Pope Benedict crosses the line with academia

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 January, 2008, 12:00am

The Pope's words have come back to haunt him, and so they should. The authorities at La Sapienza University in Rome had invited him to speak this week at the inauguration of the new academic year, but the physics department mobilised in protest. It was at La Sapienza, 17 years ago, that Pope Benedict -then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger - declared that the trial and conviction of the astronomer Galileo by the Inquisition in 1633 for asserting that the Earth goes around the sun was 'rational and just'.

The scientists took this to mean that the Pope sees religious authority as superior to scientific inquiry and seized the occasion of his return visit to make a fuss about it. Radical students festooned the campus with anti-Pope messages, and on Tuesday the Vatican announced that the visit was off. It's a tempest in a rather small teapot, but the Pope has stirred up a series of such tempests over the years.

In 2006, speaking at the University of Regensburg, in Germany, he quoted with seeming approval a 14th-century Byzantine emperor's comment: 'Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.'

When Muslims protested, Pope Benedict took refuge in the claim that he was just quoting somebody else. His defence of the church's treatment of Galileo all those years ago was done in just the same style: an outrageous proposition delivered in what he seemed to think was a deniable way. Galileo was the first man in Italy to build a telescope, with which he discovered the moons of Jupiter - and the sight of them rotating around their much larger planet set him thinking about the relationship of the Earth and the sun. Copernicus had published his book asserting that the Earth rotated about the sun more than half a century before, but a 'Copernican' had been burned at the stake for his heretical views in 1600, so Galileo approached the matter carefully.

When he published his book in 1632, it was banned. In 1633, he was interrogated in Rome under threat of torture, and condemned for 'following the position of Copernicus, which is contrary to the true sense and authority of Holy Scripture'. He recanted his views, to save his skin, but they sentenced him to life imprisonment, anyway.

But there is an apocryphal story that, as Galileo was led away, he muttered defiantly under his breath Eppure si muove ('And yet it moves'). True or not, scientists see that scene as the great defining moment in the conflict between authority and truth - or, if you like, between faith and reason. Clearly, so does the Pope, which is presumably why he felt compelled, back in 1990, to take one more kick at Galileo.

It's clear that Pope Benedict sees Catholicism as superior to other religions, and faith as superior to reason. There is nothing surprising about this. But he goes a little farther than most, believing that 'error has no rights' (in the old Catholic phrase) and that 'error' is whatever the church said it was at the time.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries