After 400 years, the Vatican is rethinking its image of Galileo Galilei. Instead of being a heretic, he is being recast as a man of faith. Top Vatican officials are now saying that Galileo should be named the “patron” of the dialogue between science and religion. But this embrace only goes so far. There were plans in 2008 to place a statue of Galileo in the Vatican gardens, in honor of his invention of the telescope. These plans were scrapped, no explanation given.
The recent positive attention is quite a change from Galileo’s original Catholic personna. His idea that the Earth revolved around the Sun was denounced as heretical and in 1633 he was forced to recant and sentenced to life imprisonment (later reduced to house arrest). This episode has since become a symbol of the uneasy relationship between science and religion. In 1992, Pope John Paul II declared that the ruling against Galileo was an error resulting from “tragic mutual incomprehension.” It seems like a more honest statement might have been “We were wrong, and Galileo was right.” “Mutual incomprehension” seems a little bureaucratic.
It is too easy to assume that this sort of activity couldn’t happen today. But take the case of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a paleontologist and Jesuit Priest. Teilhard abandoned literal interpretations of the Creation as set forth in the Old Testament in favor of an evolutionary explanation. His book The Phenonmenon of Man (published postumously) represents his attempt at reconciling his religious beliefs with his training in paleontology. Because of his theories about the rise of spirit, or evolution of consciousness, in the universe, he is considered by many the patron saint of cyberspace.
In 1925, Teilhard was ordered by the Jesuit Superior General to leave his teaching position in France and to sign a statement withdrawing his statements regarding the doctrine of original sin. Rather than leave the order, Teilhard signed the statement and left for China to do paleontological work. Official condemnations continued long after his death. The climax of these was a 1962 monitum of the Holy Office denouncing his works:
“. . . the most eminent and most revered Fathers of the Holy Office exhort all Ordinaries as well as the superiors of Religious institutes, rectors of seminaries and presidents of universities, effectively to protect the minds, particularly of youth, against the dangers presented by the works of Fr. Teilhard de Chardin and of his followers.”
Teilhard’s writing, which circulated unofficially during his life, were published after his death. There have been recent attempts to integrate some of ideas into the Catholic mainstream, but nothing official. Eventually, I suspect it will happen.
An example of a more positive experience in the religion-science debate is that of John A. Widtsoe, noted scientist, Apostle of the Mormon Church from 1921-1952, and contemporary of Teilhard. Widtsoe, like Teilhard, had doubts about literal interpretations of the Old Testament. For example, he seemed to believe that it took longer than 6 days or 6,000 days to create the Earth. He also had serious doubts about a universal flood that covered the entire Earth. For his efforts, Widtsoe was given free rein to explore the relationships between science and the Mormon religion, including evolution. These were widely published in official church magazines and books.
However, this story doesn’t end well. The openness that permeated Mormonism in the first half the Twentieth Century seems to be waning as its leaders move Mormon church closer to the Christain Right. Do mainstream Mormons today even know who John A. Widtsoe was?