Navarro-Valls on the pope, science, and La Sapienza

Spanish layman Joaquin Navarro-Valls is no longer the Vatican spokesperson, but he remains a prominent voice in the broader Catholic conversation. In yesterday’s edition of the Italian daily la Repubblica, Navarro-Valls commented on the protests which resulted in the cancellation of Pope Benedict XVI’s scheduled visit to La Sapienza University in Rome.


By now it’s certain that the pope will not go today to inaugurate the academic year at La Sapienza University of Rome. By now, it’s also certain that everyone has watched this regrettable episode with perplexity and consternation.

In fact, many political and academic authorities, quite diverse in terms of their point of origin and sensibilities, have at least officially exhibited the most explicit and direct disapproval for the protests that prompted Benedict XVI to withdraw from his scheduled visit to the university.

Regarding these events, it’s necessary to reflect with a certain prudence. In fact, the first observation to be made could be a bit misleading. Given that, when John Paul II inaugurated the academic year several years ago at another Roman university, Roma Tre, there was no show of hostility regarding his presence, we could be tempted to think that today the climate has changed and that we’re moving towards a more intolerant position.

In truth, however, the invitation to Benedict XVI wasn’t handled especially well, since it was issued by the Rector without being confirmed by the Academic Senate. In addition, the presence of the pope became caught up in a political struggle internal to the university itself, which would probably have erupted in some other way, but which was able to exploit this high-profile event that was ideally suited for obtaining its ends.

Even though the internal context of the university is highly complex, one still has to understand the reasons that were adopted in support of the dissent from the visit of the pope, on the part not only of a group of 67 professors, a modest three percent of the faculty, but also a noisy, albeit small, group of students.

In effect, it’s from this point of view that the most original elements of what’s happened can be found.

Particularly emblematic, for example, was one of the slogans put up by a protestor, who offered the saying: “science is secular!” [Note: in Italian, “la scienza è laica!”]

Indeed, because the use of an adjective such as “secular” is quite curious in defense of a value that’s been sacrosanct for at least seven centuries, which is the autonomy and freedom of research in the university. It’s not by accident that I use the temporal marker of seven centuries, because the autonomy of science has been constitutive fact of the university from its medieval foundations, not a sort of accessory gained today. Moreover, this autonomy has nothing to do directly with the presence or absence of religious values in society or with the presence of a religious authority at the opening of an academic year. The strikes at the University of Paris in the 12th century make the point, as well as the dissent of Chancellor Gerson from the official policies of the 14th century. Both were important moments of liberty, well before the rise of modern science.

Setting all this aside, it’s worthwhile to ask, however, what is meant by a free and autonomous science today. It seems evident to me that such an affirmation must make reference to the fact that science is not defined by an y qualifying adjective, even by that of secularity.

Science is science, period. This affirmation is not a tautology, because it defines the criterion which belongs to science, that is, its method. The scientific process, as Rudolf Carnap taught – the father of neo-positivism – is science itself, free of unnecessary attributes which are extrinsic to its way of working.

Learning to distrust adjectives is a way of protecting the non-ideological aspect of science, that is, the autonomy of science itself from every prior bias. This is exactly what was missing from the dissent on this occasion, i.e., the freedom to engage in reason apart from ideological exaltation.

In the second place, there’s a truly intolerable hypocrisy regarding the question of Galileo.

Not only are we at a sufficient historical distance today to render ridiculous the anachronistic retellings of the event associated with old polemics, but the organizers of these protests, apart from employing the very obscurantist and censorial methods of which they accused the pope, know very well that the Galileo episode was characterized in the first place not by an intervention of ecclesiastical authority, but a free cultural struggle between rival scientific visions. The epistolomologist Thomas Kuhn, for example, drew from the Galileo case the very important concept of a “shift in scientific paradigms,” an idea which is today regarded as at the basis of scientific freedom and the exchange of ideas.

The criticism of Galileo was promoted not only by a few “dirty obscurantists,” but by advocates of the Ptolemaic vision, who – we now know, erroneously – were sincerely convinced of the scientific merit of the Aristotelian system.

In this sense, the physicist Marcello Cini, a signatory on the petition against the visit of Benedict XVI, had already written in a book published in 1984: “Everyone says that the explanation of Galileo is right, whereas the Aristotelian is wrong. In a banal sense, that’s true, but it’s an affirmation that doesn’t take us very far. Indeed, it actually interferes with understanding clearly what it means to explain something in a way different than what’s commonly accepted.”

Perhaps there are those, today as yesterday, who instrumentalize science and the complexity of scientific progress; but those who do so, always do it by impeding someone else from expressing themselves and from speaking, in virtue of some religious or racial qualifications.

This is the truly grave aspect of what’s happened, which is part of an unfortunately widespread practice in the West: intolerance.

This is also the profound difference between the movements of 1968 and the events we’ve seen in these days: we’ve gone from that era’s motto, “it’s forbidden to forbid,” to that of today: “science is secular.”

It’s a change of connotation from those who sparked the protest, who, poorly following Voltaire, have forgotten his, and our, educative principles that should always animate those who work in science. This, it should be said, is a “qualitative difference.”

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