Galileo Still Sends Church
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
By GABRIEL KAHN and ANDREW HIGGINS
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 donor.
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 reason.
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
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
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 wedlock.
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"
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
'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 suffer...at 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
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 scientist.
"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
On the other side of the barricades, meanwhile, some Roman Catholics
think the church has already done more than enough to make up with
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."