Sunday, April 21, 2013

Galileo and the Roman Catholic Church.

Galileo's treatment at the hands of the Roman church is a cultural symbol of the disharmony between religion and science.   Recognizing this, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1981 created an interdisciplinary commission chaired by Bishop Paul Poupard to examine and report on the Galileo case.   It was of course an exercise in public relations, an excuse to yet again assert the harmonious relationship between Roman Catholicism and science.  Unsurprisingly it backfired.

The commission, which presented it's findings to Pope John Paul in 1992, avoided heavy criticism of the role of the institutional Roman Catholic church in Galileo's mistreatment. There was no criticism of Cardinal Robert Bellarmine,  Pope Paul V,  the Roman Inquisition,  the Congregation of the Index or Pope Urban VIII.  Instead the blame was shifted on to theologians outside the core institutions of the church.

In 1995 the commissions former chairman, now Cardinal Poupard, gave a lecture at the Maynooth Bicentenary Conference on faith and culture in which he once again firmly blamed peripheral theologians for the Galileo affair.

Elsewhere Roman Catholics rallied to protect their institutional church from criticism by blaming Galileo's character for his treatment, which was after all quite lenient for the time, or so we are told.

Neil Porter for example claimed Galileo's arrogance was the cause of his downfall and that "the real sufferers was the Church, the people of God".  George Sim Johnston claimed Galileo "was intent on ramming Copernicus down the throat of Christendom' and his offensive manner left the institutional church very little choice.  The church, he concludes, "had little to apologize for in its relations with science."*

What I find interesting is not the Galileo affair itself, but the Roman Catholic inability to admit error.  The central power structures of the Church must be protected at all costs, a strategy we see again and again in their handling of various child sex abuses and cover ups.

Pope John Paul's attempt at public relations backfired because it once again catapulted Galileo back into the public discourse.   Galileo condemned itself because of his character defects. No, Galileo was dragged before the Church for his theological views, not for his scientific views. No, Galileo couldn't prove his theories so the Church in it's role of prudent guardian of faith were correct to censor and imprison him.  All nonsense and irrelevant  - Galileo was dragged before the inquisition for his scientific views.  Despite the bullshit and public relations (in 2008 the Vatican proposed erecting a statue of Galileo inside the Vatican walls) Galileo remains a symbol of the clash between science and institutional religion.


* Passages taken from and quote in "Irish Catholicism and Science" by Don O'Leary. 


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