The Ron Howard movie Angels and Demons, based on the book by Dan Brown, has drawn Catholic Church supporters and critics out for another science-vs.-religion slugfest in the media.
Brown's work refers to the Vatican's harsh treatment of Galileo for his insistence that the Earth revolves around the sun. Church supporters say that Vatican officials never tortured Galileo to make him renounce his claim, and that they rejected it because he lacked sufficient evidence. Critics counter that the Vatican was concerned only with making Galileo an example to those who would dare challenge its authority.
Each side is using half-truths to advance its cause.
Supporters of the church are right that Galileo was not tortured. But the church had burned scientists at the stake for similar claims, and it threatened Galileo with the same fate.
With regard to Galileo's evidence, it is very unlikely that the church would have accepted his claim even if he had supplied overwhelming proof. That the heavens revolved around the Earth had been the accepted scientific view since Aristotle, 2,000 years earlier. The idea that it did not defied what was then considered common sense.
But there was a more important reason that the church could not yield to Galileo. At the time, leaders of the Protestant Reformation were insisting that the pope did not have the authority to interpret the Bible. If the Catholic Church admitted it was wrong in its interpretation of biblical statements about the sun moving across the sky and the Earth standing still, it would have played right into the hands of the Protestants.
Whatever its motives, the 1633 condemnation of Galileo - which is also touched on in an ongoing exhibit at the Franklin Institute - was a public-relations catastrophe for the Catholic Church that persists to this day.
In 1979, the newly elected Pope John Paul II announced his intention to reopen the Galileo case, uncover the full truth about it, and acknowledge whatever wrongs had been done. The commission he appointed worked for more than a decade, but its results were disappointing.
Although the commission criticized some of the theologians involved in Galileo's trial, most experts felt it had hardly fulfilled its task. Others used the occasion to ridicule the church. The Los Angeles Times, for example, led its story: "It's official: The Earth revolves around the sun, even for the Vatican."
Since then, historians, scientists, and theologians have worked collaboratively to correct and go well beyond the conclusions of the commission. Yet, in many ways, the Catholic Church is still seen as the chief enemy of science.
This is less than a half-truth. The church established the great medieval universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge, which laid the foundations of modern science. The church has fostered institutions such as the Vatican Observatory, one of the oldest astronomical observatories in the world, and numerous universities that are leaders in scientific research.
Copernicus himself, whose theory Galileo championed, was a Catholic priest. So was Gregor Mendel, whose experiments laid the foundation for modern genetics. And it was a Catholic priest, Georges Lemaitre, who formulated the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe.
Yet the condemnation of Galileo lingers in the imagination of far too many people as the supreme example of the church's attitude toward science. Although this picture of an utterly close-minded church is more widely known, the church has long seen science and theology as exploring two different but complementary aspects of the truth. This Catholic understanding was centuries old before Galileo was even born.
The church could use the current media attention to reiterate its view that science and religion are compatible. Angels and Demons has opened a window of opportunity for the Church to enter into dialogue with contemporary culture - at a time when such dialogue is desperately needed. Missing this opportunity would, at the very least, perpetuate the PR disaster that is recalled whenever Galileo's name is spoken.