo continued his investigations, with support from the hierarchy, even after his trial.

The thrust of Cardinal Ratzinger's speech in 1990 was to show how the Enlightenment era had created an artificial rift between faith and reason. He argued that the Galileo trial, "which was little considered in the 18th century, was elevated to a myth of the Enlightenment in the century that followed."

The protests against the Pope's visit to La Sapienza have echoed that hostility toward religious faith, claiming that the Church today still suppresses scientific progress. Ironically, to protest that alleged restraint on free inquiry, the group asked university officials to prevent a speech by the Roman Pontiff. Vatican Radio, describing the protests as unworthy of academic life, questioned whether the professors were displaying the "tolerance" that they proclaimed.

The dean of the university has said that he will not cancel the Pope's visit. But protests at the school are planned throughout the week, with critics posting anti-clerical slogans around the campus and organizing a "homo-cession"-- a parade of homosexuals and lesbians-- to protest Church teachings.

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