The physicist who stood up to the pope (and lost)

Carlo Bernardini

Back in January I wrote about a protest by faculty and students at La Sapienza university against a planned visit and speech by Joseph Ratzinger: current bishop of Rome and leader of the world’s indeterminate number of rosary bead worriers. In a separate post I referred to the popular backlash against the protesters.

One of the organisers of the original protest was recently interviewed by Stefania Maurizi for New Scientist magazine. And it makes very interesting reading.

Regarding the motivation for the protest, physicist, former senator and disarmament campaigner Carlo Bernardini said:

“During the opening ceremony, our pro-rector read the talk the pope had wanted to give. In a nutshell, it said that science does not achieve any truth without faith, which is exactly why we thought the talk would be inappropriate.”

Bernardini is a typical no-nonsense anti-clerical leftist, and I agree with almost every word he utters in the New Scientist interview. The language may be combative and uncompromising, but given the all-pervasive and malign influence of the church on Italian society one cannot blame the professor for his robust stance.

“I come from a family of intellectuals who set much store by education. My father greatly despised fascists, priests and the military. I had an education that made me suspicious of hierarchies and the truths that priests were talking about. However, I did not become suspicious of Jesus, a revolutionary figure who always sided with the poor, just as I am not suspicious of the Buddha or Confucius.”

But the reaction to the La Sapienza protest had bugger all to do with truth or falsehood, and this is where the protesters came unstuck. They may have truth on their side, but they lost the PR battle, and lost it badly.

Should Bernardini and others like him refrain from speaking out against the forces of darkness and superstition? Of course not. But it doesn’t take much political nous to understand that you cannot deny the pope a platform to speak at one of Italy’s leading bourgeois institutions, in the same way that one would justifiably deny neo-nazis the opportunity to address a public meeting.

The church’s position in Italian society is too ingrained for that, and it can only be undermined in other, more creative ways.