Though heliocentric theories predated Galileo they lacked concrete proofs so his evidence was a threat to mainstream theology that the earth was the center of the universe.
The book notes that in Galileo’s era the church wielded political and legal power as well as religious authority in Catholic Europe, especially in the Italian states. Any intellectual wanting to publish original works needed the church’s imprimatur. Refusal of the imprimatur effectively stifled dissemination of new ideas and open debate on them.
In theory, the Galileo case should never have happened. As the book informs, the issue was set in perspective 1,200 years earlier by one of Christianity’s greatest thinkers, St. Augustine of Hippo.
In the early fifth century Augustine wrote: “One does not read in the Gospels that the Lord said: I will send the Paraclete so that he may teach you the course of the sun and the moon. Because he wanted to make them Christians, not mathematicians.”
Pope John Paul paraphrased Augustine in 1979 when announcing the formation of a church commission to restudy the Galileo case.
Fantoli criticizes the commission’s findings as not rectifying an injustice but “saving the decorum of the church,” in much the same way as church officials did during Galileo’s era. He faults the commission for shoddy scholarship and for scaling down the church’s responsibility by laying blame on lower officials and judges while brushing over responsibility at the top as two popes and the highest church offices at the time were directly involved in condemning Galileo, sentencing him and prohibiting his works and other writings promoting the heliocentric position.
Fantoli’s thought-provoking advice for the contemporary church is that it should be more tolerant and prudent in judging the discoveries of science and technology which seem to challenge the faith. He calls for the Catholic Church to work together with other Christian churches and with the other great world religions to analyze and absorb the novelties of the modern secular world.
After reading the book, though, one might wonder if St. Augustine got it all wrong. What if the Holy Spirit did come down to form mathematicians? Would the institutional church, over its 2,000-year history, have had more or less bean counters?
Bono is a retired CNS staff writer and former Rome bureau chief.