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Pope cancels speech at university in Rome

Protesters voice concern that he is hostile to science

Protesters targeted Pope Benedict XVI yesterday at La Sapienza University before his visit was canceled. The school's rector called the move 'a defeat for the freedom of expression.' Protesters targeted Pope Benedict XVI yesterday at La Sapienza University before his visit was canceled. The school's rector called the move "a defeat for the freedom of expression." (Gregorio Borgia/associated press)
Email|Print| Text size + By Ian Fisher
New York Times News Service / January 16, 2008

ROME - Pope Benedict XVI, in a rare papal acquiescence to protest, has canceled a speech at the prestigious Sapienza University here amid opposition by professors and students who say he is hostile to science.

"Following the well known events of recent days," said a Vatican statement released yesterday, "it seems opportune to delay the event." The statement said that a text of the speech, which was to have been given tomorrow, would still be sent to the university.

Dozens of students staging a sit-in at the university, where banners have been hung urging Benedict to stay away, cheered after the statement was released.

But the decision also provoked anger about intimidation and censorship, stirring Italy's always-sensitive relations between its religious and secular traditions. Renato Guarini, the university's rector, told reporters that the cancellation was "a defeat for the freedom of expression."

Prime Minister Romano Prodi, one of many politicians who condemned the decision, said, "No voice should be stifled in our country, least of all the pope's."

The pope's speech at the university, which was founded by Pope Boniface VIII in 1303 and is now public, was to mark the start of the academic year. But professors and students objected, citing specifically a speech that Benedict gave in 1990, when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, on Galileo, condemned by the Inquisition in the early 1600s for arguing that the Earth revolved around the sun.

In that speech, Ratzinger, who would become pope in 2005, quoted the Austrian philosopher Paul Feyerabend as saying: "The church at the time was much more faithful to reason than Galileo himself, and also took into consideration the ethical and social consequences of Galileo's doctrine. Its verdict against Galileo was rational and just."

In the speech, Ratzinger did not argue against the validity of science generally or take the church's position from Galileo's time that heliocentrism was heretical. But he asserted, as he has often since elected pope, that science should not close off religion and that science has been used in destructive ways.

Marcello Cini, a prominent physicist at the university who led the protest, was quoted as saying he was satisfied at the cancellation. "I thought, and I continue to think, that his visit was ambiguous and an attack on the independence of culture and the university," he said.

Papal appearances are rarely canceled, and usually for reasons of security or illness.

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