The Pope and the Galileo Affair

This entry collects together some remarks about Feyerabend’s comments on the Galileo Affair and their use by Pope Benedict XVI, with minor updates. There had been much discussion of the Galileo Affair following the election of Benedict because the then Cardinal Ratzinger gave an interview in the Corriere della Sera of March 30, 1990, in which he discussed the Church’s treatment of Galileo and quoted from Paul Feyerabend in support of his position. The relevant passage reads:

Se qui entrambe le sfere di conoscenza vengono ancora chiaramente differenziate fra loro sotto il profilo metodologico, riconoscendone sia i limiti che i rispettivi diritti, molto piu drastico appare invece un giudizio sintetico del filosofo agnostico-scettico P. Feyerabend. Egli scrive:

“La Chiesa dell’epoca di Galileo si attenne alla ragione piu che lo stesso Galileo, e prese in considerazione anche le conseguenze etiche e sociali della dottrina galileiana. La sua sentenza contro Galileo fu razionale e giusta, e solo per motivi di opportunita politica se ne puo legittimare la revisione.”

Here Ratzinger was quoting from the heading of chapter 13 of Feyerabend’s Against Method, which argued that:

The Church at the time of Galileo not only kept closer to reason as defined then and, in part, even now; it also considered the ethical and social consequences of Galileo’s views. Its indictment of Galileo was rational and only opportunism and a lack of perspective can demand a revision.” (p125 in the Verso 2002 edition)

Ratzinger’s comment reads: “if methodological spheres are distinguished between, recognising the limits of each, then the agnostic-skeptic philosopher Feyerabend’s even more dramatic conclusion begins to make sense”. Feyerabend himself commented on this talk of Ratzinger’s in a footnote to the 13th chapter (2002 edition, n20, pp133-134), saying that Ratzinger had “formulated the problem in a way that would make a revision of the judgement [i.e. Poupard’s, following the work of the Commission set up by John Paul II under his direction”> anachronistic and pointless.” (Feyerabend added that he had responded to Ratzinger’s speech in two interviews, one in Il Sabato of 12 May 2022 and the other in La Repubblica of 14 July 1990.)

The idea that the Church had acted “more rationally” in its dealings with Galileo was given its most detailed defence by Feyerabend in his talk to the Crakow Conference of 24-27 May 1984, entitled Galileo and the Tyranny of Truth (reprinted in Farewell to Reason). A severe treatment of Poupard’s (non-)resolution can be found in Annibale Fantoli’s work, particularly his Galileo and the Catholic Church: A Critique of the “Closure” of the Galileo Commission’s Work (Specola Vaticana, 2002). The basic point is that the interpretive principle arrived at by Bellarmine in his Letter to Foscarini rendered any thought of development in the Church’s attitude to heliocentrism or geokineticism impossible. This was due to his insistence that the Bible passages ostensibly contradicting either position were to be considered a matter of faith ex parte dicentis. Feyerabend appears to have been unaware of this, given that he remarked that Ratzinger’s position was “similar” to Bellarmine’s when instead only the instrumentalism of the early parts of Bellarmine’s letter are supported by his caution, not the later declaration that all Scriptural passages are authored by the Holy Spirit with its consequences. Both Feyerabend and Ratzinger were mistaken on this issue, then, since calling this approach - leading invariably to stagnation in astronomy and physics, as Galileo and senior Jesuits like Grienberger foresaw - more rational than Galileo’s is absurd. Like most others who have come into contact with the Galileo Affair, they have simplified the events to fit their own preconceptions.

The complaint (see below) at Feyerabend’s “position” being endorsed by Ratzinger is a complete misunderstanding of Feyerabend’s original argument. In brief, this was to construct a reductio: if we are supposed to make rational choices between theories then at the time Bellarmine and the Church were more rational than Galileo and were right to rule against his ideas; or, more generally, if there is a scientific method that defines science then Galileo violated it many times and his work should have been (and was) rightly rejected as unscientific. This then shows that we cannot advocate such restrictions without harming - or killing - science altogether. It does not really matter if Feyerabend established his argument successfully (I would say he did, even though he misread the Galileo affair); it remains the case that he was objecting to narrow definitions of what is or is not rational being applied post hoc. It is ironic, then, that the complainants against Ratzinger are themselves adopting an anachronistic approach to what is or not rational, using it to condemn the Church in the past and then using it to make a political point about the current Church.

