VATICAN CITY — Pharmacy major Jacopo Reynaud said there were several culprits responsible for the cancellation of Pope Benedict XVI’s planned Jan. 17 speech at Rome’s La Sapienza University.

“The majority of us think the blame rests firstly with the rector who announced the invitation of the Pope without taking into account the opinions of others at the university, secondly with the extreme left who protested aggressively, and lastly the media, which amplified the tensions,” Reynaud said.

Never before has a Pope — who is also the bishop of Rome — been forced to cancel an address at any university in the city. La Sapienza, ironically, was founded by Pope Boniface VIII in the 14th century.

The cancellation of the speech, at a ceremony inaugurating the academic year, came about because of increasingly vocal protests by small radical groups in the run-up to the event.

The protests peaked shortly before the Holy Father’s scheduled visit, when 100 or so students staged a sit-in at the university rector’s offices.

Students had also threatened to drown out his speech with loud music, and a demonstration by Italy’s transsexual movement was also planned.

But it was advice from Italy’s interior minister that there was a chance of clashes between extremist groups that persuaded Benedict to cancel. Given that warning, the Pope and his advisers wanted to avoid any pretext that might risk violence between citizens.

In a formal statement, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican secretary of state, said the “prerequisites for a dignified and tranquil welcome were lacking.”

“They were wrong to behave this way with the Pope,” Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the vicar of Rome, said in a Jan. 17 interview with Corriere della Sera. Cardinal Ruini later called on Romans to prayerfully show their “love and gratitude” for the Holy Father at his weekly Sunday Angelus address Jan. 20.

Similar calls for support and prayers were made by Catholic organizations around the world, including the U.S.-based Cardinal Newman Society.

“For American Catholics who cannot be in Rome, we urge special prayers on Sunday to demonstrate both our love for Pope Benedict and our steadfast confidence in the unity of faith and reason,” Cardinal Newman Society President Patrick Reilly said in a press release Jan. 16.

Some students didn’t wait for the Angelus address to express their solidarity. On Jan. 16, a group came to Benedict’s weekly general audience at the Vatican to show their support.

The students held up signs saying, “University students are with you” and another saying that because the Pope was not going to the university the university was coming to him.

Responding to their cheers at the end of his Jan. 16 audience, the Holy Father said, “Let us go forward together.” And before offering the crowd his blessing, he added, “With particular joy, I greet the university students.”

The protests were sparked by a public letter written in November by a small group of La Sapienza science professors, numbering only 67 lecturers out of 4,500 teaching staff. The professors said the Pope was an unacceptable figure to be launching the academic year because he was allegedly “hostile to science.”

To illustrate their point, the professors cited a 1990 speech by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger on the Galileo case. The speech included a statement that the Church’s trial of Galileo was “reasonable and just.”

But the quote was taken out of context. In his speech, Cardinal Ratzinger was quoting Paul Feyerabend, an agnostic Austrian-American philosopher, and Cardinal Ratzinger specifically distanced himself from Feyerabend’s remarks, commenting that he found them “drastic.”

The protests appeared to have backfired. Along with the outpouring of student support, many Italian intellectuals — both Catholics and non-believers — and politicians of all colors rallied to the Pope’s defense.

Italian President Giorgio Neapolitano wrote a letter to the Pope on the day of the cancellation, calling the protests “unacceptable episodes of intolerance.”

Even professors who signed the letter were upset with how events turned out.

“It was not our intention to get this kind of reaction,” said Miguel Virasoro, a professor of physics at La Sapienza. “We simply felt it was not correct to invite someone who has written this way about Galileo and reason and science to inaugurate the academic year.”

Virasoro said the professors were open to debate with the Holy Father in some other context, but the issue spiraled out of their control.

“Other groups took the affair into their hands and the media exploited it,” he said.

The professor conceded that Benedict had not agreed with Feyerabend’s position in his 1990 speech on Galileo. But, he said, he and his colleagues were opposed to the “general idea that the Church has the right to argue in terms of reason and not just faith.”

Benedict answered many of the professors’ criticisms in the text of his La Sapienza speech.

The Pope began by asking in Socratic terms what was the essence of a university. Answering the question, he said its origin “lies in the thirst for knowledge that is proper to man.”

Man, the Holy Father said, “wants to know about everything around him. He wants truth.”

Benedict then took a tour through the history and development of rational thought, concluding with a cautionary warning about the contemporary mentality that holds that science should be governed by a reason that takes no reference from God and truth.

“If reason — engrossed in its own presumed purity — becomes deaf to the great message that comes to it from the Christian faith and its wisdom,” the Pope said, “it dries up like a tree whose roots no longer reach the water that gives it life. It loses its courage for the truth, and thus diminishes instead of increasing.”

In the conclusion of his speech, the Holy Father wrote, “What can the Pope do or say in the university? Certainly he must not seek in an authoritarian way to make others accept the faith, which can only be given in freedom. Beyond his ministry as pastor in the Church, on the basis of the intrinsic nature of this pastoral ministry it is his task to keep alive the sensitivity toward truth; to invite reason continually to take up the pursuit of truth, of goodness, of God.”


(CNS and Register staff contributed to this story.)

Edward Pentin writes

from Rome.