Thursday, January 31, 2008

Galileo, The Inquisition and Us

Our good friend, Pope Benedict XVI, is in trouble again. Recently, he canceled a trip to La Sapienza University after protests by faculty and students. The protestors declared that the pontiff was backward and anti-science. The controversy centered on a speech given in 1990 by then Cardinal Ratzinger. In the speech entitled, “The Crisis of Faith in Science”, critics claim that Ratzinger justified the Inquisition’s condemnation of Galileo in 1633. In fact, Ratzinger was quoting the philosopher of science, Paul Feyerabend:

“The church at the time of Galileo was much more faithful to reason than Galileo himself, and also took into consideration the ethical and social consequences of Galileo’s doctrine. Its verdict against Gaileo was rational and just, and revisionism can be legitimized solely for motives of political opportunism.”

Benedict’s habit of quoting people in scholarly lectures seems to cause all sorts of problems. Last year some Muslims took offense when Benedict quoted a 14th Century Byzantine emperor who claimed that Islam was violent. Some then went and showed their offense by being violent themselves. This time around the defenders of free inquiry wanted Benedict to be silenced. Irony is a funny thing.

Anyway, I have looked everywhere for Ratzinger’s 1990 speech. Sadly, I can only find excerpts. Still, I don’t think that Ratzinger is contradicting the current position of the Roman Catholic Church. After a thirteen year investigation, Pope John Paul II in 1992 actually declared that Galileo was wrongly accused (a little late). According to the pontiff, those who condemned Galileo did not make a distinction between the Scriptures and their interpretations. Pope John Paul stated, “This led them unduly to transpose into the realm of the doctrine of the faith, a question which in fact pertained to scientific investigation.”

What was Benedict trying to say back in 1990? Although more of the speech would be helpful, I believe that he was speaking to our post-modern skepticism of reason and science. The Enlightenment worked hard to displace the authority of faith and tradition with the authority of reason. During the Enlightenment, Galileo’s condemnation became the quintessential narrative about the evils of superstition against the goodness of science.

According to Benedict, “Today things have changed.” The world is not as confident in reason as we once were. Nuclear annihilation, genetic manipulation, and environmental degradation indicate that there may be a downside to technological advancement. Our faith in science is not what it was. Benedict basically suggests that when the skeptic and agnostic Feyerabend defends the Inquisition, something strange is going on, and we should take note.

Frankly, we should not reject science, but we should be willing to be critical of it. Science is a tool which could be used for good or ill. Our moral decisions sit outside of science and offer direction. Our faith and our traditions can help us here. They can guide us. Benedict is looking for a restoration of both faith and reason. The two must work in concert. For Benedict, this is the crisis of Western Civilization.

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