Georgio Israel argued that (see below) Ratzinger’s speech can be read as “a defense of Galilean rationality against the skepticism and relativism of postmodern culture” but it seems to me more likely to be a rejection of the separation of science and religion. Essentially Ratzinger’s point was that it is folly to call upon events in the past to reinforce a strict separation, not least because philosophers and historians of science have studied these events and found that they don’t lend themselves to simplistic conclusions. For the Galileo affair in particular, the best we can do if we insist on awarding prizes for most/least rational contestants is to say that the Church was more rational than Galileo at the time; but that makes a mockery of the insistence that what happened to Galileo proves that science and religion are inevitably in conflict. He then pointed to Feyerabend having established this conclusion, thereby failing to realise that the argument was a reductio (hence Feyerabend’s dismissive remarks). Today’s critics thus misunderstood Ratzinger’s claim while misunderstanding both Feyerabend’s and Ratzinger’s use of it.

The point was that at the time it made good sense to separate astronomy and Christianity - or, as Bloch put it (another of Ratzinger’s quotes not seized upon), “an ancient human and Christian system of reference has no right to interference in astronomic calculations and their heliocentric simplification; however, it has the right to remain faithful to its method of preserving the earth in relation to human dignity, and to order the world with regard to what will happen and what has happened in the world”. I still claim that this interpretation disregards the other methodological principle that Bellarmine advocated but it makes perfect sense and is only really countered by arguing that the history of science does not support the view that Bellarmine was more rational than Galileo back then - certainly not by anachronistically insisting that we now know Galileo was closer to reality and therefore the Church was wrong to act as it did.

Supporting material

Marcello Cini’s letter of protest to the chancellor of La Sapienza:

Mr. Chancellor, I understand from a piece by the wire service Apcom dated the 1st of November that “the program of the inauguration of the 705th Academic Year of the University of Rome La Sapienza — which at first scheduled the presence of Minister Mussi to listen to the Lectio Magistralis of Pope Benedict XVI — has changed. The pope “will be there, but after the inauguration ceremony, and the minister of the University Fabio Mussi will not be there at all.”

As professor emeritus of the university of La Sapienza — these days in fact mark 50 years since I was called to be a part of the faculty of Mathematical physical and natural sciences by physicists Edoardo Amaldi, Giorgio Salvini and Enrico Persico — I can’t not express publically my indignation for your proposal, communicated to the academic Senate on the 23rd of October, awkwardly repaired later with a patch that seeks to hide the hole even as it substantially maintains its political and media objective.

I won’t comment on the sad fact that you were elected with the determinative contribution of a lay electorate. A democratic Catholic — represented for everyone by the example of Oscar Luigi Scalfaro during the course of his 7 years of presidency of the Republic — would have never dreamed of forgetting that since the 20th of September, 1870, Rome is no longer the capital of the Papal States. I speak rather of the incredible violation of the traditional autonomy of the universities, for more than 705 years incarnated in the world by La Sapienza, from your initiative.

On the formal level, first of all. Even if in the first centuries after the foundation of universities theology was taught alongside the humanist, philosophical, mathematical and natural disciplines, it hasn’t been just since yesterday that there is no longer any trace of this discipline in modern universities, or at least in public ones of non-theocratic states. I ignore the statute of the University of Ratisbona where professor Ratzinger has had held the position of lectio magistralis which I will address later, but I insist that as a rule, theology is exclusively taught by religious universities. The themes that have been object of professor Ratzinger’s studies should not in any case re-enter the syllabus, and even less so that of a lectio magistralis held in a university of the Italian republic. Above all it’s notable that since the time of Descartes we have arrived at, to put an end to the conflict between knowledge and faith that culminated in the condemnation of Galileo by the Holy Office, a partition of spheres of competence between the Academy and the Church. His clamorous violation in the course of the inauguration of the academic year of La Sapienza would have been considered, in the world, as a jump backwards in time of 300 years and more.

