Saturday, April 08, 2023

How Pope John Paul II Resolved the Galileo Affair

In three speeches addressed to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (in 1979, 1992, and 1996), Pope John Paul II restated Galileo's reasoning about science and biblical religion, while acknowledging explicitly that this showed that Galileo was right, and the Church wrong, in 1633.  In these speeches, the Pope made three claims about the character of the Reason/Revelation debate in a modern Lockean liberal social order.

The first claim is that the Church must allow this Reason/Revelation debate to be conducted on the basis of freedom--religious freedom and scientific freedom--so that neither side in the debate can coercively suppress or punish the other.

The second claim is that the Church must concede to Reason that the Revelation of the Bible must be interpreted as compatible with natural science, so that the Bible is seen not as a textbook about the natural world but a book about how to achieve the supernatural salvation of the human soul in Heaven, which surpasses the natural human understanding expressed in natural science.

The third claim is that to support this supernatural teaching of the soul's eternal salvation, the Church must teach that the Darwinian science of the soul's emergent evolution in the brain fails to account for the reality of the spiritual soul that can only be explained as the product of God's miraculous creation, so on this point Revelation must prevail over Reason.  

In 1979, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences met to commemorate the centennial of Albert Einstein's birth.  Pope John Paul delivered a speech with the title "Deep Harmony Which Unites the Truths of Science with the Truths of Faith."

He explained that science and religion are harmonious as long as both are free.  "Just as religion demands religious freedom, so science rightly claims freedom of research" (sec. 5).  To support this liberal idea of religious liberty and scientific liberty as authoritative for the Catholic Church, the Pope cited the statement Gaudium et spes from the Second Vatican Council in 1965, which recognized "the legitimate autonomy of culture and especially of the sciences" (sec. 59).  In a remark that echoed the title of Galileo's Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, the Pope immediately applied this principle of freedom to the case of Galileo: "The Church, filled with admiration for the genius of the great scientist in whom the imprint of the creative spirit is veiled, without intervening in any way with a judgment which it does not fall upon her to pass on the doctrine concerning the great systems of the universe, proposes the latter, however, to the reflection of theologians to discover the harmony existing between scientific truth and revealed truth" (sec. 5).

The Pope recognized that both Galileo and Einstein characterize the modern scientific era.  But unlike Einstein, Galileo "had to suffer a great deal--we cannot conceal the fact--at the hands of men and organisms of the Church."  The Pope again cited Gaudium et spes:  "we cannot but deplore certain habits of mind, which are sometimes found too among Christians, which do not sufficiently attend to the rightful independence of science and which, from the arguments and controversies they spark, lead many minds to conclude that faith and science are mutually opposed" (sec. 36).  Although Galileo's name is not mentioned in this passage, the Pope suggested that the reference to Galileo was clear in the note to this sentence, which cited Pio Paschini's book on the life and works of Galileo, which had been published by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (sec. 6).

The Pope was silent about the controversy within the Church over Paschini's book (Finocchiaro 2005, 318-37).  To mark the tricentennial of Galileo's death in 1942, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences had commissioned Paschini (a priest who taught Church history) in 1941 to write a book on Galileo's life and work.  But when Paschini submitted his book in 1945 to Church authorities for approval, they refused to permit its publication because they thought the book was too favorable to Galileo.  The book was finally published in 1964, after Paschini's death, only after the book had been edited to remove some of the more favorable comments about Galileo and the criticisms of the Church's condemnation of Galileo.

At the Second Vatican Council in 1964, some of the delegates wanted the Council to formally rehabilitate Galileo and acknowledge the Church's error in condemning him.  But some of the delegates resisted this.  In one of the early versions of Gaudium et spes, there was language stating that the condemnation of Galileo was an error that should never be repeated.  But some of the delegates objected to this language.  They finally reached a compromise as suggested in some of the abbreviated notes on the discussion: "Galilei.--Inopportune to speak of this in the document.--Let us not force the Church to say: I made a mistake.  The matter should be judged in the context of the time.  In Paschini's work everything is said in the true light" (Finocchiaro 2005, 329).  As approved on December 7, 1965, Gaudium et spes showed the compromise.  There was a passage about the legitimate "regret" that some Christians did not respect "the rightful autonomy of science," but Galileo's name was not mentioned in the text.  There was, however, a cryptic footnote to the passage that said:  "Cf. Msgr. Pio Paschini, Vita e opere di Galileo Galilei, 2 volumes, Vatican Press (1964)."  A careful reader who knew something about the controversy around Paschini's book could see this as a veiled confession that the Church had erred in Galileo's case.

