Defending the Pope and Paying the Price

Interview With Jewish Professor at Odds With Sapienza Protesters

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By Paolo Centofanti

ROME, JAN. 23, 2008 ( Defending the Pope comes with a cost, says a Jewish math professor from Rome's La Sapienza University.

Giorgio Israel spoke with L'Osservatore Romano last week after protesters at La Sapienza objected to a planned visit from Benedict XVI.

The protesters wrote a letter in which they claimed the Pope is "hostile" to science. The event eventually escalated to the point of students taking over the rector's offices and the cancellation of the trip, planned for Jan. 17.

But Israel, in public and through the L'Osservatore Romano article, pointed out the faults in the protesters' claims. In this interview with ZENIT, he explains the consequences of the protest, both for himself and for the university.

Q: Do you think the image and credibility of your university have suffered on a national and international level after opposition to the visit of the Pontiff from a group of professors and students?

Israel: I think the damage is quite serious. I have received letters from U.S. professors who were bewildered; in the United States, one can find all possible and imaginable positions, but this violent form of rejection of dialogue with the Pope doesn't happen -- and moreover, it's a rejection only of the Pope, since La Sapienza has invited everyone. It is something baffling, and thus, from my point of view, there is quite a lot of damage to the [university] image.

Q: From your point of view and, judging from your contacts as a professor, do you think there are hidden motivations behind their alleged reasoning?

Israel: I don't believe so. I know that some have said that all this is due, in part, to rivalry between academic groups for the re-election of the rector. But frankly, I don't believe this. It is more than probable that one or another may take advantage of this, but my judgment is that the university world, which has always been tied to the extreme left, particularly the Communist party, with the end of Marxist ideology, has become an "orphan" of this ideology. And, in a certain sense, they have built something of a substitute theology, as George Steiner says: a more hardened scientism and laicism.

In the university we find a very high concentration of people who have an outlook of this kind, much more so than in the rest of civil society.

Q: Do you think that the Pope's speech could have dismantled this kind of ideology?

Israel: No -- that is a very slow process. From one point of view, given the opposition, and the difficult circumstances, I think the decision not to force the situation was very appropriate.

I think that one has to distinguish three elements. Among the students, the group that was opposed is an extremely small minority, and this is the curse of La Sapienza: There is always a group of troublemakers who manage to impose their will on the immense majority of the students. I think that among the students this position is not very widespread.

Among the professors, it's different. Only 67 signed the letter, but I think there are many more who hold this kind of position. I say this because I know them. On the other hand, those who think in a totally different way are very numerous. It is difficult to give percentages. But perhaps it is a division of half and half. But there are not only 67, there are more.

Faced with this situation, from my point of view, it was right not to go to the university and give a class lesson, sending a speech that in a certain sense dismantles all the pretexts of the rejection and the opposition to the visit of the Pope.

From my point of view, a change to this mentality can only come with a very slow process of discussion, where it is progressively shown that these […] positions are misguided. But, I repeat, these processes require a long time; it is not something that is obtained in a few days, nor in months nor in a year. It takes time.

Q: So, do you think it is possible to begin the dialogue between reason and faith within the university?

Israel: Without a doubt. The benefit and the plus side of all of this could be the creation of a network of people who share the same ideas and who know each other. I am seeing in the classrooms that there are many people who disagree with what happened, but do not know each other.

From my point of view it is necessary to create a network of people who are interested in these themes and who develop them. This also takes time, but certainly the conditions exist. One has to have patience.

Q: From your point of view, besides taking out of context Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's comments on the Galileo case, was there miscommunication?

Israel: I do not know if there were errors in communication. From my point of view, all this reflects a cultural degradation, because someone who does this and is not ashamed, or does not even realize it, as I have seen in some cases, is a person who has fallen very low culturally.

Q: Have you suffered criticism or attacks for having taken a position during all of this?

Israel: I have not seen many people in the last few days, but that is always the situation. I mean, one who takes a position like the one I took pays a price. There are people who no longer speak to you, because, I repeat, it is a highly ideologized environment.