Catholic Church still forgiving itself for being a-holes about Galileo

July 2, 2009

GalileoLoyal reader Sue M. directs our attention to breaking news out of Rome, where the Vatican has apparently unsecreted new documents relating to the Galileo case. I can’t immediately find them on the Vatican’s web site, so I’ll have to make hay of what others have written. 

Reuters quotes Monsignor Sergio Pagano, head of the Vatican’s secret archives — and what a bitchin’ job title that is — who said the Church could stand to be less prickly about science.

“Can this teach us something today? I certainly think so,” he said, in a rare display of self-criticism for the Vatican.

“We should be careful, when we read the Sacred Scriptures and have to deal with scientific questions, to not make the same mistake now that was made then,” he said.

“I am thinking of stem cells, I am thinking of eugenics, I am thinking of scientific research in these fields. Sometimes I have the impression that they are condemned with the same preconceptions that were used back then for the Copernican theory,” he said.

The Church’s thinking on the Galileo case has become significantly less uptight in recent decades. In 1992, Pope John Paul II admitted his organization probably overreacted back in 1633 when the Inquisition found Galileo Galilei “vehemently suspect of heresy,” ordering him to recant and forcing him to spend the rest of his life under house arrest, all for spreading the idea that Earth revolved around the sun, and not the other way round.

Although you’ll want to read the Reuters story first for context, I’m actually sympathetic to the way the Catholic News Service framed the Monsignor’s statements. CNS went high with the idea that “[although] the church must approach scientific discoveries with great caution.” scientists, for their part, “should not presume to teach the church about faith.while adding that “the church must approach scientific discoveries with great caution.”

Sure, I don’t want policy being determined by hegemonic readings of Scripture, but the thing I’ve noticed about religious folk is, they pretty much believe whatever they want to and then fit the Bible into that, which to me complicates the view that religion is “stupid’ and “untrue.”

Let’s parse CNS’s take:

In acknowledging the church’s error, Pope John Paul said the 17th-century theologians and prelates judging Galileo relied on an overly literal interpretation of the Scriptures to insist that the earth was the fixed center of the universe.

But does that argument cut both ways!?

Pagano said that if Galileo had stopped at the point of proposing the movement of the earth around the sun as a theory, he probably would not have been condemned.

Oh snap! That’s some pretty good STS from the Catholic church, who apparently understands that because “theory” means “precondition of fact,” the implications of the jargon would have slipped below the Inquisition’s epistemological radar.

Having stolen the ball from the scientists, Pagano charges to the basket…

“Today, in 2009, we have satellites above us. We can identify everything. We can see the earth in every moment of its reality. We see the sun. We have photographed Mars. We have gone to the moon. So we know the scientific reality,” he said.

…then goes for the slam dunk.

But if you look in the newspaper or listen to the radio each day, you will find out that “the sun will rise” at a specific hour and “the sun will set” at a specific hour, he said. “We all know that the sun does not rise or set, but everyone says it.”

Oh, but the refs are waving it off. the basket. Pagano’s being called for conflating crappy linguistics with the contextuality of knowledge.

Fun aside, although I wish I could give you the properly skeptical take here, I’m nearly 100 percent ignorant of the historics of the Galileo case, so I’ve never thought much about its ethical core or subsequent ramifications on our framings of science vs. religion.

*What do you my flock think? Was Galileo just another researcher overselling his data to swing a grant? Or was he a righteous crusader for truth over politics? If he had done things differently, how would the history of science have turned out?*


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