Anticlerical Week at La Sapienza

Pope Benedict XVI’s defense of reason.

The poet Czeslaw Milosz once observed with wonder that by the end of the 20th century the only real defense of reason came from the papacy. Paralyzed by skepticism and relativism, academia had given up on it.

At the beginning of the 21st century, history continues to throw the cliches of the media into confusion, as Western intellectuals move to silence another pope who dares to defend reason.

In January, academics at Rome’s La Sapienza University used threats to stop Pope Benedict XVI from speaking at the school. Indifferent to the gross irony of their stance, the professors described the boycott as payback for Pope Benedict’s view of modern science.

“Anticlerical Week,” read a banner in front of the school’s physics department. The professors declared that Pope Benedict’s presence on campus would be “incompatible” with the school’s mission, and they approved of plans by their students to heckle him.

So here we had academics, who cast themselves as the intellectual children of Galileo and Voltaire, making it clear that they prefer boycotts and speech codes to reason and debate. Indeed, they seem prepared to fight to the death to prevent his free speech. But perhaps in the end it was best that Pope Benedict didn’t deliver the address; the crude reliance on force that foiled it exposed the hollowness of the “Enlightenment” ideology animating the modern university better than any of his words could.

The controversy invited obvious questions: Would those who hold a philosophy that can give reasons for itself based upon reality truly act like that? Would they need to heckle a speech? Avoid a debate at all costs with a critic? Cup the ears of their fearless students lest they hear the words of a pope?

Known for its outlandish speakers, the school finally found a dangerous and obscene figure to censor, the Vicar of Christ, and displayed in its protest the very death wish anticipated in his speech. He had planned to say: “If our culture seeks only to build itself on the basis of the circle of its own argumentation, on what convinces it at the time, and if—anxious to preserve its secularism— it detaches itself from its life-giving roots, then it will not become more reasonable or purer, but will fall apart and disintegrate.”

Pope Benedict finds himself in a lonely fight for reason, assailed by its enemies from the East and its supposed champions from the West. One group of fanatics clamors for a narrowly defined faith without reason; the other insists upon a narrowly defined reason without faith. The riots after his speech at Regensburg by closed-off Muslims, and the boycott before his speech at La Sapienza by closed-off secularists, feed off the same irrationality, the same refusal to open up to the whole of reality.

The late journalist Oriana Fallaci often wondered why European liberals would excuse an illiberal religion, chalking up their indulgence of militant Islam to misguided multiculturalism. But the kinship is perhaps deeper than she supposed: those who rupture reason and faith, either traveling to the rupture by way of fanatical secularism or by way of religious fanaticism, end up in the same spot, violent and willful, demanding respect while showing none.

The turn to threats is always a tacit admission of an ideology’s vulnerability and irrationality. If ideas lend themselves to calm philosophical demonstration, no one needs force to advance them. It is precisely because an ideology contains no truth with which to move minds that it desperately needs force to move wills. Militant Muslims spread Sharia; militant secularists pass “hate crime” laws.

Some time back a group of Dutch liberals actually tried to prosecute Pope John Paul II for reiterating the Church’s condemnation of homosexual acts. He had violated a European “hate crimes” code, they said. No doubt Pope Benedict, particularly if his influence grows in Europe, will face similar persecution, beyond academic boycotts.

Since the violent French Revolution, Enlightenment Europe has simultaneously spoken of the “Rights of Man” while trying to deny rights to the papacy. For example, after Pope Pius VI spoke against the French Revolution, warning that the coming Enlightenment would topple Europe’s God-centered culture, the forces of “liberty, equality, and fraternity” stripped him of his freedom. He died in Valence under French arrest.

European liberals aren’t that ambitious anymore, but one can hear in La Sapienza’s hysterical baying at Pope Benedict a faint echo of the Enlightenment thinker Denis Diderot’s frightening cry. Freedom, he said, will not triumph in Europe until the last priest has been strangled with the guts of the last king.


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