On a substantial level then, the implications would have been even more devastating. Let’s consider them starting from the text of the lectio magistralis of Professor Ratzinger at Ratisbona, from which presumably the one in Rome would not have diverged greatly. In that speech, it is clearly explained that the political heritage of the papacy of Benedict XVI is founded on the theory that the partition of the respective spheres of competence between faith and knowledge doesn’t count anymore: “Down deep…, it’s about — and I quote — the encounter between faith and reason, between authentic enlightenment and religion. Departing from the inherent nature of the Christian faith and, at the same time, from the nature of Greek though now fused into faith, Manuel II could say: Not to act ‘with the logos’ is contrary to the nature of God.”

I don’t insist on the danger of this program from a political and cultural point of view: it’s enough to think of the reaction in the Islamic world from hinting at the difference between the Chritian God and Allah — attributed to the supposed rationality of the former compared to the unpredictable irrationality of the later — that is the origin of Christian meekness and Muslim violence respectively. It takes a lot of nerve to support this thesis while hiding under the doormat the crusades, pogroms against the Jews, the extermination of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, the treatment of slaves, the pyres of the Inquisition that Christians have given to the world. Here it interests me, however, the fact that from this encounter between faith and reason comes a concept of the sciences as partial fields of a rational knowledge more vast and generalized to which they should be subordinated. “Modern reason of the natural sciences,” the Pope in fact concludes, “with its intrinsic Platonic elements, carries within it a question that transcends it along with its methodological possibilities. It must simply accept the rational structure of matter and the correspondence between our spirit and the rational structures which operate in nature as a given, on which its methodological track is based. But the question (on the whys of this given) exists and must be entrusted from the natural sciences to other levels and modes of thought — to philosophy and theology. For philosophy and, in a different way, for theology, listening to the great experiences and convictions of the religious traditions of humanity, especially that of the Christian faith, constitutes a fount of knowledge; refusing that would signify an unacceptable reduction of our listening and answering.”

On the other side of these circumlocutions, the design shows that in his new role the former head of the Holy Office has not forgotten the task that traditionally falls to him. That it has always been and continues to be the expropriation of the sphere of the sacred immanent in the profundity of the feelings and emotions of every human being from the part of an institution that lays claim to exclusively mediate between the human and the divine. An appropriation that ignores and vilifies the innumerable diverse historical and geographical forms of this intimate and delicate sphere without respect for the personal dignity and moral integrity of the individual.

He has nonetheless changed strategy. No longer being able to use the stake and corporal punishment, he has learned from Ulysses. He has utilized the effigy of the Enlightenment’s Goddess Reason as a Trojan horse to enter the citadel of scientific consciousness and put it in line. I do not exaggerate. What else is, just to give an example, the explicit support that the Pope gave to the so-called theory of Intelligent Design if not the attempt — conducted through a clumsy negation of historical evidence, a vulgar upsetting of the contents of the internal controversies of the scientific community and the old trick of caricaturing your adversary’s positions — to return science under the pseudo-rational purview of religious dogmas? And how should the biology colleagues and their students have reacted when faced with a more or less indirect attack on the the Darwinian theory of biological evolution that stands at the base, in all the world, of modern evolutionary biology?

I can’t understand, therefore, the motivation for your improvident and damaging to the global image of La Sapienza proposal. The result of your initiative, even in the form of the Papal visit (with “a salute to the university community”) undergone after an inevitably clandestine inauguration, will be the next day’s newspaper headlines (one can’t say they aim for subtlety): “Pope inaugurates the academic year of the University of la Sapienza.”

Congratulations, Mr. Chancellor. Your portrait will remain next to those of your predecessors as symbol of the autonomy, culture and progress of the sciences.

Marcello Cini (Translation: E. Lester)

Giorgio Israel’s commentary

When Ratzinger defended Galileo at La Sapienza (original here):

It’s surprising how many who have chosen as motto the celebrated phrase attributed to Voltaire — “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” — are opposed to the Pope making a speech at the Roman university La Sapienza. It’s all the more surprising given how Italian universities are now open to all kinds of comment and it’s inexplicable that the Pope alone should be refused entry. What was so grave to have pushed aside the Voltairian tolerance? Marcello Cini explained it in his letter of last November in which he condemned chancellor Renato Guarini’s invitation to Benedict XVI. What appears “dangerous” to him is that the Pope attempted to open a discussion between faith and reason, to reestablish a relationship between the Judeo-Christian tradition and the Hellenistic, to not want that science and faith be separated by an impenetrable, watertight wall. For Cini this program is intolerable because it would be in reality dictated by a perverse intent that Benedict XVI has been cultivating since he was “head of the Holy Office” to “put science in line” and bring it back to the “pseudo-rationality of religious dogmas”. Also, according to Cini, it would have the nefarious effect of engendering vehement reactions in the Islamic world. We doubt, however, that Cini would ask a representative of the Islamic religion to pronounce a mea culpa for the persecution of Averroes before stepping foot in La Sapienza. We are in fact certain that he would welcome him with open arms in the name of the principles of dialogue and tolerance.

