Galileo Galilei is going from heretic to hero.
The Vatican is recasting the most famous victim of its Inquisition as a man of faith, just in time for the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s telescope and the UN-designated International Year of Astronomy next year.
Pope Benedict XVI paid tribute to the Italian astronomer and physicist on Sunday, saying he and other scientists had helped the faithful better understand and “contemplate with gratitude the Lord’s works.”
In May, several Vatican officials will participate in an international conference to re-examine the Galileo affair, and top Vatican officials are now saying Galileo should be named the “patron” of the dialogue between faith and reason.
It’s quite a reversal of fortune for Galileo, who made the first complete astronomical telescope and used it to gather evidence that the Earth revolved around the sun.
Church teaching at the time placed the Earth at the center of the universe.
The Church denounced Galileo’s theory as dangerous to the faith, but Galileo defied its warnings. Tried as a heretic in 1633 and forced to recant, he was sentenced to life imprisonment, later changed to house arrest.
The Church has for years been striving to shed its reputation for being hostile to science, in part by producing top-notch research out of its own telescope.
In 1992, pope John Paul II declared that the ruling against Galileo was an error resulting from “tragic mutual incomprehension.”
But that apparently wasn’t enough. In January, Benedict canceled a speech at Rome’s La Sapienza University after a group of professors, citing the Galileo episode and depicting Benedict as a religious figure opposed to science, argued that he shouldn’t speak at a public university.
The Galileo anniversary appears to be giving the Vatican new impetus to put the matter to rest. In doing so, Vatican officials are stressing Galileo’s faith as well as his science, to show the two are not mutually exclusive.
At a Vatican conference last month entitled “Science 400 Years after Galileo Galilei,” the Vatican No. 2, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, said Galileo was an astronomer, but one who “lovingly cultivated his faith and his profound religious conviction.”
The head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture, which cosponsored the conference, went further.
Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi told Vatican Radio that Galileo “could become for some the ideal patron for a dialogue between science and faith.”
But the Vatican’s embrace of Galileo only goes so far.
There were plans earlier this year to give Galileo a permanent place of honor in the Vatican to mark the anniversary of his telescope: a statue.
The plans were suspended after some Vatican officials voiced “problems” with the initiative, said Nicola Cabibbo, the president of the Pontifical Council for Science.
He declined to elaborate.