January 17, 2008


The following Letter from Rome was written exclusively for this blog by DIRELAND's RomeJudy_harris  correspondent, Judy Harris (right), a veteran ex-pat journalist who used to write from Italy for TIME magazine and the Wall Street Journal, and now writes for ArtNews. Judy is the author of the recently-published book, Pompeii Awakened: A Story of Rediscovery.

ROME – This is one of those sad tales where everyone got it wrong, and no one knows how to put Humpty-Dumpty back up on his wall. The Hon. Luigi Berlinguer (right), 75-year-old ex-Luigi_berlinguer Communist party member, former Minister for Universities, may have said it best: “Too many fundamentalists in circulation.” He was referring to the Unfortunate Incident of the Papal Speech That Will Not Take Place Thursday, Jan. 17, at Rome's La Sapienza University, cancelled by the pontiff after a group of noisy professors and rowdy students pronounced his presence unwelcome.

It began innocuously enough: the academic year in Italy Benedict_xvi_head traditionally opens in January with the university president and a babble of dons presiding over a ceremony in the campus. This year Pope Benedict XVI (left) was invited as guest speaker, but then sixty professors wrote a hostile letter calling his presence “incongruous” and “humiliating.” Their justification: a speech which the then Cardinal Ratzinger had made at that very university 17 years ago, in which he purportedly had quoted the words of a philosopher from Austria, Paul Feyerabend, who’d termed the heresy trial of Galileo in Rome in 1633 “reasonable and fair.”

Benedict_protests(Left, student protesters wearing Pope Benedict masks demonstrate at La Sapienza University)

Since then, of course, the Church has formally apologized about Galileo, but never mind—for this minority of profs the old speech justified their not allowing the pope to speak. To underscore theGiuliano_amato_2 point, students broke into the university president’s office. Obviously the pontiff's arrival risked a small riot, and so, although the Interior Minister Giuliano Amato (right) promised a sufficient armed protection, the pontiff backed off.

This decision, however, merely fanned the flames since it suggested he was giving in to a noisy minority. So much for free speech on a university campus; Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may have been tolerated at Columbia, but not the pope in Rome. The nasty backlash to the pope at Rome University did not simply reflect the events of 1633, however. Several back-stories may help to explain how this came about, not because they justify the minority of intolerant students and their ill-considered teachers, but to suggest that (1) when the Church begins to poach across the Leonine Walls, trouble results; but (2) just as many Italians welcome the poaching as resent it.

A crucial element: the notorious weakness of the Italian political establishment, with something like 38 parties represented. A new electoral bill currently in the works, in various forms emulating either the French or German way of voting, aims to reduce this thorny thicket of quarrelsome parties to seven or eight. The jockeying for new alliances is well underway, and this coming (perhaps) reshuffling of Italian politics looms as an opportunity for the Church to restore some of the political authority it had enjoyed in early postwar Italy. The flip side of that coin is that, in shaping new alliances, few politicians here can afford to be entirely Giuliano_ferrara oblivious to support from the Church. Among the odder bedfellows in this new political minuet is Giuliano Ferrara (left), the chatty-fattie media personality and editor of the conservative Il Foglio. In the 80’s Ferrara was talking about sex education on the boob tube, but since then has seen the light and has just now come out, typically noisily, against abortion.

Coincidentally, the Italian Church hierarchs, spearheaded by theCamillo_cardinal_ruini  former president of the Italian Bishops council, Camillo Cardinal Ruini (right), have launched a campaign attacking the 1978 law which made abortion legal and subsidized under the national health service. The international success of the Radical Party-promoted ban on capital punishment, ratified by the UN last month, is being interpreted by Church conservatives as the go-ahead to attack abortion, termed by born-again Ferrara the worst sort of murder, on an ethical par with the hangman’s noose or lethal injection. Unproven gossip had Ferrara being received at the Vatican by the pope himself in recent days. [For a student’s reaction in Milan to Ferrara’s position, see http://youtube.com/watch?v=zzU-ZcaATUc&feature=user]

Cardinal Ruini is also famous for his proposing a “re-reading” of thePope_john_xxiii  Vatican II Council identified with Pope John XXIII (right). In this he walks hand in hand with the present pope, whose personal re-reading has had him revive the Latin Mass and, last Sunday, say the Mass with his back to the congregation. This was a literally stunning anti-Vatican II statement, and it had the more moderate faithful and progressives in the Italian Church gasping.

Cardinal Ruini is further blamed for putting together a dossier, listing a Walter_veltroni_2 multitude of sins of the city of Rome, which he presented last week to Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni (left). The list was so unflattering, the pontiff so patently hostile to the mayor, that even Veltroni’s enemies sympathized, as did the Italian press. The next day what amounted to a Vatican retraction (“we were misunderstood”) appeared.

Finally, the Vatican has mounted opposition to every attempt to pass legislation in Italy that would permit unions among same or opposite sex couples outside the traditional family. Although Premier Romano Prodi’s campaign promises in 2006 had included the assurance that civil unions and same-sex marriage would receive legal rights, no action has taken place, partly thanks to Church pressure in Italy, and the myriad draft bills of Prodi's center-left coalition have all been put into the garbage heap. One of these draft civil union bills was called the DICO; today's version is the CUS, or Contratto di Unione Solidale. Whatever the initials, a new law seems dead in the water, fervidly opposed as it is by the Church, but supported by a vast majority of Italians (polls show support of 60% to 80% of those questioned).

As a post script, tomorrow's Osservatore Romano carries the speech the pope never made, printed in full. In it he says that "some of the things said over the course of centuries by theologians have been proven false by history." Amen to that. Today that speech will be read at the university's opening ceremony,  but both radical anti-clerical students and the faculty signatories of the letter pronouncing the pope unwelcome now vow to demonstrate against the reading of the letter. -- by Judy Harris in Rome

Read Judy's other recent  Letters from Rome for DIRELAND: "Prodi's Contradictions," February 26, 2007; "Rome's Anti-Gay Family Day," May 12, 2007; "An Agenda for Bush's Italian Visit," June 8, 2007; "Rome's Gay Kiss-in Protests Arrests," August 3, 2007; "Italy's New Left Party, Old Divisions," October 23, 2007

Posted by Direland at 07:08 AM | Permalink


It's not a photo-op for someone whose world view is necessarily anti-scientific (i.e. based on revealed truth). This year, the rector of la Sapienza is defending himself from corruption charges and no doubt thought that a touch of reflected papal glitter would do him good.

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