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Maiani speaks on the Ratzinger affair January 21, 2008

Posted by dorigo in news, physics, politics, religion, science.

Amara sent me an interview which I am glad to offer translated into English, for the sake of those who wish to follow the ongoing querelle. 

It appeared on the italian newspaper “L’Avvenire”. 

“It is true, they used us”. By Paolo VIANA

“«We all lost». Luciano Maiani shrugs his shoulders. He shows the pictures of ‘his’ Sapienza under siee and the titles of newspapers that brought back to chronicles of the seventies.
  «We all lost, I am not talking about the Pope, but about the academic world, the students, the politicians» comments the nominated president of the Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche. A scientific high-profile, bipartisan nomination, the one of the former president -among other things- of CERN and of the national institute of nuclear physics (INFN), but since Maiani signed the letter of the 67, the one which defined as «incongruous» the choice of inviting the Pope to La Sapienza, the approval is stuck in the mud of the italian parliament. Today Maiani explains the reasons for which he considers the protest against Ratzinger a defeat.

Why did you sign that letter ?

Because it was an internal letter, a normal act of dialectics among academics: a group of professors expressed a dissent to the rector on the organization of the happening. One wanted to pass a message of autonomy of science which was totally distorted, becoming a message of arrogance and intolerance that obviously I do not share. We have been exploited.

Look, reading the text, your opposition to the presence of the Pope is even too clear.

A studious of communication, Mac Luhan, used to say that the means is the message. Well. Then let us ask ourselves why the letter of a group of professors to their rector gets published on Repubblica [an important national newspaper, TN] two months after it has been written, when the rector has already decided and we have acknowledged his decision. With that publication, two months after the fact, it has been transformed into a manifesto against the Pope, exactly to lead us to the barricades. I am quite saddened, we all lost: I am not talking about the Pope but about the scientists, the students, the academic authorities, the public opinion, the political world…

Excuse me, didn’t you expect that, given the situation ?

It could become the occasion of a discussion on the relationship faith-science, but it was a bagarre instead. I signed in the spirit of independence of science from religion, but within a dialogue, the one which, to make an example, I personally experienced with the meetings at the Università Lateranense between scientists and theologists,  organized by Piergiorgio Picozza and Sigfrido Boffi. That is the right environment to come out of this situation.

Are science and faith in Italy at war against each other ?

No, but a deep fracture has been created between scientists and non-scientists, between believers and non-believers, an extremely worrysome one. Italian society must discuss with different societies, like the islamic one, and we cannot afford such a dramatic fracture. The more so because, everywhere, physicists and scientists from different religions, atheists included, work side by side.

Do you believe it is possible a dialogue when the tension rises to such levels ?

I read the speech of the Pope: reason is the meeting point.  It must also be the starting point for a table gathering scientists and theologists, where to discuss of which relation should there be between science and faith in the modern world. The dialogue must start back from there and we have to fill in the crack. We need a sherpa work, conferences at various levels, to find a common ground, for instance around the role of reason, and establish a ‘confidence’ between scientists and men of the Church, based on the knowledge that nobody wants to overcome the other. Only then the relationship science-faith will give rise to something else than such fights on Galileo and Giordano Bruno, two human heritages that must not be used to oppose us to the Church.

Is the scientist or the nominated CNR president speaking ?

I teamed for decades with scientist of all opinions and I do not remember to have ever had a disagreement for faith or ideology reasons. This binomial pluralism-tolerance must hold the more so for who leads the CNR, a great multi-disciplinary, multi-confessional, multi-cultural  insitution. Every discrimination that privileged a part would be a very bad public service.”



1. Tony Smith - January 21, 2008

Maiani advocates “… a table gathering scientists and theologists, where to discuss of which relation should there be between science and faith in the modern world …”.

That sounds to me like a very good idea, but I am so ignorant of Vatican organization that I have trouble visualizing who would sit on their side of the table.
Despite my ignorance, here is a naive question based on a Time magazine article by Jeff Israely that said:

“… The Jesuits … Saturday, Jan. 19 [2008]… elected a new “black pope” … Father Adolfo Nicolas, 71, … Nicolas’ biography shares a striking parallel with another of his more recent predecessors. Pedro Arrupe, the charismatic and controversial Superior General from 1965 until 1983 … Arrupe’s reign was marked by progressive challenges to the Church establishment … Arrupe’s reign, consistent with order’s history of experiments with theology and philosophy, saw the rise of radical Jesuit participation in politics, from the anti-war movement in the U.S. in the 1960s to the liberation theology that swept Latin America. That kind of leftist activism was too much for the anti-Communist John Paul II. The Jesuits were eclipsed by the staunchly traditionalist Opus Dei …
[Arrupe’s] successor, a low-key Dutch priest named Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, was credited with reestablishing a serene rapport with top Vatican officials. Last year, Pope Benedict XVI accepted Kolvenbach’s unprecedented request to retire from what had always been a lifetime posting.
Whether Nicolas turns out to be cut more from the Arrupe or Kolvenbach mold remains to be seen. …”.

