August 28, 2008


Galileo Still Sends Church Spinning
As Statue at the Vatican Is Considered

Project Is Under Way to Honor Astronomer
Nearly 400 Years After Inquisition Trial

August 28, 2008; Page A1

VATICAN CITY -- The Roman Catholic Church has for 
centuries commissioned statues of saints and 
other pious heroes. It's now wrestling with a 
more sensitive tribute -- a monument to a man who 
may be its most illustrious heretic.

Nearly 400 years after the Roman Inquisition 
condemned Galileo Galilei for insisting the Earth 
revolves around the sun, an anonymous donor to 
the Vatican's Pontifical Academy of Sciences has 
offered to foot the bill for a statue of the 
Italian astronomer.

But nothing that revolves around Galileo is ever 
simple. He has been making waves since the early 
17th century.

Galileo is "like a Mexican soap opera; it never 
ends," says Monsignor Melchor Sánchez de Toca, of 
the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Culture.

Vatican officials had hoped to keep the statue 
project quiet, at least until it got beyond the 
planning stage. They feared its mystery 
benefactor -- a private company -- might get 
skittish. But word of the bequest leaked to the 
Italian press.

"I'm worried that we'll scare off the donor," 
says Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, the 
chancellor of the academy of sciences. He won't 
comment on the identity or the motives of the 

For the devout, Galileo has always been a 
sensitive subject. His 1633 trial and conviction 
by a church tribunal may be the Vatican's biggest 
public-relations debacle: It cast the scientist 
as a martyr to truth, the church as the enemy of 

Monsignor Sánchez, who wrote a book about Galileo 
and the Vatican, thinks a statue would be a 
"beautiful gesture" and show that faith and 
science are branches of the same tree.

But he worries it could stir yet another round of 
finger-pointing. "Everyone will chime in, saying, 
'Ah, now the church is saying it's sorry, 400 
years too late.'"

Over the centuries, the Vatican has tried, often 
grudgingly and always in vain, to correct its 
Galileo gaffe. It began to allow some of his 
works to be published in 1718. It abandoned the 
last vestiges of its opposition to the idea that 
the Earth revolves around the sun in 1835, when 
it removed all works advocating heliocentrism 
from its index of banned books. Pope John Paul II 
in 1992 expressed regret over what he called a 
"tragic mutual incomprehension."

Today, the church insists it has no problem at 
all with modern science, and even science 
fiction. In May, for example, the Vatican's chief 
astronomer declared that Christian theology can 
accommodate the possible existence of 
extraterrestrials. The Bible, he said, "is not a 
science book."

Arguments about Galileo, however, rage on. In 
January, students and faculty at Rome's La 
Sapienza University torpedoed a planned visit to 
their campus by Pope Benedict XVI. Their gripe: 
In 1990, the current pope, who was Cardinal 
Joseph Ratzinger at that time, delivered a 
lecture at La Sapienza that some critics 
interpreted as a defense of the church's 
conviction of Galileo. Catholics in Iceland, 
meanwhile, threatened to boycott a local 
mobile-phone company earlier this year for 
creating an ad that pokes fun at the church over 
Galileo's heresy case.

Friends in the Church

Galileo and the church initially got on well. 
Celebrated across Europe for his scientific 
writings, his development of an early telescope 
and other achievements, Galileo had many friends 
in the church, which, when not pursuing heretics, 
played a big role in nurturing intellectual 

Even Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, who would later, 
as Pope Urban VIII, condemn him, once dedicated a 
poem to Galileo.

The Inquisition, a network of ecclesiastical 
tribunals charged with enforcing doctrinal 
orthodoxy, took issue with some of Galileo's 
early writings but let him off with a slap on the 
wrist. But things got more serious following his 
publication in 1632 of "Dialogue Concerning the 
Two Chief World Systems."

The text defended the then novel notion of a 
sun-centered universe -- known as heliocentrism 
-- that had been developed by Poland's Nicolaus 
Copernicus. This view, according to Vatican 
doctrine at the time, was "false and altogether 
contrary to scripture." Galileo's book presented 
what he considered incontrovertible proof that 
Copernicus, not the church, was correct.

Galileo had many admirers but also lots of 
enemies. A difficult character, he savaged his 
critics in print and managed to alienate even his 
defenders. His personal life also raised 
eyebrows. He fathered three children out of 

Summoned to Rome to explain his heliocentric 
heresy, he eventually agreed to plead guilty to 
"suspicion of heresy" in exchange for a lighter 
punishment. Pope Urban VIII, whom he once 
considered a friend, denounced his "very false 
and very erroneous" ideas.

He sentenced Galileo to prison for an indefinite 
period, and his works were placed on the Index of 
Forbidden Books.

Still, Galileo got off easy compared with many 
others convicted of defying dogma. He was spared 
the Inquisition's more grisly punishments -- 
burning and beheading.

In fact, he served out most of his sentence at 
the villas of Tuscan noblemen. Toward the end of 
his life, he was allowed to attend Mass again -- 
on condition that he not mingle with other 
congregants. Some church historians say Galileo's 
actions should be classified as heterodoxy, which 
is less severe than heresy.

For the Vatican, though, the affair went from bad 
to worse. Denouncing a man Albert Einstein would 
later describe as the father of modern science 
put the church on the wrong side of history. And 
when the Enlightenment dawned in the 18th 
century, the church found itself branded a 
backward institution bent on stalling progress.

Galileo became a global icon, the Che Guevara of 
secular science. The National Aeronautics and 
Space Administration named a spacecraft after 
him. Europe did the same with a huge 
satellite-navigation project. Guatemala named a 
university in his honor. The moons of Jupiter 
bear his name, too.

"More than Darwin or any other figure, he 
represents the idea that there is a conflict 
between science and the church," says Monsignor 

'Secret Vatican Archives'

Shortly after he became pope in 1978, John Paul 
II decided to try to correct things once and for 
all. He lamented that Galileo "had much to the hands of individuals and 
institutions within the church" and later 
convened a pontifical commission to re-examine 
Galileo's whole trial.

"We opened the secret Vatican archives and tried 
to understand everything we could about Galileo's 
position," recalls Cardinal Paul Poupard, who 
headed one of the commission's study groups. But 
after 12 years of intense study, the commission 
issued a wishy-washy report that blamed "certain 
persons" for hounding Galileo and steered clear 
of a full mea culpa.

The Vatican is even struggling with finding a 
suitable spot to put the statue. "That's kind of 
tough in the Vatican," says Nicola Cabibbo, a 
physics professor and the president of the 
Pontifical Academy of Sciences. "You've got a lot 
of art inside there already. Some of it from 
great masters. So where do you put a statue of 

A Vatican-sanctioned statue, says Paolo Galluzzi, 
the head of the Institute and Museum of the 
History of Science in Florence, is just an 
attempt to hoodwink people into believing that 
the church has long since made its peace with the 

"It's an effort to make him a symbol, an attempt 
to make Galileo one of the emblems of the 
church," says Mr. Galluzzi, whose museum houses 
two of Galileo's telescopes. "It's the church 
which needs rehabilitation on this case, not 
Galileo. He was right."

On the other side of the barricades, meanwhile, 
some Roman Catholics think the church has already 
done more than enough to make up with Galileo.

Atila Sinke Guimarães, a conservative Catholic 
writer, dismisses the church's mistreatment of 
Galileo as a "black legend."

The scientist, he says, got what he deserved. 
"The Inquisition was very moderate with him. He 
wasn't tortured."

Write to Gabriel Kahn at [log in to unmask] and 
Andrew Higgins at [log in to unmask]