ROME – It’s a big deal when the pope agrees to speak at an event that isn’t church-related.
It’s an even bigger deal when public protest forces him to cancel.
Veteran Vatican-watchers said they had never seen anything like it. Pope Benedict XVI on Tuesday abruptly called off plans to speak at Rome’s prestigious La Sapienza university, after students and professors rallied to proclaim him pontiff-non-grata.
More than 60 professors signed a letter to the public school’s rector saying the pope’s appearance, which had been scheduled for the opening of the academic year Thursday, was an affront to people of science and to the “secular” nature of the institution.
Students staged a sit-in Tuesday, waving banners scrawled with angry slogans (“Knowledge needs neither fathers nor priests”) and launching what they dubbed “anti-cleric week.”
“This pope unfortunately is not particularly friendly to science,” said physics professor Andrea Frova, one of the La Sapienza academics who signed the petition.
Frova and the others said they were offended by a comment made by the pope 17 years ago, when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, that called the heresy trial of 17th-century astronomer Galileo “reasonable.” (In fact, Ratzinger was quoting another philosopher, part of a long speech on the Roman Catholic Church and Europe.)
The issue goes beyond Galileo, Frova said, to the church’s position today on stem cell research, evolution and genetic engineering.
“History changes, the scientific problems are different today than in the time of Galileo, but the attitudes of the church stay the same,” he said.
The pope would be welcome at the university to debate these issues, Frova said, but not to deliver a speech in which there would be no opportunity for discussion or response.
Vatican officials initially said the pope would go forward with the appearance and that the protests smacked of censorship. But the prospect of ugly public displays apparently changed Vatican minds. Given the incidents of the last few days, a brief media statement said, “it was considered opportune” to scrap the event.