Could the new Black Pope play a useful role around Maiaini’s science-theology table,
or has the influence of the Jesuits been too much “… eclipsed by the staunchly traditionalist Opus Dei …” ?

Tony Smith

2. carlbrannen - January 22, 2008

Rather than “means is the message”, the original phrase in English is “the medium is the message”. Medium refers to the method of communication, and perhaps means is a better translation into English of the original thought.

Both means and medium are severely over used words in English with so many multiple meanings that their use can be confusing.

3. dorigo - January 22, 2008

Hi Tony,

as far as I understand, Maiani’s interview sounds like a retractatio, which partly clarifies matters and partly winks at one of the parties, promising to go in the auspicable direction of dialogue. I think he is honest, but I do not think he would be really pursuing the plan of putting the issue of a dialogue between church and science at the center of his agenda. I do hope, however, that we will get to know what he wants to do from his work as a director of CNR.

Carl, thanks for the correction, which is as always very much appreciated. Will correct at first occasion (making your comment look dumb 😉


4. chris - January 22, 2008

actually, maiani does not seem to be favored by fortune when it comes to large political decisions. and in fact i find this apologetic interview (for obvious career reasons) rather depressing.

5. DB - January 22, 2008

In a previous posting by Amara it was clear that the decision to appoint Maiani had been postponed, and that there was talk of summoning Minister Fabio Mussi to justify his appointment and even Maiani himself to ask him to retract his position.
Normally in such situations Maiani would have been expected to put the divided politicians out of their misery by declaring that he was no longer a candidate. Instead, he is giving his opponents the retraction they demanded.
This act of appeasement should be a lesson to other scientists. Should you engage with organisations like the Church which are only interested in gaining converts, not in an honest search for truth? By engaging with them, you give them the oxygen of publicity and the intellectual respectability they crave.
There are times you must fight them, such as when county school boards in the US seek to replace evolution with intelligent design in official schoolbooks. But pick your fights very carefully.

6. Andrea Giammanco - January 22, 2008

I confirm that the original phrase was “the medium is the message”. I’ve seen it quoted very often.

7. Andrea Giammanco - January 22, 2008

By the way, where can I find the original text in italian?
I would like to send it around.

8. Cynthia - January 22, 2008

Prof. Dorigo,

Thanks for sharing your insights into this issue plaguing Italian politics. On first glance, this issue looks local, confining itself to Italy. But upon further inspection, as “DB” points out, it’s actually nonlocal, spreading itself across the globe…

Speaking in the spirit of America’s Founding Fathers, what is taking place in Italian politics is just another reason that it’s best for *any* democratic nation to maintain a clear wall of separation between Church (and all non-secular matters) and State (and all secular matters, including science).

Otherwise, for a democratic nation to conflate Church matters with State (including science) ones will not only cause divisiveness and thus internal strife among its citizens, but will also turn its democratic principles into theocratic ones!

9. DB - January 22, 2008

Nicholas Sarkozy is calling for a change in the 1905 French law banning the state funding of religion which is regarded as the foundation of French secularism. Angela Merkel supported Benedict’s attempt to put religion into the European Constitution. Tony Blair is well known for his religious fanaticism and has just joined Benedict’s Club. In nearly all Western societies the wall separating Church and State is under attack.
It’s not a surprise that religions are now ganging up on secularism. They have had to fight for converts from among a steadily diminishing pool of lay religious. In the “good old days”, Protestants could compete with Catholics and amongst themselves for converts, and all churches could rely on child brainwashing. Now, the biggest pool of potential converts in western society are the secular masses, often a majority in affluent societies. And MTV is much better at brainwashing than any religious cult.
So the secular masses must first be injected with “spirituality”, preferably using state funds, and then the different religions can compete to sell them their particular brand.
Scientists need to avoid being used as pawns in this game.

10. goffredo - January 22, 2008

Regards separation of Religion from State I feel it is heathy to change perspective a bit. It is not so much that the Church is butting into secular matters but that it is the State that is butting into matters that have been religious ever since humans developed a conscience, namely meaning of life, of death, good, bad, etc. etc.

