Secularism and academia: an introduction

By Sara Giorgetti and Filippo Mariani

The invitation extended to Cardinal Matteo Maria Zuppi at the inauguration of the A.A. 2022/2023 of the University of Roma Tre was a pretext and a motivation for us to reflect more on the vexata quaestio about the Italian public university being truly secular. The involvement of the cardinal, who is close to the Community of Sant’Egidio, in the context of the ceremony immediately generated protests from the UAAR, which engaged in a collection of signatures with the intention of obtaining the cancellation of the invitation in the name of “the fundamental principles of our (Italian, ed.) order in general, secularism and pluralism, and of the university one, science and reason, specifically” .
But what is meant by ‘secularism’? Is it right to exclude, in the name of the principle of secularism, religious exponents from the life of public universities?
According to some, like the UAAR, certainly yes, according to others, who sometimes do not even see the problem, no. For another party, however, the answer is less clear-cut. Exclusion, in fact, would undermine the exchange of ideas that is one of the fundamental prerequisites of university teaching. The point, therefore, would not be to exclude religions from any public institution, but to involve them in a pluralistic way, that is, to ensure that none of them takes a privileged position.
In 2023, however, an invitation to Cardinal Zuppi is understandable if one recalls his personal history, namely when he successfully engaged as a mediator in the civil war in Mozambique in the early 1990s. The Vatican of Pope Francis is, to date, perhaps the only Western state that is concretely seeking a diplomatic solution to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, and it is news of 20 May that Matteo Maria Zuppi was entrusted by the Holy Father with ‘a mission […] to contribute to easing tensions in the conflict in Ukraine, in the hope […] that this may initiate paths of peace’ . The cardinal spoke of education for peace and respect for human rights as opposed to the faults of war and the culture of walls in his lectio magistralis, expressing concern for a European Parliament that rejects with a large majority the possibility of opening negotiations.
While the University of Roma Tre invited Cardinal Zuppi to talk about peace and rights, the University of Salento proposed the same topic to the director of Limes Lucio Caracciolo. However, is it possible to say that one choice is better than the other, invoking the principle of the secularism of the university? The Roman university should have invited another specialist on those topics, avoiding a representative of the Catholic Church just because he is a representative of the Catholic Church? Certainly, it would seem more sensible to discuss, as mentioned, the possible ‘exclusivity’ of the Catholic faith, over others, in such events. In any case, a lecture such as Cardinal Zuppi’s, entitled ‘Education for Rights and Peace’, raises other questions as well. Although the lecture’s message of peace is very clear, the same cannot be said about rights. In addition to the right to culture and the right to peace, Zuppi mentions more vague concepts such as the right ‘to freedom from fear’ or the ‘right to hope’ . A choice that reinforces the UAAR’s criticism of the invitation to speak about rights education addressed to a representative of a Catholic Church that is often reluctant to obtain what should be considered fundamental rights in a secular state (assisted suicide, abortion, gender equality, equal rights for the lgbtq+ community, etc.) and which are not mentioned at all in the speech. This absence lays a solid foundation for a further question: what kind of confrontation should the Italian public university have with the Catholic Church or other religious faiths? Inclusiveness means renouncing the values that a secular university should make its own as a cultural hub or, on the contrary, education should go in the direction of an ‘inclusive secularism’ . In other words, borrowing and extending to rights the concept expressed by Mario Ferrante at the Opening Ceremony of the 2015/2016 academic year at the University of Palermo, according to which the different identities of each individual make him or her unique but, at the same time, a person like all the others?

The monographic section of this issue of Erenews opens with the very question that arises spontaneously when dealing with these observations: what is secularism?
After an initial collection of phrases by leading figures from the world of politics and the Catholic Church, who briefly give their views on the question, we have studied the term ‘secularism’ from the perspective of three contemporary thinkers: the Indo-Catalan philosopher and theologian Raimon Panikkar (Barcelona, 1918 – Tavertet, 2010), the Italian theologian Carlo Molari (Cesena, 1928 – Cesena, 2022) and the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben (Rome, 1942). These three figures, coming from extremely varied cultural horizons, each interpret the concept of ‘secularism’ and the dualistic State-Church relationship in their own way, providing a tangible demonstration of the complexity and multiplicity of facets that the issue can encompass. Subsequently, we have chosen to propose an analysis of the relationship between secularism and law, with a particular focus on the national and European context: starting from the Italian Constitution and some elements of Italian and international law, we have asked ourselves what are the legal terms and concrete elements that connote the secular nature of a State.
It was only after this analysis that we decided to try to specifically investigate the relationship between secularism and the academic world, limiting the focus of this issue to Italian universities alone. We therefore asked ourselves whether the Italian university can be defined as secular and whether there is a single way of understanding this concept throughout the country or whether, on the contrary, the same term is interpreted on a daily basis according to a multiplicity of facets, which characterise each single university. Firstly, the statutes of universities were examined, a reading of which revealed a clear distinction between private and public universities. Our attention focused above all on public universities, which understand the theme of secularism in a free and varied manner, as emerged from a sample analysis carried out on the statutes and the inauguration ceremonies of the academic years. On these occasions, leading figures from the Italian and international scene are called upon to speak: the choice of the personalities invited sometimes provides interesting food for thought in order to investigate how each university interprets the concept of ‘secularism’.

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