Followers of the history of the twentieth century will no doubt disagree with the claim that the media circus surrounding O.J Simpson in the mid 1990’s was the "trial of the century", in favor of a trial that debated concepts along higher lines of human thought, namely, Darwin’s theories of evolution versus creationism.
The Scopes "Monkey" Trial, which occurred in Dayton, TN in 1925, pitted two great American orators and two sides of thought against each other in a debate of pure science against literal religious beliefs, and modernity against traditional conservative views. The effects from this trial have been so great that the ideas presented and issues raised continue to resonate and remain controversial seventy-five years later. To the American mind, the Scopes Trial is the most recent and vivid example of the frequent incompatibility of science and religion. And as science continues to advance, new controversies appear daily to reaffirm that what Pope John Paul II called the "two realms of knowledge" often make strange bedfellows when procedures in fields like medicine, biology, and genetics are introduced that give new meaning to the creation and mortality of life. These are big questions, and thus it makes sense that the controversies of today were set in motion by a controversy that began nearly 400 years ago because of the same conflict between science and religion. If the Scopes "Monkey" Trial is known as The Trial of the Twentieth Century, then the conflict between Galileo and the Catholic Church can be seen as The Trial of Four Centuries, for the outcome and implications have affected the development of our view of our place in the universe until the present.
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According to Hetherington, Galileo’s trial and condemnation by the Inquisition in 1633 "seriously impeded the rise of scientific cosmology". This is true in that for about 200 years science for Catholic astronomers was required to be treated as "theory" rather than fact, and books teaching of the Earth’s motion remained banned until 1757, among other impediments that caused science in the Catholic tradition to be seen as inferior to the work of those who did not have to contend with Rome. Because of the actions of the Catholic Church, it is thus "religion rather than philosophy that has come to be regarded as the chief early obstacle to modern science". However, Hetherington asserts that this is an untrue view of the situation. The finer details of the spirit of the times, the popular philosophy of the day, the religious and cultural mindset of the day, legal confusions, and Galileo’s own difficult personality, among other factors, all combined to make the Galileo affair much more complex than a matter of one party being solely to blame. However, because the case was not clear-cut and easily resolved, it has negatively impacted the Catholic Church for nearly 400 years. Ignorance of the true nature of the accusations and the wrongs attributed to each side has further compounded a negative view of the Church. So with closure, favorable public opinion, and a genuine desire to look at facts in search of truth in mind, Pope John Paul II appointed a committee in 1981 to open and examine Galileo’s case.
Cardinal Poupard, the head of this committee, presented its findings in a report to the Pope in 1992. In his opening statements, Poupard explains that the aim of the committee was "to reply to the expectations of the world of science and culture regarding the Galileo question, to rethink this whole question, with complete fidelity to established historical facts and in conformity with the teachings and the culture of the times and to recognize honestly-the rights and wrong, regardless of their source." This statement is bursting with the meaning of the large task the Church undertook, to in effect make up for four centuries of ill will in the intelligent, civilized world by examining the events of the past in the spirit of cultural relativism and scientific and historical fact. This objective is calm and rational, with an emphasis on truth without blame, and proceeds in a logical matter.
Poupard first examines the question of whether Copernican astronomy was irrefutably true at the time of the trial. As Cardinal Bellermine said, if it were true, it would then be necessary to re-examine relevant Scriptural passages and "say that we do not understand them, rather than to say that what is demonstrated is false." This is evidence that the Catholic Church never absolutely refused to accept Galileo’s ideas. But since it was not until 150 years after Galileo that the "optical and mechanical proofs for the motion of the Earth were discovered" and the theory thus made irrefutable, this examination of Scripture could not take place in 1633.
Poupard then admits how the scientific truths eventually showed the "relative character" of Galileo’s sentence, and defends the subsequent actions of the Church as it granted an imprimatur to Galileo’s work in 1741, removed books on heliocentric theory from the Index in 1757, and endorsed Copernicanism as a thesis in all works on the subject in 1822.
Poupard makes his main point when he ascribes the problems with the "then new theories" as a result of a "transitional situation in the field of astronomical knowledge and of an exegetical confusion regarding cosmology." He defends the church in terms of the times it was in, a time far different from our own, where minds were firmly entrenched in old beliefs about the nature of the world and the literal interpretation of Scripture. Because the intellectual and religious climate of the times was not ready to accept Galileo’s propositions, he was made to suffer.
Poupard’s main defense of the Church’s actions against Galileo in terms of historical context is truthful. That the earth was the fixed center of the universe was the dominant idea since ancient times. Both Aristotle and certain Biblical passages supported it, and Aristotle and the Bible were the dominant authorities in intellectual and religious life, which were the two fields that mattered to those in power. Galileo’s first conflicts over his theories were with professors of philosophy who taught physics in strict Aristotelian sense and received his ideas with animosity. In fact, powerful members of the Church sided with Galileo on certain issues. According to Hetherington, "Professors of philosophy unanimously opposed Galileo’s science; high officials of the Catholic Church did not". This again refutes the idea that the Church was dedicated to staying in scientific ignorance.
