Vatican rewrites history to insist it did not persecute Galileo

The belief that the Catholic church persecuted Galileo Galilei for pointing out that the Earth goes round the Sun was quite wrong, the new secretary of the Vatican's Doctrinal Congregation, Archbishop Angelo Amato, has claimed.

Citing a letter recently discovered in the Vatican's archive, Archbishop Amato, who heads the body formerly known as the Holy Office - or the Inquisition - said it proved the church had treated him very well.

The letter, sent by the Commissioner of the Holy Office to Cardinal Francesco Barberini in 1633, expressed the Pope's concern that the trial of the scientist accused of heresy be concluded quickly as his health was poor.

Archbishop Amato told the Italian weekly La Famiglia Cristiana that the letter proved that the church's attitude to the great astronomer was benign. The idea, he said, that "Galileo was incarcerated and even tortured so he would abjure" was no more than a legend, "transmitted by a false iconography", the cleric insisted.

He claimed Galileo was accorded every civility while residing at the Inquisition's pleasure: "His room was the apartment of the attorney - one of the highest officials of the Inquisition - where he was assisted by his own servant ... During the rest of his stay in Rome he was the guest of the Florentine ambassador at the Villa Medici."

At worst, the Archbishop said, Galileo's reception was mixed. "When, in 1610, Galileo published Sidereus Nuncius, which upheld the centrality of the Sun in the universe, he received the applause both of the great astronomer Johannes Kepler and the Jesuit Clavius, author of the Gregorian calendar. He even had great success among the Roman cardinals ... They all wanted to see the sky through his famous telescope," he said.

Archbishop Amato's remarks are the latest attempt in a long-running campaign by the Vatican to re-cast the church not as a persecutor but as a relaxed friend of modern science. Attempts by Pope John Paul II to mend bridges with science go back to the start of his papacy, 25 years ago in October.

On 10 November 1979, at an audience marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of Albert Einstein, the Pope asked theologians, scholars and historians to study the Galileo case more deeply. The commission set up to do this reported its conclusions in 1992. Responding, the Pope admitted errors committed by the Inquisition which condemned the astronomer. "Allow us to deplore certain mental attitudes ... derived from the lack of perception of the legitimate autonomy of science," he said.

Endorsement of the truth of science has been as persistent a theme of John Paul II's papacy as his doctrinal conservatism, Vatican observers say. In a speech to the Pontifical Academy of Science in 1996, he came close to endorsing the theory of evolution. "New knowledge has led to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis," he said, adding that the idea of natural selection had "been progressively accepted by researchers, after a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge".

Today, Jesuit astronomers man the telescopes on the roof of the Pope's summer palace south of Rome, watching Mars as it comes closest in 60,000 years while the Pope sleeps downstairs.

"This is our way of finding God" said one Jesuit from Detroit.

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