Billed as the greatest-ever international higher education event, the Vatican's "university jubilee" began in Rome this week, the day before the publication of an uncompromising document, under the patronage of Cardinal Ratzinger, of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, declaring that Catholicism is the only true path to salvation.
The jubilee is a loosely connected array of 59 conferences on theological, ethical and educational issues. Father Lorenzo Leuzzi, secretary of the jubilee organising committee, said that Cardinal Ratzinger's declaration did not clash with the spirit of free research.
"The Catholic church wants to help universities to reflect on their responsibilities towards the new generations and towards the challenges that face society. There are a number of non-Catholic, including Muslim and Jewish, academics taking part. But we believe that all those who search for truth are oriented towards Christ, even if they do not realise it themselves."
According to Vatican sources, a total of about 10,000 vice-chancellors, academics, students' representatives and administrators are taking part in the event, which runs until September 10. There will be a mass audience with the pope tomorrow and a special mass in St Peter's on September 10.
Most of the 280 universities that are sending a delegation or single academics are of Catholic inspiration or are from countries with a strong Catholic influence.
A projected international meeting of university ministers under Vatican patronage was called off at the last minute, officially because of "security problems", but possibly because not enough ministers from the major countries had accepted the invitation. The latest official information was that the meeting had been downgraded to an informal dinner, but it was not announced where or when, or which ministers would be taking part.
The event is part of a series taking place throughout 2000, and comes hot on the heels of the 2 million-strong rally of "young people", held in mid-August in Rome.