The scene could have unfolded in any college town: hordes of students and free-speech supporters waved banners with such slogans as “Long Live Freedom of Thought” and “The Truth Sets Us Free”. Prominent politicians joined the rally, with one calling it “a testimony against the barbarians”. When exhorted to defend the free exchange of ideas in academia, the throngs answered with sustained applause and chants of “Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!”
The only unusual feature of this demonstration, aside from the immensity of the 200,000-strong crowd, was the censorship target who inspired it: Pope Benedict XVI.
Gathering in St. Peter’s Square to hear the pope’s weekly address on Sunday, Benedict’s backers were launching a counter-protest against a small band of professors and students who had campaigned to stop the pope from speaking at Rome’s La Sapienza University today. The Vatican called off the speech after several dozen professors signed a letter denouncing Benedict as “hostile to science” and after their student supporters launched an “anti-cleric week”, complete with a sit-in and threats to disrupt his speech.
The cancellation provoked a backlash among Italians and many Sapienza students. The backlash was fueled partly by the professors’ letter, which chided Benedict for a 17-year-old academic lecture in which he quoted an agnostic philosopher defending the Church’s treatment of Galileo as “rational and just”.
The professors’ letter failed to mention that the future pope had criticized the quote as “drastic” and cited it as an example of the loss of confidence in reason that plagues academia in an age in which even science is doubted as a means of discovering truth.
They also neglected to note that he had followed the quote with a resounding endorsement of reason as consistent with genuine faith: “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....”
The professors’ ploy using an out-of-context academic quote to stir up angry protests intended to silence the pope bore an eerie resemblance to tactics used by radical Muslim leaders in 2006 after Benedict lectured at Germany’s University of Regensburg and repeated a Byzantine emperor’s critical quote about Islam.
No one who read the Regensburg lecture could have mistaken it for a diatribe against Islam. After inviting Muslims into peaceful, rational dialogue, Benedict spent most of his speech critiquing the strident Western secularism that declares faith and reason incompatible.
But the jihadists who fire-bombed churches and killed an elderly nun in retaliation for Benedict’s perceived offense were not interested in divining his motives. Intolerant fanatics rarely are.
The uproar at Sapienza a 700-year-old university founded by a pope and spawned by the very convergence of faith and reason that Benedict defended at Regensburg was a jarring reminder that Muslim extremists are not the only ones who resort to intimidation to silence their critics. And fanaticism is not only a religious phenomenon.
The secular fundamentalists who would banish religious references from public discourse and religious voices from the public square epitomize the intolerance they condemn. They exemplify the “dictatorship of relativism” Benedict bemoans: the tyrannical belief that anyone who defends claims of truth particularly religious ones must be silenced. Their stranglehold on Western academia is tragic, given that it was the synthesis of the Judeo-Christian and Hellenistic traditions that inspired the confident search for truth now synonymous with Western civilization.
Since Benedict called for dialogue in Regensburg, Muslim scholars have answered with two open letters while secular intellectuals largely have ignored him. Perhaps the swarms of students rallying to his defense are an indication that tomorrow’s academics will be more open-minded than today’s.
Colleen Carroll Campbell is our newest Voices editorial board member. Colleen and her physician husband live in St. Louis, and she is engaged in many worthy Catholic efforts notably, the “Faith and Culture” television series for EWTN. She is the author of The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy; and she writes a regular op-ed column for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where the article above first appeared in the January 24, 2008 edition. Visit her web site: www.colleen-campbell.com.
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