Galileo and the Church - Conference

(part of a series)

In his address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on the occasion of the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Albert Einstein in 1979, Pope John Paul II expressed the hope that a forthright study of the Galileo case on the Church’s part would dispel “the mistrust between science and faith” by “a frank recognition of wrongs from whatever side they come.” Pursuant to this goal, he established a commission of scholars in 1981, whose mandate was to return to the documentary evidence from the complementary perspectives of science, canon law, scripture, and culture and make a fresh assessment of the entire affair. The Galileo Commission provided a brief report to the Pontifical Academy in 1992 and the Pope delivered a short address on the same occasion.

To what extent did these declarations achieve the goal that the Pope had expressed in embarking on the re-examination of the Galileo affair in the first place? This was the subject of lively discussion and therefire it seemed appropriate to return to the issues a decade after the 1992 Academy meeting and to address questions left unresolved at that time. What is involved here is not simply the recovery of historical truth, insofar as this is possible. Galileo’s encounter with Church authority long ago became accepted as a (some would say “the”) defining episode in the centuries-long interaction between religion and the sciences. Any degree of success in dispelling the myths that have accreted around it is surely to be welcomed, especially in the light of the active interest in the science-religion relationship of recent years.

This conference brought together scholars who have contributed in one way or another to our understanding of Galileo and his day. It would have been overly optimistic to suppose that the conference would bring closure to a debate that has raged for so long, and over so many fronts. But the hope was that it could contribute substantially to the clarification of the Church’s historical reaction to Galileo’s defense of the sun-centered universe.

When the conference convened almost forty years had passed since the fourth centenary of Galileo’s birth was celebrated in 1964 by a very large-scale international conference at Notre Dame. A product of the 1964 conference is an acclaimed set of essays, Galileo, Man of Science (New York: Basic Books, 1967), which is still regarded as a major source on Galileo’s science. That earlier conference deliberately left aside the thorny question of Galileo’s relations with the Church; the intention was to return to that theme at a later time in a conference devoted specifically to that topic. By 1992 the time had come to carry out this promise.

In addition to the Reilly Center for Science, Technology, and Values this conference was also sponsored by the College of Science of the University of Notre Dame, the Vatican Observatory, and the Templeton Foundation.