Nicole Sotelo wrote a beautiful column for the National Catholic Reporter last week on the Church and true apologies. It reminded me of the Indigo Girls’ hit Galileo, in part because it’s been in our car on repeat for awhile, as well as the upcoming concert they are putting on to celebrate the Progressive Magazine’s 100th year anniversary here in Madison. But more importantly, Galileo Galilei is always on my mind when people tell me that what the Church teaches is final. It’s just not true.
Clearly, there is a change in the Church’s disposition of its treatment of the scientist Galileo Galilei. Galileo, of course, made the claim that the sun was at the center of the universe and not the earth. This was seen in being in defiance of literal interpretations of scripture, namely Psalm 93:1, Psalm 96:10, and 1 Chronicles 16:30. Galileo encouraged literal interpreters of scripture to take the approach of St. Augustine, which was to note take a literal interpretation in books of poetry or song.
Long story short (check out the Wikipedia entry for the whole story), Galileo was placed under house arrest by the Roman Inquisition. Seventy-six years after his death, the Church lifted a ban on publishing his works (excluding Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, his main work that promoted the claim that the sun was at the center of the universe). Forty years after that a general ban was removed by the Church on works related to heliocentrism (the sun being at the center of the universe), although not on his work Dialogue.
In 1939, nearly 300 years after Galileo’s death, Pope Pius XII commended Galileo for his bravery in a speech to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. And in 1992, exactly 350 years after he died, Pope John Paul II expressed regret over how the Galileo affair ended, officially conceding that the earth revolves around the sun after a study done by the Pontifical Council for Culture.
Clearly, sometimes our church leaders get it wrong and are willing to issue an apology (even if it takes 350 years). John Thomas Noonan wrote a great book on this subject in general called A Church That Can and Cannot Change: The Development of Catholic Moral Teaching. The book does a pretty good job of connecting the dots throughout Church history on what types of doctrine have changed and what kinds have not. I try to buy it for everyone who tells me that whatever the Church says is final – but should probably just start recommending it at the local library because not even a Diocesan appeal could cover the cost of buying this book for every time someone says this.