Expressing his desire "to go beyond this stand taken by the Council," the Pope said that he hoped that theologians, scholars, and historians would "study the Galileo case more deeply" and dispel the mistrust that impedes the "fruitful concord between science and faith."  He then quoted remarks by Galileo in three of his writings that showed this harmony of science and faith.  In his Letter to Castelli, Galileo spoke of the "two books"--Holy Scripture and nature--that both manifest the divine Word.  In his Starry Messenger, he said that in his discoveries made through his telescope, he had been "enlightened by divine grace," which the Pope saw as "Galileo's confession of divine illumination."  And in his Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, Galileo explained that to reconcile the Bible and science, we must go beyond the literal meaning of the Bible, which can contradict the truths of science, to see that the real meaning of the Bible must be interpreted in whatever way renders it compatible with what science discovers about the natural world.  

Here we see the Pope agreeing with Galileo that biblical revelation must be interpreted to conform to whatever scientific reason correctly teaches about nature.  And in that sense, reason takes priority over revelation.  But at the same time, the Pope says that in the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, "believing and non-believing scientists collaborate, concurring in the search for scientific truth and in respect of the beliefs of others," which suggests that scientific truth can neither confirm nor deny religious truth.

To satisfy his hope that people would reexamine the Galileo case, Pope John Paul II announced in 1981 the appointment of a Vatican commission to study the Galileo affair (Finocchiaro 2005, 343-53).  This commission was subdivided into four subcommittees to study the exegetical, cultural, scientific-epistemological, and historical-juridical issues arising from Galileo's trial and punishment.  They sponsored a series of scholarly conferences and the publication of some books.

In 1992, at a plenary session of the Academy of Sciences, Pope John Paul heard and accepted the Vatican Commission's final report on the Galileo affair.  At this session of the Academy, there was a second topic for discussion--the nature of complexity as studied in mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology.  In his speech--"Faith Can Never Conflict with Reason"--the Pope said that the Inquisition's trial and punishment of Galileo was a mistake, and this was widely publicized around the world, including a front-page story in the New York Times, as an apology from the Church for what it had done to Galileo 350 years earlier.

In the middle of this speech, the Pope repeated his arguments from 1979 for agreeing with Galileo's biblical hermeneutics--rejecting the literal interpretation of the Bible when this would contradict what natural science had discovered about the natural world--and for seeing how this supported the harmony of science and faith.

In the beginning and end of his speech, he observed that "from the Galileo affair we can learn a lesson which remains valid in relation to similar situations which occur today and which may occur in the future."  He suggested that those "similar situations" were likely to arise not from astronomy, physics, or mathematics, but from "relatively new disciplines such as biology and biogenetics," particularly related to the theme of "the emergence of complexity."  "Let us think, for example, of the working out of new theories at the scientific level in order to take account of the emergence of living beings.  In a correct method, one could not interpret them immediately and in the exclusive framework of science.  In particular, when it is a question of the living being which is man, and of his brain, it cannot be said that these theories of themselves constitute an affirmation or a denial of the spiritual soul, or that they provide a proof of the doctrine of creation, or that, on the contrary, they render it useless."

Here, I think, the Pope was pointing ahead to the problem that he would take up a few years later, in 1996, which I call the Darwin Affair, and which turns on the question of whether Darwinian biology can explain the natural emergent evolution of the human soul in the brain, or whether the human soul arises from a supernatural transcendence of nature that can be known only by religious faith, and whether this belief in the supernatural spirituality of the soul is essential to the Bible's teaching about "how one goes to Heaven."

That's the topic for my next post.

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