The Vatican's Turn to Recant
Scientists censured in the past are being posthumously redeemed
Since the 1633 trial of Galileo, church relations with the world of science have often been strained. Galileo was put on trial by papal authorities for publishing a book defending Copernicus's theory that the earth revolves around the sun. Copernicus had died nearly a century before, and his "heliocentric" view of the solar system was already generally accepted by astronomers and even by some theologians. Nevertheless, the Vatican insisted Galileo stop discussing the idea; threatened by the Inquisition with torture, he recanted his views and spent the last nine years of his life under the equivalent of house arrest. The episode became symbolic of many things, all negative -- religious closed-mindedness, intolerance, antiscientific attitudes, etc.
Three and a half centuries later, it was the Vatican's turn to recant. In 1979, a year after he became Pope, John Paul II signaled that he wanted the Galileo case set right by giving a speech at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences at which he declared in typically elliptical Vatican language that "theologians, scholars, and historians, animated by a spirit of sincere collaboration, will study the Galileo case more deeply." In case anyone missed the point about the Pope's desire for a reconciliation of science and religion, John Paul II choose as the date for this speech the centenary anniversary of Einstein's birth.
In October 1992, Cardinal Paul Poupard presented the Pope with the findings of the Galileo study commission, which declared, "From the Galileo case we can draw a lesson which is applicable today in analogous cases which arise in our times and which may arise in the future. It often happens that, beyond two partial points of view which are in contrast, there exists a wider view of things which embraces both and integrates them." By Vatican standards, this rotund language was an apology. The Pope responded by saying that Galileo's realizations about the sun and earth must have been divinely inspired: "Galileo sensed in his scientific research the presence of the Creator who, stirring in the depths of his spirit, stimulated him, anticipating and assisting his intuitions." Through its 1992 ceremony, the church finally lifted its edict of Inquisition against Galileo, who went to his grave a devout Catholic, despite the church's treatment of him.
Today, partly inspired by John Paul II's pro-science attitude -- the current Pope is as liberal on this point as he is conservative on many issues of doctrine -- the Vatican has been seeking out favorable relations with many aspects of the science world. One example is the Vatican Observatory, a serious astronomy program run in conjunction with the University of Arizona. In the Middle Ages, the church studied the stars and sun hoping to correct the calendar and fix the correct annual date for Easter; today its Observatory scans for supernovae and neutron stars. The
Vatican Observatory's website
even has a FAQ section in which it assures the curious that Catholic astronomers are not scanning the heavens looking for any physical sign of the empyrean, merely trying to advance the state of astronomy.
Evolving Attitudes Towards Evolution
As long ago as the fifth century, Augustine, the church's most revered ancient theologian, had cautioned not to take the Genesis creation accounts too literally. Thus the Vatican never directly denounced Darwin or his theories, though church officials did not exactly leap for joy over natural selection. Most prominently, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit paleontologist, was during much of his lifetime banned by his order from speaking in public because he believed the fossil record showed that human life evolved gradually, rather than arose in a single divine act. Within a short time after Teilhard's 1955 death, the church felt sufficiently disconcerted by its treatment of him and by the general assumption that believers could not be scientists, that Pope John XXIII went out of his way to issue an encyclical letter asserting that it was fine for a Catholic to be a working scientist, if only to influence science from "within." The Pope wrote, "Since our present age is one of outstanding scientific and technical progress and excellence, one will not be able to enter these organizations and work effectively from within unless he is scientifically competent, technically capable, and skilled in the practice of his own profession."