Always regards the separation we should of course keep in mind that it is formal and should be defended in formal ways. What I am driving at is that you cannot separate them in a given person (where they co-exists inspite of all the contradictions that pure logic can list). And persons, people, make up the State. A person might have religious beliefs and values and that very same person be a State official. It is irrational to expect that a person divorce himself entirely from what his religious belief make him find important and it is criminal and historically stupid to impose that a person renouce his religious values when performing as a State official. Instead it is rational to expect that people be influenced by their personal beliefs and that checks and balances be put into place.
A State should not select State officials on the basis of requirements of sex, race, creed or lack of creed. That was a great intuition of the Founding Fathers of the U.S.A.

Similarly to do good Science you do not have to be an atheist. It is absurd to think that to have good science you have to get people to divorce themselves from their beliefs. I think it is foolish to even think of brain-washing youngsters into atheism thinking that is atheism is a pre-requisite for science. If a scientist is an atheist it is and should remain a personal conclusion.

11. Cynthia - January 22, 2008

Here are a few of then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s comments which surround the Feyerabend quote:

“If both the spheres of conscience are once clearly distinguished among themselves under their respective methodological profiles, recognizing both their limits and their respective rights, then the synthesis judgement of the agnostic-skeptic philosopher P. Feyerabend appears much more drastic. He writes:’The church at the time of Galileo was much more faithful to reason than Galileo himself, and also took into consideration the ethical and social consequences of Galileo’s doctrine. Its verdict against Galileo was rational and just, and revisionism can be legitimized solely for motives of political opportunism.'”

“From the point of view of the concrete consequences of the turning point Galileo represents, however, C.F. Von Weizsacker takes another step forward, when he identifies a ‘very direct path’ that leads from Galileo to the atomic bomb.”

“To my surprise, in a recent interview on the Galileo case, I was not asked a question like, ‘Why did the Church try to get in the way of the development of modern science?’, but rather exactly the opposite that is: ‘Why didn’t the church take a more clear position against the disasters that would inevitably follow, once Galileo had opened Pandora’s box?'”

“It would be absurd, on the basis of these affirmations, to construct a hurried apologetics. The faith does not grow from resentment and the rejection of rationality, but from its fundamental affirmation and from being inscribed in a still greater form of reason…”

“Here, I wished to recall a symptomatic case that illustrates the extent to which modernity’s doubts about itself have grown today in science and technology.”

To me, what Ratzinger is saying is that in order to prevent any scientific disasters from occurring (e.g. the atomic bomb), the Church ought to put the brakes on “modern science” from its beginnings — meaning, from the time of Galileo. In other words, it’s the Church’s job to control the course of modern science. And if the Church fails to get a grip on modern science, then disasters will ensue…

But the reasoning is flawed because *everything* (including modern science) has both a good and bad side. So for the Church to put the brakes on modern science will not *just* prevent bad things from happening, but it will prevent good things from happening, too!

Therefore, it’s pretty apparent to me that then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s message is biased against science, whether modern or not!

12. Cynthia - January 22, 2008

Here’s the link to the above comments by Ratzinger, which surround the Feyerabend quote:


13. Amara - January 23, 2008

Tommaso: for the benefit of quasi-anglos like me, who often miss latin subtlety, what part, in the interview, tipped you off that it is a kind of retraction? I read it several times, and in the Italian version too, and I didn’t interpret Maiani’s words that way. He sounded defeated, maybe sad. I was impressed that he said directly, what he said; that seemed courageous to me under the circumstances.

14. James - January 23, 2008

Cynthia, I draw an entire different view of those quotations.

A key is his introduction of the topic:

“Particularly emblematic of this change of intellectual climate, it seems to me, is the different way in which the Galileo case is seen,”

and as well the closing:

“Here, I wished to recall a symptomatic case that illustrates the extent to which modernity’s doubts about itself have grown today in science and technology.”

He is not claiming to talk about his own views, but others’ views.

Thus he describes the “change of intellectual climate”, the way in which the case “is seen”, and “modernity’s doubts about itself.” Regarding his own views on the case, he is silent.

My major criticism of his piece (from the 1990s) is that he should not pay so much attention to what these 20th century modernist philosophers think about science and rationality. Much more important are the opinions of the scientists and engineers who actually do things. Maybe Marxist philosophy and so on were regarded as important in 1990… I don’t know much about those days. But that whole category of thought seems mostly irrelevant to me.

