A new case of intolerance after ‘La Sapienza’: the president of the Spanish Episcopal Conference thrown out by the University of Madrid.

The domino effect was to be feared, and took place like clockwork. Just two years after the “La Sapienza case”, when Benedict XVI was prevented from speaking by a deafening din of protest on the part of a minority of students and professors after having been invited to deliver a Lectio magistralis at the University ‘La Sapienza’ in Rome to inaugurate the academic year, practically the same thing transpired in Madrid, Spain. Here are the facts. The Università Autonoma di Madrid (UAM), one of the main public universities in the Spanish capital and founded in the rather meaningful year of 1968, had some time ago invited Cardinal Antonio Marìa Rouco Varela, Archbishop of Madrid and current president of the Spanish Episcopal Conference, to deliver a lecture with a quite eloquent title: “The Unknown God and XXI Century Spaniards”. The lecture itself was part of a series of cultural events paving the way for the World Day of Youth in 2011, and also fell within the mainstream of renewed public dialogue between philosophers and religion. This theme evoked the hope voiced by Benedict XVI a few months ago to create a “courtyard of the Gentiles”, to create spaces of public debate and discussion specifically for non believers and those ‘aloof’, spaces where the Church could give life to a new missionary thrust by listening and coming to grips with the questions and the reasons of the culture of our time. In all truth, this was the same thing St. Paul had done in the aeropagus of Athens, and which he wrote about in his letters. Contrary to what happened some 2,000 years ago, however, this time the ambassador of Jesus of our age was not able to open his mouth. As remarked by Spanish editorialists: “The difference resides in the fact that while St. Paul had been able to speak about the ‘unknown God’ in all freedom 2,000 years ago, this time an entire democratic system surrendered in the face of the threat of violent protest, refusing to guarantee freedom and order on a university campus”.

Much like what had happened in Rome, the mobilization was launched by a group of resolute students, some linked to well known anarchical and extremist political groups, via the virtual network of internet blogs and the like, and gradually spread into lecture halls, courtyards, and other places where both students and professors gather. Exposing offensive banners and hollowing slogans against the Church and the Episcopal Conference, the students, resolved to prevent the visit by using any means possible, created an aggressive and intimidating atmosphere that embarrassed even the Zapatero government. Just like what had happened in Rome at ‘La Sapienza’, the Spanish government did nothing more than call Cardinal Rouco Varela a few hours before the scheduled lecture, informing him that “safety would not have been guaranteed” and stating its inability to provide any assurances regarding law and order.  At this point His Eminence declined the invitation for reasons of security, and the visit to the university of his city, the city of which he is the Ordinary, was cancelled. The succession of events and their concatenation is impressive to say the least: if you delete the names of the places and the actors, what happened was a repetition of Rome. After the determined minority of students had gained the upper hand, this time as well almost all the mass media and politicians expressed regrets over what had happened, including those who had clearly been on the other side the day before. In addition to revealing a dangerous crisis of authority among Spanish government institutions and an alarming deficit of the minimum levels of democracy, this episode also sounds yet another alarm in relations between the Church and public fora in Europe. Nowadays anyone will feel empowered to prevent the exercise of the freedom of speech by believers in public spaces. If the Holy Father or the head of the Spanish bishops are not free in their respective cities, imagine what it could be like for anyone else. Grave is the fact that this occurred in the space of dialogue and knowledge par excellence, as a public university should be, and above all in a proudly democratic nation. All the more serious is the fact that these liberticidal claims are championed so superficially in the name of democracy and the culture of rights (?), and, in spite of all legitimate governance institutions, succeed in attaining pride of place without generating any scandalous reaction at all. This means that all those involved (authorities, students, professions) no longer have any idea what the etymon democracy means and from whence it comes. In an analysis of the crisis of the liberal society of our time, Cardinal Ratzinger, evoking considerations voiced by the German philosopher and jurist Ernst-Wolfgang Bőckenfőrde, said that the outcome of formally post-modern democratic relativism, while ideologically and legally justified by part of civic power, would have been a violent irrationalism that would have eroded the last spaces of public reason. Acknowledging how right he was without even knowing it, the students in Madrid proclaim they also want to close the small chapel at the university because, as they say, the university is “laic(ist)” (read that as atheist in this purposefully ideological and instrumental use of the term by now bereft of any residual meaning) and spaces of such a nature cannot be admitted on its grounds. An astonishing situation only a few months after the apostolic visit by Benedict XVI and a further, dramatic demonstration that the expression ‘mission territories’ now includes some of the countries of longstanding Christian tradition and culture once considered “first-born children” of the Church.