The Pope and Galileo

Religion / Science

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That apology seems to be in the process of being somewhat rescinded.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.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. Good point. Even though *some* of the things he says make my skin crawl, I think Pope Benedict is often misinterpreted or misunderstood. He usually has a lot of sub-context around his statements.

  2. But the problem wasn’t what Galileo said or thought. The problem was that the Church had the power to punish him for what he said and thought – and that it did. Nobody would care about this incident otherwise.
    Papa Ratzi continually points fingers in the wrong direction, and at everybody else, because he needs to keep the fantasy of the Infallible Church alive.
    The Church never, ever seems to learn.

  3. Pope Benedict is one of the great thinkers of our times. He addreses with great insight, learning and sensitivity the ultimate issues of philosophy and theology. His “Introduction to Christianity” is one of the most profound books of the 20th century. I also higly recommend his book “Truth and Tolerance” (which is actually a collection of essays).
    (What the world does not understand about Pope Benedict is that he is not only extraordinarily erudite but also is very holy (I truly believe he is a saint). In this regard he reminds one of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine. I put this in parentheses because, judging from some of the comments, some readers of this blog might not understand what holiness is or deny its existence.)

  4. (Really, I do wonder why it is that whenever anybody criticizes the Church and/or its functionaries, their spiritual lives are immediately called into question?
    This is, in fact, EXACTLY what I was talking about in my original comment. So thanks, Dan, for proving my point precisely.)

  5. You’re right in terms of the actual condemnation, but I think the inability of the Church at that period (and in our own) to recognize criticism is not a one-way enterprise is what makes this affair tragic. The Church at least in its Roman expression still wants to dictate not only the why but the how. Not only Galileo’s thoughts on method, but heliocentrism were condemned.
    On the other hand, Galileo’s maverick insights into the relationship of the bible and science were ahead of his time: “The Bible shows the way to go to heaven, not the way the heavens go.” I don’t think only the scientific method led to modernity; I actually think the combativeness of the Church helped it along quite a lot, rather than recognizing that the Aristotelian method was not the only or perhaps even best way to communicate the Gospel.
    I admire Benedict XVI, especially when he discusses liturgy, but with David Tracy, think his criticisms of modernity (to the exclusion of criticisms of the Church) are not helpful, nor completely fair or honest–modernity is complex not only a matter of problems in science but of religious warfare. For example, we forget that the much excorciated Descartes wrote while the 16th century religious wars were underway in his backyard. In that context, what he wrote about reason makes a lot of sense, even if it was inaccurate, disembodying, and such. The problem is Bendict’s tendency to pontificate without peer-review and critique in public fora, as Caelius notes on his blog, and that not only isn’t good for science, it isn’t good for theology. When that is coupled with his tendency to Neo-Platonic ideals over the real, it can be dangerous if not moderated by the input of others.
    And Dan, simply because someone disagrees with Pope Benedict XVI does not mean we do not recognize him as gifted or holy, but neither does it mean that we are stupid and evil for disagreeing with him.

  6. Charles says

    I think the media has some share to blame for this. Today, the media constantly twists whatever the church says and does to make the church look bad. The media, in its early form during the time of Jesus Christ probably did the same thing, which is why when people where asked “What should we do to Him?”, they said “Crucify Him!”. The time of Galileo was probably no different. The pope condemned Galileo for something else, and the media of that time, which today’s history books would pick up and be written based on, would say that Galileo was condemned for a scientific opinion, when in fact, the story might have been different.

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