The opposition to the Pope’s visit is therefore not motivated by abstract principle and secular tradition. The opposition is of an ideological character and has as Benedict XVI has a specific target in his daring to speak of science and the relations between science and faith instead of limiting himself to speaking of faith.

Even the letter against the visit signed by a group of physicists is inspired by a feeling of annoyance for the person of the Pope himself, presented as an obstinate enemy of Galileo. They reproach him for having ever brought up — in a conference indeed held at La Sapienza on the 15th of February 1990 (cfr J. Ratzinger, Wendezeit fuer Europa? Diagnosen und Prognosen zur Lage von Kirche und Welt, Einsiedeln-Freiburg, Johannes Verlag, 1991, pp. 59 and 71) — a phrase from the philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend: “At the time of Galileo the Church remained much more faithful to the reason of Galileo. The trial against Galileo was reasonable and just.” They didn’t trouble themselves, however, to read the entire speech carefully. Its theme was the crisis of faith in science itself and gave as an example the change of attitude over the case of Galileo. If in the 18th century Galileo is the symbol of the medieval obscurantism of the Church, in the 20th c. that attitude changes and the focus shifts to how Galileo hadn’t furnished convincing proof of the heliocentric system, until we get to Feyerabend — defined by the then-Cardinal Ratzinger as an “agnostic-skeptic philosopher” — and Carl Friedrich von Weizs cker, who actually establishes a direct line from Galileo to the atomic bomb. These citations weren’t used by Cardinal Ratzinger to seek revenge or weave rationalizations: “It would be absurd to construct on the base of these claims a hasty apologetic. Faith doesn’t grow out of resentment and refuting rationality.” They were instead adopted as proof of how “modernity’s doubt about itself today has reached science and technology”.

In other words, the 1990 speech can be considered by anyone who reads it with a minimum of attention as a defense of Galilean rationality against the skepticism and relativism of postmodern culture. Besides, whoever knows a little about the Pope’s recent comments on the issue knows well how he considers with “admiration” the famous quote from Galileo that the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics.

How can it have happened that university professors have made such a mistake [lit. incurred such an injury]? A professor should consider as a professional defeat having shared such a model of careless reading, so superficial and omissive, that leads to a true and proper misrepresentation. But I fear that here intellectual rigor is of little interest and that the intention is to beat plowshares at all costs. Nor does secularism have anything to do with it, a category extraneous to the behaviors of some of the signatories who have never expended a single word against Islamic fundamentalism or against Holocaust revisionism. As Giuseppe Caldarola said well, here emerges “an aspect of secular culture that has no arguments and demonizes, not discusses like the true secular culture, but creates monsters”. Therefore, let us repeat with him that “the threat against the Pope is a dramatic event in culture and civilization”. (Translation: E. Lester)

Ratzinger’s intended speech at La Sapienza:

It is a great joy for me to meet the community of “La Sapienza - Universite di Roma” on the occasion of the inauguration of the academic year. For centuries, this university has marked the progress and the life of the city of Rome, bringing forth intellectual excellence in every field of study. Both during the period when, after its foundation at the behest of Pope Boniface VIII, the institution was directly dependent upon ecclesiastical authority, and after this, when the Studium Urbis became an institution of the Italian state, your academic community has maintained a very high standard of scholarship and culture, which places it among the most prestigious universities in the world. The Church of Rome has always looked with affection and admiration at this university centre, recognising its sometimes arduous and difficult efforts in research and in the formation of the new generations. There has been no lack, in recent years, of significant instances of collaboration and dialogue. I would like to recall, in particular, the worldwide meeting of university rectors on the occasion of the Jubilee of Universities, which saw your community take the responsibility not only for hosting and organising the meeting, but above all for making the complex and prophetic proposal for the development of a “new humanism for the third millennium”.