15. dorigo - January 23, 2008

Hi Amara,

but of course: the medium is the message! The medium chosen tips off he is apologizing.
L’avvenire is a newspaper of catholic area…


16. Amara - January 23, 2008

Ah hah! Apparently I was in enough of a bubble in Italy to not even know what journal it was. Lucky me. 🙂 Thanks for the McLuhan-Medium message. McLuhan’s book is here, uhm, somewhere in my current medium of unpacked boxes.

17. Porlock Junior - January 23, 2008

Honesty requires me to start with the grossest flattery, because it’s true: this series has been extraordinarily good at presenting this case; in fact, so far as I can tell, and sadly, it has been unique.

Goffredo attacks the question of dividing oneself in two pieces to keep religion in a separate compartment. Is the problem so severe as he says? Before commenting on that, a word from our Founding Fathers.

“A State should not select State officials on the basis of requirements of sex, race, creed or lack of creed. That was a great intuition of the Founding Fathers of the U.S.A.”
Well, they at least got one of three right (counting the last two as a single item). No religious test shall ever be required for any office, yes; and the superfluous “ever” seems to show how strongly they felt about it.

As to the other two non-qualifications for office, it has taken rather a long time to put them in place, as is clear in the present election campaign.

We have, though, a modern classic on the question of how a person in power treats his religion. And, oddly enough, it too came up recently in the present campaign. In 1960 John F Kennedy had to deal with some very strong anti-Catholic sentiment in a country that had never had a Catholic in its highest office. Here is what he had to say:

“…For contrary to common newspaper usage, I am not the Catholic candidate for President.

I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for President who happens also to be a Catholic.

I do not speak for my church on public matters; and the church does not speak for me. Whatever issue may come before me as President, if I should be elected, on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject, I will make my decision in accordance with these views — in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressure or dictates…”

This is one subject on which I think my country still has something to say to the world. And I hope the world picks up on the message, because America seems to be engaged in chopping up this traditon and flushing it down the toilet.

18. DB - January 23, 2008

Porlock Junior,
Although there are indications that political America is wobbling over its division of Church and State, it has the protection of a strong Constitution and strict jurisprudence, and even Presidents are greatly limited – Kennedy could have followed his conscience only in so far as the Constitution allows him.
I invite you to read the Supreme Court’s landmark judgment of 2004 in Locke v. Davey, where a 7-2 majority led by arch-conservative William Rehnquist, reaffirmed that division by outlawing a lower court’s approval of the use of state funds to award scholarships to students of theology. The fierce commitment of Americans to the integrity of their Constitution is something that unites both conservatives and liberals.

Here is the judgment, with the usual bonus of elegant prose and effective marshaling of argument:

The 2007 outcome of the Kansas Evolution Hearings (not a judicial process) was also very positive:

It just goes to show, if secularists pick their fights carefully, they will usually win, because the freedoms they are defending are part of the very fabric of our society.

19. goffredo - January 23, 2008

Porlock Junior.
I am not attacking anyone on this issue of separation of religion from the State. Instead if the word “attack” refers to me adressing (attacking) the issue then OK.

I too think that USA does have very much to teach the snobby europeans. These forget all the time that the USA is the oldest modern democracy in the world. Well I think they just don’t get it. If you don’t get something then it doesn’t make sense to say you forgot it. You never had it in the first place.

It took some time for the USA to sort out the complex problems that the fast pace growth of their country posed. Many mistakes were made and many things need to be sorted out. New things pop up and they require new solutions. The USA system is not perfect but it does have great experience. Of course every generation has to fight for the true essence of what it feels is the ture essence democracy. The issue is never settled! There will be moments of great difficulty, leaps forward, lulls and steps backward. That is history. Nothing should be taken for granted. Nothing is irreversible except death.

20. Cynthia - January 23, 2008


If anytime anyone articulates negative views on any subject without offering a critic look at these views, this person in all likelihood holds these negative views as well. And because Ratzinger only presented negative views on modern science without providing criticism of these views, he most likely holds these negative view on modern science as well!

Needless to say, Popespeak is just as ambiguous as Greenspeak was…

But ever since Greenspan stepped down as chairman of the Federal Reserve, he has , for the most part, dropped his double-talk and now his messages are fairly clear. So perhaps when Ratzinger leaves office, he’ll cease with his double-talk and then his messages will clear up, too! ;~)

21. dorigo - January 23, 2008

Dear Porlock,

thank you for your appreciation of my efforts. Signs like yours are what keeps me writing…


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