Pope John Paul II defends the Church against the myth of its being "opposed to the free search for truth" by also citing Bellarmine’s concession that the Bible can be open to interpretation, along with Pope Leo XIII’s assertion that "truth cannot contradict truth", so mistakes in interpretation are possible, and St. Augustine’s belief that if Scripture does not correspond with a certain fact, the person interpreting it does not correctly understand the Scripture, and is forcing his own wrong meaning onto it.
The Pope also defends Galileo as a "sincere believer" who "showed himself to be more perceptive in this regard than the theologians who opposed him," on the question of the necessity of literal Scripture interpretation which Galileo addressed in his letter to Madame Christina. This praise from the Pope affirms Galileo’s correctness and also apologizes for the theologians who were unable to separate science from Scripture and found it necessary to condemn him. The Pope saw Galileo as more advanced than the theologians because his study of natural phenomena demanded also a "clarification on the part of all disciplines of knowledge". He knew how to synthesize more aspects of the world than the theologians, who were still confined to their narrow views of literal Scripture interpretation and accepted geocentric cosmology. So although they were wrong to condemn him, the theologians were unable to do otherwise as products of their period in time. The Pope describes it as a "question of knowing how to judge a new scientific datum when it seems to contradict the truths of faith", and acknowledges how difficult a task this is after centuries of a certain way of thinking. He manages to admit the wrong committed but is able to qualify it as inevitable, given the time period. It is difficult to find fault with this logic, for when has any event ever happened that has not been a product of its time and environment?
Interestingly, the web site "The Galileo Affair – A Catholic Perspective" describes Galileo as a person who refused to compromise, and would make no allowance for human nature. Perhaps the Pope even apologizes too much for Galileo if he also refused to see that it is not easy for people to immediately forsake their accustomed view of the universe for something that seems to go against both common sense and the Bible.
As a whole, Pope John Paul II’s statement is well informed, fair, logical, and adequate. He apologizes because he knows it is necessary, for clarification of the events of the case was at least due in 1835 when Galileo’s "Dialogue" no longer appeared on the Index of Prohibited Books. The Church did err in the Galileo case, but much of the blame placed on it was due to myth and ignorance. The Pope explains this and admits the error of the Inquisitors by wisely examining the "cultural, philosophical, and theological context of the 17th century." Cultural relativism is a more effective tool than blind supposition or conciliatory accusation. It is unnecessary for the Pope to make any ashamed reparations in this case to any critics in the past or future, for the task of re-examining, not re-trying; the case was accomplished with grace and acceptance of the irrefutable argument of the fallibility of man and the infallibility of Truth. He speaks of the importance of reconciling the two realms of knowledge to add harmony to the world and to work against the "disorder that affects the human condition". Ending with a quote by Einstein and a look into the future of science, the Pope shows himself to be a foresighted, wise head of a modernizing church that is on the side of science and committed to the most fundamental goal of science, the pursuit and discovery of truth.
In the sister case of science vs. religion three centuries later, Clarence Darrow finally defeated William Jennings Bryan in the courtroom when he forced him to admit that the six days the world was created in perhaps were not made up of 24 hour days, thus saying that not everything in the Bible should be taken literally. Darrow also could have used evidence from the 17th century to make his point. The similarity of the cases points to the permanence of the question of reconciling science and religion. Both cases occurred in transitional periods in history when new thinkers and ideas were changing the established social and religious order; Galileo’s case in the incredible Renaissance era where every field was enriched, and the Scopes case in the tumultuous decade of the 1920’s when the traditional conservative, religious side struggled against the beginnings of the modern world as we know it today. In both times people struggled with giving up established ideas. Just as people did not want to give up their place as the still, center of the Aristotelian universe in Galileo’s time, people in the beginning of the twentieth century found it much more comforting to believe Genesis than to accept the random chance of evolution and a less-favored place in the universe. Humans are naturally self-centered and we want to believe in our superiority.
Here is Clarence Darrow’s closing argument in the Scopes Trial, which is interesting both for its non-acknowledgement of a major case like the Galileo affair and for how he sums up a main point made in the Galileo case, the necessity of separating science and Scripture. "Events come along as they come along. I think this case will be remembered because it is the first case of this sort since we stopped trying people in America for witchcraft because here we have done our best to turn back the tide that has sought to force itself upon this modern world, of testing every fact in science by a religious dictum. That is all I care to say."
I wonder what Darrow would say if he knew that 75 years later the teaching of evolution was still debated, for in 1999 the state of Kansas actually voted to remove references to evolution in its textbooks. Thus the conflict between science and religion continues, and will continue, as long as science continues to evolve.
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