Earth Moves for Vatican in Galileo Case


It’s official: The Earth revolves around the sun, even for the Vatican.

The Roman Catholic Church has admitted to erring these past 359 years in formally condemning Galileo Galilei for entertaining scientific truths it long denounced as against-the-Scriptures heresy.

Pope John Paul II himself turned up Saturday for a meeting of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences to help set the record straight on behalf of the 17th-Century Italian mathematician, astronomer and physicist who was the first man to use a telescope and who is remembered as one of history’s greatest scientists.

“The underlying problems of this case concern both the nature of science and the message of faith,” the Pope noted. “One day we may find ourselves in a similar situation, which will require both sides to have an informed awareness of the field and of the limits of their own competencies.”


Thirteen years after he appointed it, a commission of historic, scientific and theological inquiry brought the Pope a “not guilty” finding for Galileo, who, at age 69 in 1633, was forced to repent by the Roman Inquisition and spent the last eight years of his life under house arrest.

The commission found that Galileo’s clerical judges acted in good faith but rejected his theories because they were “incapable of dissociating faith from an age-old cosmology”--the biblical vision of the Earth as the center of the universe. “God fixed the Earth upon its foundation, not to be moved forever,” says one Bible verse contradicted by Galileo’s pioneering notion that the Earth spins daily on its axis and makes an annual journey around the sun.

Unable to comprehend a non-literal reading of Scripture, according to the commission, the judges feared that if Galileo’s ideas were taught, they would undermine Catholic tradition at a time when it was under attack by Protestant reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin.

“This subjective error of judgment, so clear to us today, led them to a disciplinary measure from which Galileo ‘had much to suffer.’ These mistakes must be frankly recognized, as you, Holy Father, have requested,” Cardinal Paul Poupard, the commission chairman, told the Pope.

Tried on “vehement suspicion of heresy,” Galileo was forced to swear that he “abjured, cursed and detested” the errors of his work, which extended the findings of the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus that the Earth moves. Legend insists that as he finished his abject, life-saving confession of his errors to the black-cowled Inquisitors, Galileo muttered under his breath: “Nevertheless, it does move.”

It took the church two centuries to come to grips with Galileo’s ideas: His “Dialogues Concerning the Two Chief World Systems” was not removed from the Index of Prohibited Books until 1835. Both John Paul and the investigatory mission had offered incomplete rehabilitations for Galileo in recent years in advance of Saturday’s final conclusion.


The case was important to him, John Paul said Saturday, because over the centuries it had become “the symbol of the church’s supposed rejection of scientific progress, or of ‘dogmatic’ obscurantism opposed to the free search for truth.”

Galileo’s condemnation, John Paul lamented, had led many scientists to conclude that there was “an incompatibility between the spirit of science and its rules of research on the one hand, and the Christian faith on the other.”

“A tragic mutual incomprehension has been interpreted as the reflection of a fundamental opposition between science and faith. The clarifications furnished by recent historical studies enable us to state that this sad misunderstanding now belongs to the past,” the Pope said.