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The Pope and free speech
January 21, 2008
Pope Benedict XVI canceled a speaking engagement at Rome’s La Sapienza University last week in response to protests by dozens of faculty and students. The protesters, led by Marcellio Cini, a professor emeritus of physics, said the pope held antiquated views on science, citing a 1990 speech in which Benedict quoted a philosopher who backed the church’s 1633 heresy trial of Galileo. The protest was widely criticized as an attack against free speech, and more than 100,000 people gathered Sunday in the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Square to show support for the pope. (AFP in The New York Times)
What the commentators said
This isn't the first time Pope Benedict has “stumbled publicly” on someone else’s words, said Tom Heneghan in Reuters’ FaithWorld blog. In 2006, he gave an “ill-fated” speech in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor’s criticism of Islam as violent and irrational. His “old professor’s habit of enlivening lectures” by drawing on quotes to use as “straw men” has left a long "paper trail" for his critics.
There is a reason Pope Benedict’s words keep coming back to “haunt him,” said columnist Gwyenne Dyer in the Turkish Daily News. "They should.” Just like with his 2006 speech criticizing Islam, Benedict tried to take “refuge in the claim that he was just quoting somebody else.” If you look at his comments over the years, though, the pope clearly sees “faith as superior to reason”—which is probably why he chose to “take one more kick at Galileo.”
It looks like American universities aren’t the only ones “where politically incorrect speakers are silenced nowadays,” said The Wall Street Journal in an editorial. And in this case, the “censoring scholars” seem to have missed “the irony that, in preventing the pope from speaking, they were doing to him what the Church once did to Galileo.”
Speaking of irony, said The Calgary Herald in an editorial, the word sapienza means wisdom or knowledge -- a quality missing from the 67 science professors and students who signed the petition against Pope Benedict. “Scientists need to be able to speak freely about their ideas,” without “fear of censorship.” So you’re not “showing much sapienza” by denying the pope a “basic human right” you rely on yourself.
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