I am moved, on this occasion, to express my gratitude for the invitation extended to me to come to your university to deliver an address to you. In this perspective, I first of all asked myself the question: What can a pope say on an occasion like this? In my lecture in Regensburg, I indeed spoke as pope, but I spoke above all in the guise of a former professor of the university, seeking to connect memory and the present. But at the university “La Sapienza”, the ancient university of Rome, I have been invited as “Bishop of Rome”, and so I must speak in this capacity. Of course, “La Sapienza” was once the pope’s university, but today it is a secular university with that autonomy which, on the basis of its founding principles, has always been part of the nature of the university, which must always be exclusively bound to the authority of the truth. In its freedom from political and ecclesiastical authorities, the university finds its special role, and in modern society as well, which needs institutions of this nature.

I return to my starting question: What can and should the pope say in meeting with his city’s university? Reflecting on this question, it has seemed to me that it includes two more questions, the clarification of which should by itself lead to the answer. It is necessary, in fact, to ask: What is the nature and mission of the papacy? And again: What is the nature and mission of the university? It is not my intention here to belabour either you or myself with lengthy examinations of the nature of the papacy. A brief summary should be enough. The pope is, first of all, the bishop of Rome, and as such, in virtue of apostolic succession from the Apostle Peter, he has Episcopal authority in regard to the entire Catholic Church. The word “bishop” (episkopos), which in its immediate meaning refers to “supervision”, already in the New Testament was fused together with the biblical concept of the shepherd: he is the one who, from an elevated point of observation, surveys the whole landscape, making sure to keep the flock together and on the right path. This description of the bishop’s role directs the view first of all to within the community of believers. The bishop - the shepherd - is the man who takes care of this community, the one who keeps it united by keeping it on the path toward God, which Jesus points out through the Christian faith - and He does not only point this out: He himself is the way for us. But this community that the bishop cares for as large or small as it may be - lives in the world; its conditions, its journey, its example, and its words inevitably influence the rest of the human community in its entirety. The larger it is, the more its good condition or eventual decline will impact all of humanity. Today we see very clearly how the situation of the religions and the situation of the Church - its crises and renewals - act upon the whole of humanity. Thus the pope, precisely as the shepherd of his community, has increasingly become a voice of the ethical reasoning of humanity.

But here there immediately comes the objection according to which the pope does not in fact truly speak on the basis of ethical reasoning, but instead draws his judgments from the faith, and therefore he cannot claim that these have validity for those who do not share this faith. We must return to this argument later, because it poses the absolutely fundamental question: What is reason? How can an assertion - and above all a moral norm - demonstrate that it is “reasonable”. At this point, I would like to note briefly that John Rawls, while he denies that religious doctrines overall have the character of “public” reasoning, he nonetheless sees in their “non-public” reasoning at least a reasoning that cannot simply be dismissed by those who support a hard-line secularist rationality. He sees a criterion of this reasonableness in, among other things, the fact that that such doctrines are derived from a responsible and well grounded tradition, in which over a long span of time sufficiently strong arguments have been developed in support of the respective doctrines. It seems important to me that this statement recognises that experience and demonstration over the course of generations, the historical backdrop of human wisdom, are also a sign of their reasonableness and their lasting significance. In the face of an a-historical form of reason that seeks to construct itself in an exclusively a-historical rationality, the wisdom of humanity as such - the wisdom of the great religious traditions - should be viewed as a reality that cannot be cast with impunity into the trash bin of the history of ideas.

Let’s return to the opening question. The pope speaks as the representative of a believing community, in which throughout the centuries of its existence a specific life wisdom has matured; he speaks as the representative of a community that holds within itself a treasury of ethical understanding and experience, which is important for all of humanity. In this sense, he speaks as the representative of a form of ethical reasoning.

