Many years ago a Pope decided that Galileo had crossed the line in his criticism of the Church. Over the intervening centuries there’s been a rehabilitation of Galileo’s ideas which culminated in an “apology” on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church by Pope John Paul II.
That apology seems to be in the process of being somewhat rescinded. Pope Benedict, John Paul II’s successor intended to give a speech this week at an Italian University which revisited the question. The idea of the Church criticizing the philosophical underpinnings of Science was too much for some in the community to bear, and protests mounted against the visit. The protests had the effect of causing the Pope to cancel his appearance, but he’s still released the text of his planned remarks.
The New York Times this morning has coverage:
“The pope’s speech at the university, which was founded by Pope Boniface VIII in 1303 and is now public, was to mark the start of the academic year. But professors and students objected, citing specifically a speech that Benedict gave in 1990, when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, on Galileo, condemned by the Inquisition in the early 1600s for arguing that the Earth revolved around the Sun.
In that speech, Cardinal Ratzinger, who would become pope in 2005, quoted the Austrian philosopher Paul Feyerabend as saying: ‘The church at the time was much more faithful to reason than Galileo himself, and also took into consideration the ethical and social consequences of Galileo’s doctrine. Its verdict against Galileo was rational and just.’
In the speech, Cardinal Ratzinger did not argue against the validity of science generally or take the church’s position from Galileo’s time that heliocentrism was heretical. But he asserted, as he has often since elected pope, that science should not close off religion and that science has been used in destructive ways.
Marcello Cini, a prominent physicist at the university who led the protest, was quoted by Agence France-Presse as saying he was ‘satisfied’ at the cancellation. ‘I thought, and I continue to think, that his visit was ambiguous and an attack on the independence of culture and the university,’ he said.”
The irony of the situation is that I find myself in substantial agreement with the Pope here. If you actually go back and analyze the charges originally brought against Galileo, the meat of the issue had very little to do with the question of heliocentrism. The problem was Galileo’s insistence that knowledge only mattered if it could be directly observed. His point that observation trumped inference every time led to the overturning of the Aristotelian method and began the modern scientific era.
The Pope was concerned (way back when) that this thinking would rule out entire lines of thought – especially in the area of metaphysics and theology. He was concerned that this would lead to what eventually become modernism – and the idea that this world was the only one that mattered. The “why” was deprecated in favor of the “how”. That seems to me to be a fair concern and one that the scientific method must acknowledge as a major limitation. As long as that limitation is recognized, science functions properly – when it is ignored, science tends to lead us away from making morality based decisions and that becomes its deadly danger in modern society.
So perhaps it’s worth listening carefully to Benedict today?
Read the rest here.