On October 30, Pope Benedict XVI received participants in the conference sponsored by the Specola Vaticana (Vatican Observatory) for the International Year of Astronomy.The International Year of Astronomy coincides with the 400-year anniversary of Galileo's first observations of the heavens made with a telescope.
Pope Benedict remarked: 'As you know, the history of the Observatory is in a very real way linked to the figure of Galileo, the controversies which surrounded his research, and the Church's attempt to attain a correct and fruitful understanding of the relationship between science and religion.'
Galileo Galilei's contributions to modern science include the telescopic confirmation of the phases of Venus, the discovery of the satellites of Jupiter, and the observation of sunspots. The relationship between Galileo and the Catholic Church was a complicated one; despite Pope Urban VIII's early support of Galileo and his work, the Inquisition eventually found Galileo 'vehemently suspect of heresy,' due to Galileo's public support of the Copernican model of the universe, a heliocentric view that placed the sun at the center of the universe, rather than the Earth. After the publication of Galileo's most famous work, the Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, in 1632, the Inquisition forced Galileo to recant his beliefs and to spend his remaining days under house arrest.
Centuries after his death, the Catholic Church has taken steps toward making peace with the legacy of Galileo. In 1939, Pope Pius XII, speaking to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, described Galileo as being among the 'most audacious heroes of research ... not afraid of the stumbling blocks and the risks on the way, nor fearful of the funereal monuments.' On February 15, 1990, then-Cardinal Ratzinger described the Galileo affair as 'a symptomatic case that permits us to see how deep the self-doubt of the modern age, of science and technology goes today.' And, on October 31, 1992, Pope John Paul II expressed regret over the handling of the Galileo affair, acknowledging the errors committed by the Church tribunal that judged his scientific positions.
On this 400th anniversary of Galileo's turning his telescope toward the heavens, Pope Benedict stated: 'I take this occasion to express my gratitude not only for the careful studies which have clarified the precise historical context of Galileo's condemnation, but also for the efforts of all those committed to ongoing dialogue and reflection on the complementarity of faith and reason in the service of an integral understanding of man and his place in the universe.'
The pontiff observed that 'the International Year of Astronomy is meant not least to recapture for people throughout our world the extraordinary wonder and amazement which characterized the great age of discovery in the sixteenth century. ...Our own age, poised at the edge of perhaps even greater and more far-ranging scientific discoveries, would benefit from that same sense of awe and the desire to attain a truly humanistic synthesis of knowledge which inspired the fathers of modern science.'
Will future scientists face the same condemnation from the Church that Galileo endured? In July of 2009, Monsignor Sergio Pagano, head of the Vatican's secret archives, suggested that today's Church and Vatican officials could learn from past mistakes when it comes to science. 'We should be careful,' he stated, 'when we read the Sacred Scriptures and have to deal with scientific questions, to not make the same mistake now that was made then. ...I am thinking of stem cells, I am thinking of eugenics, I am thinking of scientific research in these fields. Sometimes I have the impression that they are condemned with the same preconceptions that were used back then for the Copernican theory.'
According to Monsignor Pagano, while scientists should not presume they can teach the Church about faith, the Church 'should not be afraid to approach scientific issues with much humility and circumspection.'