Tomorrow, the Pope was meant to have visited the University of La Sapienza in Rome. Only, he won't now, having got wind of a protest which would have put the defiance of Burmese monks in the shade. The punishment for this one would have been an eternity of agonising torment.
The target of the planned demonstration, Benedict XVI, is regarded by the university's students and academics at as "anti- science". Modern church leaders usually deny that they are opposed to science, and try to find scientific explanations for Biblical ideas, such as intelligent design. So they will make pronouncements such as: "Recent fossil studies suggest there was once a species of whale in the Galilee region that had a throat the size of a modern detached house and could have been fitted with en-suite facilities and central heating, proving it is quite possible that Jonah could have lived in one fairly comfortably for several months!"
Pope Benedict faces a specific complaint, that when he was a mere cardinal, he said the trial of Galileo by the inquisition in 1633 was "Reasonable and just." The result of the trial was that, for the crime of confirming that the Earth orbits the Sun, he was sentenced to execution, although this was later reduced to permanent house arrest. This may seem harsh, so a typical modern defender of the sentence, the writer Vittorio Messori, justified it by saying: "Galileo was not condemned for what he said but the way he said it." So that was the problem - the Vatican didn't mind Galileo's theories about the Universe, but he said them with his mouth full.
The difficulty with this explanation is that Galileo's sentence fitted the Church's attitude of the time. It declared "reason" to be corrupt, which suggests that a science lesson run by 17th-century cardinals would not involve the most vigorous experiments. A teacher would say: "Right. Who can tell me why copper tends to turn green?" And if one kid put their hand up and said, "It's the reaction of the atoms mixing with oxygen in a process known as oxidisation, sir", the teacher would yell, "NO, BOY. It turns green because it's a MIRACLE."
Indeed, when the philosopher Vanini tried to find proof for the existence of miracles, this was deemed by Vatican officials to be interfering with God's will, so they cut out his tongue, strangled and burned him. Reasonable and just, because you should have heard the way he said it. …