But now we must ask ourselves: What is the university? What is its purpose? It is a huge question which I can only answer once again in almost telegraphic style by making just a few observations. I believe that it can be said that the true intimate origin of the university lies in man’s craving for knowledge. He wants to know what everything around him is. In this sense the Socratic questioning is the impulse that gave birth to the Western university. I am thinking here, just to mention one text, the dispute that sets Euthyphro, who defends mythical religion and his devotion to it, against Socrates. In contrast Socrates asks: “And do you believe there is really a war amongst the gods, with terrible feuds, even, and battles . . . Are we to say that these things are true, Euthyphro? (Euthyphro, 6: b and c)”. In this apparently not very devout question - but which drew in Socrates from a deeper and purer sense of religiosity, one that sought a truly divine god - the Christians of the first centuries recognised their path and themselves. They accepted their faith non in a positivist manner or as a way of getting away from unfulfilled desires but rather as a way of dissolving the cloud that was mythological religion so as to discover the God that is creative Reason as well as Reason-as-Love. For this reason, asking themselves about the reason for the greater God as well as the real nature and sense of being human did not represent for them any problematic lack of religiosity, but was part of the essence of their way of being religious. They therefore did not need to solve or put aside the Socratic dilemma but could, indeed had to accept it. They also had to recognise as part of their identity the demanding search for reason in order to learn about the entire truth. The university could, indeed had to be born within the Christian world and the Christian faith. We must take another step. Man wants to know; he wants the truth. Truth pertains first and foremost to seeing and understanding theoria as it is called in the Greek tradition. But truth is not only theoretic. In correlating the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mountain and the gifts of the Holy Spirit mentioned in Isaiah 11, Augustine asserted the reciprocity of scientia and tristitia. For him just knowing is source of sadness. In fact those who only see and learn all that happens in the world end up becoming sad. But the truth means more than knowledge. The purpose of knowing the truth is to know what is good. This is also the sense of Socrates’ way of questioning: What good thing makes us true? Truth makes us good and goodness is true. This optimism dwells in the Christian faith because it was allowed to see the Logos, the creative Reason that, in God’s incarnation, revealed itself as that which is Good, as Goodness itself.

In medieval theology there was a great dispute over the relationship between theory and praxis, over the proper relationship between knowledge and action, a dispute that we must not go into further here. In fact with their four faculties medieval universities embodied this correlation. Let us begin with medicine, which was the fourth faculty according to the understanding of that time. Although it was seen more as an “art” than as a science, its inclusion in the realm of the universitas meant that it was seen as belonging to the domain of rationality. The art of healing was seen as something guided by reason and was thus beyond the domain of magic. Healing is a task that always requires more than simple reason but exactly for this reason it needs the connection between knowledge and power and must belong to the realm of ratio. Inevitably in law faculties the relationship between praxis and theory, between knowing and doing takes front seat for it is about giving human freedom its right shape which is always freedom in reciprocal communion. The law is the premise upon which freedom is built; it is not its adversary. But this raises another question. How can we identify what the standards of justice are, that is those that make freedom as part of a whole possible and serve mankind’s goodness? Let us come back to the present. It is a question that is related to how we can find legal rules that can govern freedom, human dignity and man’s rights. It is an issue that concerns us insofar as it relates to the democratic processes that shape opinions but also one that can distress us insofar as it relates to humanity’s future. In my opinion Juergen Habermas articulates a view, widely accepted in today’s world of ideas, in which the legitimacy of a constitution as the basis for what is legal stems from two sources: the equal participation of all citizens in the political process and reasonable conflict-resolution mechanisms in politics. Insofar as the reasonable mechanisms are concerned he notes that the issue cannot be reduced to a mere struggle for who gets more votes but must include a “process of argumentation that is responsive to truth” (wahrheitssensibles Argumentationsverfahren). This is well said but it is something difficult to turn into political praxis. We know that the representatives of this public “process of argumentation” are for the most part political parties which shape the formation of the public will. In fact they invariably will seek a majority and will almost always take care of the interests they pledge to protect which are very often partisan and not collective interests. Responsiveness to the truth always takes the back seat to partisan interests. To me it is significant that Habermas should say that responsiveness to truth is a necessary component of political argumentation, since it reintroduces the concept of truth in philosophical and political debates.

