The catholic church has “just selected its new Pope”:http://news.yahoo.com/news?tmpl=story&e=1&u=/ap/20050420/ap_on_re_eu/pope&sid=84439559. Pope Benedict XVI, formerly Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, will soon begin his reign as Pope of the Catholic Church. In that role, he will affect the lives of a billion people on this planet. While not all catholics share the same views as Pope Benedict, or each other, the words and actions of such a man have an effect on a great number of lives.
The church has had a long and well-documented effect on many societies. Many of those effects were positive, but some of the more memorable ones were not. The many inquisitions held by the church to root out blasphemy are legendary. For me, the effect of the church on the life of Galileo is a song from the past with themes in the present.
Galileo walked a fascinating line throughout his life. His exploration of the natural world confronted many of the beliefs held strongly by the church, and catholics, in his day. However, despite the fact that he watched reason trump interpretations of the Bible he never let go of his core belief that ultimately his work revealed the world intended by God. Galileo was a philosopher, scientist, and devout Christian. He managed to balance these things in his life, despite persecution by the Catholic church. In particular, despite failing health and house arrest by command of the Inquisition, he carried out some of his greatest work in the twilight of his life and never lost his faith in God.
Galileo was charged by the Inquisition with heresy and repented in 1633. However, while many other scientists persecuted by the Catholic church were later pardoned, it wasn’t until the reign of John Paul II, 350 years later, that the church finally resolved their matters with Galileo.
The original conflict with Galileo stemmed from his discoveries of the moons of Jupiter, the sunspots on the surface of our sun, and his treatise, the *Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems*. His work challenged the belief that God put the Earth at the center of the universe. The sight of small orbs moving around Jupiter, and not the Earth, lent weight to the Copernican system that displaced the Earth from the center of the universe. It was also a belief that the sun was made perfect by God for Man; the blemishes, sunspots, suggested that wasn’t the case. Galileo collected these, and other observations, in his treatise and presented the results in the form of an argument between three men. One represented the views of the Church and was controversially named *Simplicio*, while another represented Galileo’s view and used the evidence he had amassed to back the arguments.
But the church condemned his work because it promoted what it considered the “dangerous” Copernican ideas, and Galileo repented after interrogation. He was placed under house arrest until he died, and all because he challenged interpretations of the Bible with empirical evidence. Let us not forget that his evidence was upheld by many other observations, and the view that the Earth is the center of the universe has long been retired. It doesn’t explain planetary orbits, even if passages in the Bible hint that it was true.
I would call on this new Pope, whose name is derived from the Latin for *speak well* (*bene dicto*), to live up to the name he has chosen. Speak well of your fellow man, and speak well of world in which we delight. Speak well of Man’s insatiable curiosity to understand this world. Recall from your own Church’s history that it is unwise to force the interpretations of peripheral passages from the Bible, and persecute those who present evidence that contradicts those interpretations. Let the lesson, taught to the church, by Galileo, live strong. There is a great movement in the U.S. right now to usurp the methods and conclusions of science with the vagaries of creationism. I would call on the Pope to watch this action closely, and not remain silent. We can take the story of Genesis literally, and deny the evidence in the natural world. Or, we can learn to re-interpret the Bible, as we often do with the sayings of kings and prophets and even Jesus, in the context of our modern understanding.
Let’s not let another 350 years pass before we scientists and members of the church can start to see each other eye-to-eye. Let’s have learned from the experience with Galileo, both you and me, and pick the dialog up from there.