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By Stefania Maurizi

Originally published in New Scientist (www.newscientist.com), 1st March 2008

In January, a group of Italian physicists working at Rome's La Sapienza university made headlines when they protested against the pope being invited to speak at the opening of the academic year. The pope cancelled his visit, unleashing an angry debate about the influence of the church on science and society. Carlo Bernardini, an emeritus professor of physics, helped lead the protest. Critical of the church's attitude to issues from reproduction to pain treatment for the terminally ill, he tells Stefania Maurizi why it is time to fight back.

You are 78 years old. What made you decide to take a public stand now and protest against the pope's visit?

My colleagues and I could not accept that the head of this foreign power - and I deliberately use the word "power" rather than "country" - would come here to give a talk.

Why not?

In this university we teach our students that they should learn to reason through inductive processes, to doubt what they learn through their personal interpretations, and to reject prejudices, which are widespread in the Catholic tradition. I do not believe it is possible to reconcile the dogmatic thinking of the Catholic church with the phenomenology on which scientific research is based. 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.

Your critics say you should have allowed the pope to talk and then tackled his arguments afterwards. How do you reply to them?

There is no question and answer with the pope - and especially with this pope. He speaks the language of dogma, just look at what happened to Father George Coyne, a Jesuit priest and astronomer who headed the Vatican Observatory for decades. Officially, he left the observatory in 2006 for health reasons. Unofficially, he was a victim of his outspoken criticism of intelligent design. Who is being intolerant here?

Do you believe the Catholic church is having a bad effect on Italian science in general?

What the Catholic hierarchies are doing to Italian science and society is very damaging. Conflicts about stem cells, assisted reproduction, AIDS, abortion, contraception and pain treatment for terminally ill patients are paralysing Italy. These issues are delicate; they will shape the future of our society. All over the world people are trying to address these things. They require evaluation rather than propaganda. You cannot discuss them in terms of emotional slogans or play on the ignorance of the Italian electorate, as the church does. It has made assisted reproduction the battlefield for a new crusade. Furthermore, I believe their aversion to pain treatment for terminally ill patients is abhorrent - they seem to believe that pain redeems human beings.

It's really the life sciences that have brought Catholics back to the battlefield. The life sciences give these people room to impose their fundamentalism on us. In physics, maths and chemistry, there is less room for ethical debates. Obviously we can discuss whether it is acceptable to use nuclear physics to make weapons, but we all support disarmament. There's nothing to discuss about the ethics of working with protons. But with the life sciences, I believe we are only at the beginning of this bitter confrontation.

Only 67 of you appealed against the pope's visit to La Sapienza. How much support do you have?

Only 67 of us signed the letter to our rector, however thousands of people are now supporting our initiative by signing online documents. What worried me was the reaction of the Italian media, commentators and even left-wing politicians. Their only argument was: these people are intolerant, they shut the pope's mouth. But the pope is talking continuously. It is we who have problems putting across our arguments. The church operates colleges and university centres all over the world. It owns radio and TV stations, newspapers, magazines.

A recent investigation by the Italian daily La Repubblica found that the Catholic church costs Italy roughly 4 billion a year.

I wonder why we should give such a huge amount of money to the church rather than, for example, charities such as Doctors Without Borders. Likewise, there are 25,000 religion teachers in Italy. They are paid by the state and enrolled by bishops, who do not select them via an exam, as happens with teachers all around the world, but rather according to their own criteria. When a teacher divorces and then remarries he or she is barred from teaching Catholic religion. What is the purpose of that? To indoctrinate children, because in Italy religious classes are not about the history of religions, but rather about the Catholic catechism. This is very bad: I would like people to keep their intellectual freedom. If those children want to become Catholic when they are adults, that is fine with me, but they have to choose freely.

Did you have a religious education as you were growing up?

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.

When you first came to study at La Sapienza in the 1950s, it was a golden era for Italian science and physics in particular. What happened?

It was an exciting place to be. Great physicists were working there, such as Edoardo Amaldi and Enrico Persico. Many things have happened since then, and now our decline is serious. Amaldi and Persico were talent scouts - they chose the best pupils and made them grow up. Today, the brain drain is stripping Italy of its most brilliant students. Lack of funding, bureaucracy, politics, the Catholic revival and the poor standing that science and culture have in today's society are making things worse.

Take the case of Luciano Maiani, the world-renowned physicist who was appointed head of the National Council for Research just before the controversy about the pope broke out. He signed the appeal against the pope's visit and some right-wing politicians questioned his appointment. He will probably get the appointment, but I think those politicians may have wanted him to get the message: you touch the pope, you die. •


Carlo Bernardini was bom in Lecce, Italy, in 1930. He graduated in physics at University of Rome La Sapienza in 1952. He contributed to the building of the first electron-positron collider. A full professor of mathematical methods for physics at La Sapienza, he is a former senator and co-founder of the Italian Union of Scientists for Disarmament.