In an unprecedented move, Pope Benedict XVI cancelled a visit to Rome’s La Sapienza University last week after a group of students and staff signed a petition and staged a sit-in to protest of the pontiff’s upcoming speech.
Over 60 lecturers and scientists from La Sapienza signed a letter saying they viewed the papal visit as ‘incongruous’ and urged university officials to cancel it. The letter spoke of Benedict’s ‘offensive and humiliating’ remarks—made some years back when he was still a cardinal—about Italian physicist and astronomer Galileo Galilei. Found guilty of heresy in 1633 for saying that the earth revolved around the sun, Galileo was forced at the time to renounce his scientific findings. Speaking in Parma in 1990, Benedict quoted an Austrian scholar who said the trial was ‘reasonable and just’.
Needless to say, the event attracted international media attention and widespread scorn from Italy’s political world. The centre-right opposition expressed outrage and blamed secular-minded students and staff for what it called a ‘blow to democracy’. Meanwhile, in a letter to the pontiff, Italian president Giorgio Napolitano expressed his ‘heartfelt regret’ over the demonstrations that made the pope call off his visit and condemned the ‘unacceptable intolerance’ of protesters.