VATICAN CITY – As scholars and theologians continue to debate the heresy trial of Galileo Galilei, a Vatican official said that a failure to understand the boundaries between faith and science was at the heart of the church’s condemnation of his ideas.
Monsignor Melchor Sanchez de Toca, undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture, told Vatican Radio May 26 that the “incomprehension” on the part of church officials nearly four centuries ago “was born from not having perceived and understood the legitimate autonomy of the natural sciences.”
Monsignor Sanchez was participating in a symposium in Florence discussing the decision of a church tribunal in 1633 to force Galileo to retract his teaching of the Copernican theory that the earth moved around the sun. The symposium was sponsored by the Niels Stensen Foundation, a Jesuit-run cultural institute.
Scientists, philosophers, historians and theologians participated in the five-day conference, which was convoked as part of the 2009 celebrations marking the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first use of the telescope.
Monsignor Sanchez said it was understandable, given the cultural context of the time, that the church hierarchy could not accept the Copernican view that the sun did not revolve around the earth because for them the theory tarnished the belief in the centrality of man in God’s plan.
But the “fundamental error,” he said, was maintaining that such scientific ideas “were about faith, when instead they were questions of nature.”
The tribunal of the Holy Office, the predecessor to the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, found Galileo was “vehemently suspected of heresy” and forced him to retract his teaching in support of the new heliocentric theory.
Another participant in the Florence symposium Jesuit Father George Coyne, the former director of the Vatican Observatory and a member of the commission Pope John Paul II established to study the church’s action against Galileo.
Father Coyne told Vatican Radio May 28, “The errors committed at the time caused much suffering for Galileo, but you can’t blame anyone. Nobody understood science, because it was at its very beginnings.”
At the time, most people “didn’t understand the Holy Scriptures and didn’t know how to interpret them,” the Jesuit said. He said that even the 17th-century doctor of the church, Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, who warned Galileo to stop teaching the theory, “believed that there were scientific declarations in the Scriptures, and that can’t be!”
In a related initiative, Bishop Sergio Pagano, prefect of the Vatican Secret Archives, announced the publication of a new collection of documents regarding Galileo’s trial, including previously unpublished material.
Bishop Pagano said that while the church leaders should have been “more understanding and more elastic,” Galileo himself could have saved himself trouble had he acknowledged that at the time there was not yet proof that Copernicus’ theory was fact.
Given that “the historical time was not right” to absorb Galileo’s revolutionary ideas, “one can’t deny that many errors were committed, also on the part of Galileo,” the bishop said.
The condemnation of one of the top scientists of his time is still used to symbolize the tensions between science and religion, even though Pope John Paul formally acknowledged in 1992 that the church had erred.
Pope Benedict XVI was accused of being “hostile to science” and an appearance at Rome’s La Sapienza University was blocked in 2008 because of an erroneous report that he supported the verdict of the church leaders 400 years ago.
Pope Benedict has, in fact, praised the scientist as “the great Galileo” recognizing his invaluable contribution to the understanding of the world.
Monsignor Sanchez said he hoped the conference would help scientists and theologians in “looking forward, not backward, and close the historical tribunal in which the church is the defendant.”
Over the centuries, and particularly in the last few decades, he said, “there has been a serious examination of the church’s conscience.”