Pilate’s question then becomes inevitable: What is truth? How do we recognise it? If we turn to “public reason” as Rawls does, another question necessarily follows: What is reasonable? How does a reason prove to be the true reason? Whatever the case may be, it is obvious that in the quest for freedom and for living together equitably groups other than parties and interest groups must be heard; although that does not mean that the latter are any less important. Let us go back to medieval universities and the way they were set up. Along with law, philosophy and theology had their own faculty with the task of studying mankind in his totality and thus keep alive responsiveness to truth. One might even say that this is the real and enduring meaning of both faculties they maintain responsiveness to truth and prevent man from being distracted in his quest for the truth. But how can they do this? This is a question which we must always work at and which can never be raised and answered once and for all. Hence at this point not even I can properly give you an answer. I can though invite you to keep asking this question, one that has involved all the great thinkers who throughout history have fought for and sought out the truth, coming up with their own answers and enduring their own fears, always going beyond any one answer.

Theology and philosophy are an odd couple; neither can be totally separated from the other and yet each must keep its own purpose and identity. Compared to the answers Church Fathers formulated in their day and age, St Thomas Aquinas deserves a special place in history for highlighting the autonomy of philosophy as well as that of the law. He equally has the merit of pointing out the responsibilities that fall on reason when it questions itself on the basis of its own strengths. Unlike neo-platonic ideas that saw religion and philosophy inseparably intertwined, the Church Fathers had presented the Christian faith as real philosophy, insisting that this faith corresponded to the needs of Reason in its quest for the truth, that is a faith that was a “Yes” to truth when compared to mythical religions that had ended up turning into mere custom. However, when universities were founded in the West those religions were no more - only Christianity existed. This meant highlighting in a new way reason’s own responsibility, one that was not absorbed by the faith. Thomas lived at a special time. For the first time all of Aristotle’s philosophical writings were available as were the Hebrew and Arabic text that embodied and extended Greek philosophy. Thus as Christianity interacted with others and engaged their reason in a new dialogue it had to fight for its own reasonableness. The Faculty of Philosophy, i.e. the so-called artists’ faculty, was until then only a preparatory stage before moving onto theology. Afterwards it became a faculty in its own right, an autonomous partner to theology and the faith which the latter reflected. We cannot dwell on the gripping confrontation that followed. I would say that St Thomas’ idea about the relationship between philosophy and theology can be expressed by the formula handed down by the Council of Chalcedon on Christology, namely that philosophy and theology must relate to each other “without confusion and without separation”. “Without confusion” is understood in the sense that each will maintain its own identity so that philosophy is truly a free and responsible search for reason and aware of its own limits and thus of its own greatness and vastness. Theology must instead continue to draw from a source of knowledge that it has not invented and that is always greater than itself, and which always renews the process of thinking since it is never totally exhausted by reflection. “Without confusion” does not stand alone for there is “without separation”, that is the idea that philosophy never starts from scratch in isolation but is part of great dialogue found in the accumulated knowledge that history has bequeathed and which it always critically but meekly accepts and develops. Yet it should not shut itself off from what religions, especially the Christian faith, have received and given to humanity as a sign for the path to follow. Indeed History has shown that many of the things that theologians have said in the course of time or that Church authorities have put in practice have been proven false and today they confuse us. But it is equally true that the history of the saints and the history of the humanism that has developed on the basis of the Christian faith are proof of the truth of this faith in its essential core, making it something that public reason needs. Of course, much of what theology and faith say can only be appropriated from within the faith and thus cannot be seen as a need for those to whom this faith remains inaccessible. It is true however that the message of the Christian faith is never only a “comprehensive religious doctrine” in Rawls’ terms, but that it is instead a force that purifies reason itself, further helping the latter to be itself. On the basis of its origins the Christian message should always encourage the search of the truth and thus be a force against the pressures exerted by power and interests.

Well, so far I have only talked about the university in the Middle Ages, trying however to show to what extent its nature and purpose have remained the same all along. In modern times knowledge has become more multi-faceted, especially in the two broad fields that now prevail in universities. First of all, there are the natural sciences which have developed on the basis of experimentation and subject matters’ supposed rationality. Secondly, there are the social sciences and the humanities in which man has tried to understand himself by looking at his own history and uncovering his own nature. From this development humanity not only acquired a great deal of knowledge and power but also an understanding and recognition of the rights and dignity of mankind. And for this we can be grateful. But man’s journey can never be said to be over and the danger of falling into inhumanity is never just warded off as we can see in today’s history. The danger faced by the Western world, just to mention the latter, is that mankind, given its great knowledge and power, might give up on the question of the truth. At the same time this means that reason in the end may bow to the pressures of partisan interests and instrumental value, forced to acknowledge the latter as the ultimate standard. From the point of view of the academic world this means that there is a danger that philosophy, feeling incapable of fulfilling its task, might degenerate into positivism, a danger that theology and the message it has for reason might be confined to the private sphere of a group more or less big. If however reason, concerned about its supposed purity, fails to hear the great message that comes from the Christian faith and the understanding it brings, it will dry up like a tree with roots cut off from the water that gives it life. It will lose the courage needed to find the truth and thus become small rather than great. Applied to our European culture this means that if it wants to constitute itself on the basis of its arguments and whatever appears to it to be convincing, with concerns about its own secular nature, it will cut itself off from its life-sustaining roots, and in doing so will not become more reasonable and pure but will instead become undone and fragmented.

