Eppure Si Muove

15 January 2008

Eppure Si Muove

 By Gwynne Dyer

The Pope’s words have come back to haunt him, and so they should. The authorities at La Sapienza University in Rome had invited him to come and speak this week at the inauguration of the new academic year, but the physics department mobilised in protest. It was at La Sapienza seventeen years ago that Pope Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, declared that the trial and conviction of the astronomer Galileo by the Inquisition in 1633 for asserting that the Earth goes around the Sun was “rational and just.”

The scientists took this to mean that Ratzinger sees religious authority as superior to scientific inquiry, and seized the occasion of his return visit to make a fuss about it. Radical students then took up the cause, festooning the campus with anti-Pope messages, and on Tuesday the Vatican announced that the visit was off. It’s a tempest in a rather small teapot, but he has stirred up a series of such tempests over the years.

Last year, during a visit to Brazil, Pope Benedict declared that the native populations of the Americas had been “silently longing” for the Christian faith that arrived with their conquerors and colonisers, and that in no way did it represent the imposition of a foreign culture. Indigenous groups protested bitterly, but he stood his ground.

In 2006, speaking at the University of Regensburg, he quoted with seeming approval a 14th-century Byzantine emperor’s comment: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”

When Muslims protested, Benedict took refuge in the claim that he was just quoting somebody else, not saying it himself. (You know how those quotes from Byzantine emperors just pop into your mind unbidden.) His defence of the Church’s treatment of Galileo all those years ago was done in just the same style: an outrageous proposition delivered in what he seemed to think was a deniable way.

Galileo was the first man in Italy to build a telescope, with which he discovered the moons of Jupiter — and the sight of them rotating around their much larger planet set him to thinking about the relationship of the Earth and the Sun. Copernicus had published his book asserting that the Earth rotated about the Sun more than half a century before, but a “Copernican” had been burned at the stake for his heretical views in 1600, so Galileo approached the matter carefully. On the other hand, unlike Copernicus, he had a telescope, so he could SEE what was going on.

Galileo was summoned to Rome in 1616 and ordered not to write about the Copernican theory any more, but in 1623 a man he saw as a patron and sympathiser was chosen as Pope Urban VIII. He travelled to Rome again, and believed that he had been given permission by Urban to discuss the Copernican theory in public, provided he presented it as only a hypothesis. Unfortunately, either the political balance in the Vatican subsequently changed, or else Galileo simply misunderstood what he was told.

When he published his book in 1632, it was banned. In 1633, he was interrogated in Rome under threat of torture, and condemned for “following the position of Copernicus, which is contrary to the true sense and authority of Holy Scripture.” He recanted his views to save his skin, but they sentenced him to life imprisonment anyway.

But there is a story, perhaps untrue, that as Galileo was led away he muttered defiantly under his breath “Eppure si muove” (“And yet it moves”). True or not, scientists see that scene as the great defining moment in the conflict between authority and truth — or, if you like, between faith and reason. Clearly, so does Joseph Ratzinger, which is presumably why he felt compelled, back in 1990, to take one more kick at Galileo.

Speaking at La Sapienza, Rome’s most prestigious university, he declared that the Church had been quite right to try and punish Galileo. Or rather, in a typical Ratzinger ploy, he quoted the maverick Austrian philosopher Paul Feyerabend, who said: “At the time of Galileo the Church remained much more faithful to reason than Galileo himself. The process against Galileo was reasonable and just.” God knows what Feyerabend actually meant by that, but that was the quote that Ratzinger chose to use.

If you pay attention to what Pope Benedict has been saying all these years, it’s clear that he does see Catholicism as superior to other religions and faith as superior to reason. There is nothing surprising about this. After all, he is the head of the Catholic church, and many if not most committed Catholics do believe these things.

But he does go a little farther than most, believing that “Error has no rights” (in the old Catholic phrase) and that “error” is whatever the Church said it was at the time. In the circumstances, you can see why the scientists at La Sapienza University were not all that keen on a return visit.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 7. (“Last year…ground”; and “Galileo was summoned…told”)