The Pope should have taken on the rabble rousers

  • January 25, 2008

Since his election as bishop of Rome in 2005, Joseph Ratzinger has cut a considerably less controversial figure than he did in the old days, when he was the uncompromising head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. But at least in Italy, a public appearance by our Pope outside the Vatican can still cause quite a ruckus.

Before he cancelled in mid-January, Benedict XVI was scheduled to inaugurate the 2008 academic year at La Sapienza University in Rome, the largest university in western Europe and one of Rome’s top state-run institutions of higher learning. From the reaction of students and staff, you’d think La Sapienza had asked along the very prince of darkness (which, to be fair to the protesters, is exactly who they think Benedict is).

A letter to the university’s administration demanding that La Sapienza rescind the invitation was signed by 67 scientists, including, the Italian press reported, a number of “distinguished physicists.” Their principal beef was that the Pope is an enemy of science. Their “proof”: a speech given two decades ago by then-cardinal Ratzinger, who allegedly declared that the heresy trial of Galileo was “justified in the context of the time.”

Opponents of the visit charged that Benedict is “too reactionary,” and that they didn’t want him using the university’s platform for spreading his beliefs about abortion, homosexuality and medical research. A group of physics students organized an “anti-clerical week” of events to precede the visit, and declared on their web site: “Benedict as pontiff condemns centuries of scientific and cultural growth by affirming anachronistic dogmas such as creationism, while attacking scientific free-thought and promoting mandatory heterosexuality.” Some 300 students occupied university offices and promised to disrupt the Pope’s address by blasting rock music in the campus’ main square.

Benedict is certainly no stranger to the kind of chaos students can create when they have a mind to do so. One of the defining moments in his life was the shock of a leftist student uprising in 1968 at the University of Tübingen, where he was teaching. Given this history, the likelihood of bedlam at La Sapienza, and Vatican worries about the Pope’s safety during the visit, Benedict’s decision to cancel his upcoming lecture at the Rome university was surely understandable, and probably prudent.

But was it right? I wonder.

Because of the eminence of their ministry, and the frequent public appearances that are part and parcel of this ministry, popes, like presidents and prime ministers, are constantly courting bodily harm. They and Vatican officials are wise to minimize the risk — but, basically, risk is part of the job. While students and even professors can be noisy and obnoxious, they are very seldom dangerous — not nearly as dangerous, for example, as the anti-Christian Islamist radicals rife in Turkey, which the Pope did not avoid visiting. I seriously doubt that Benedict would have come to any grief had he gone to La Sapienza.

On the positive side, Benedict’s appearance would have been an act of open defiance to the enemies of the Catholic Church. When not complicit with them, as this Pope is clearly not, Christians have often contested the powers of the world in the public forum. This could have been an opportunity for Benedict to demonstrate the forthrightness, charity and intelligence that have characterized his whole life, including his pontificate, and expose the students for the rabble-rousers they were.

All Christians would have been strengthened by that example and encouraged to shuck our timidity when confronted by the forces of Antichrist that pervade the modern world.

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