And so let me go back to the initial point. What does the Pope have to do or say in a university? He certainly should not try to impose in an authoritarian manner his faith on others, which can only be freely offered. Beyond his ministry as Pastor of the Church and on the basis of the intrinsic nature of this pastoral ministry, it is his task to keep alive man’s responsiveness to the truth. Similarly he must again and always invite reason to seek out truth, goodness and God, and on this path urge it to see the useful lights that emerged during the history of the Christian faith and perceive Jesus Christ as the light that illuminates history and helps find the way towards the future. (Translation: E. Lester)

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3 Responses to The Pope and the Galileo Affair

  1. Michael S. Pearl says:

    … the interpretive principle arrived at by Bellarmine … rendered any thought of development in the Church’s attitude to heliocentrism or geokineticism impossible … calling this approach - leading invariably to stagnation in astronomy and physics, as Galileo and senior Jesuits like Grienberger foresaw - more rational than Galileo’s is absurd.

    If Feyerabend had thought that the Church position were contrary to the development of “astronomy and physics”, if Feyerabend had thought that the Church position were such that Church teaching would remain incompatible with heliocentrism, then it is highly doubtful that Feyerabend would have characterized the actions and position of the Church in the Galileo affair as being anything like “more rational”.

    In Chapter 13 of Against Method, Feyerabend discusses the position of the Church, saying:

    … the Church, and by this I mean its most outstanding spokesmen … did not say: what contradicts the Bible as interpreted by us must go, no matter how strong the scientific reasons in its favour. A truth supported by scientific reasoning was not pushed aside. It was used to revise the interpretation of Bible passages apparently inconsistent with it. There are many Bible passages which seem to suggest a flat earth. Yet Church doctrine accepted the spherical earth as a matter of course. On the other hand the Church was not ready to change just because somebody had produced some vague guesses. It wanted proof - scientific proof in scientific matters. Here it acted no differently from modern scientific institutions … [which] usually wait a long time before they incorporate new ideas … Hence Galileo was advised to teach Copernicus as a hypothesis; he was forbidden to teach it as a truth.

    It was quite clear that, on a scale which extends from crank thinking to respectable thinking (see also the comments here and here), the foregoing characterization is intended to place the Church in the Galileo affair closer to the respectable thinking end of the scale.

    But then Feyerabend goes further and says that the Church:

    had the right social intention, viz. to protect people from the machinations of specialists. It wanted to protect people from being corrupted by a narrow ideology that might work in restricted domains but was incapable of sustaining a harmonious life.

    This Feyerabend assessment of the Church seems much more dubious than the one cited earlier. It seems more dubious because it presents the Church as having no options other than to defend its geocentric tradition. A frankly more respectable approach would have been for the Church to note that, as an hypothesis, Copernicanism is possibly true and that the core Church teaching dealing with the relationship between God and mankind in no way depends on the earth being at the literal or physical center of creation. Such a theological fact would have gone a lot farther towards effecting or “sustaining a harmonious life”.

    • Paul Newall says:

      I think the difficulty Feyerabend was pointing to is whether, at the time, the Church either believed that “the relationship between God and mankind” did depend on “the earth being at the literal or physical center of creation” or that enough of its members did, such that it should wait for better arguments before reassessing Biblical claims as Galileo wanted.

      • Michael S. Pearl says:

        If, as Feyerabend notes, “Galileo was advised [by the Church] to teach Copernicus as a hypothesis“, then “at the time” the Church was advising Galileo to teach that Copernicanism was possibly true. At least the Church should have - and, indeed, did have minds who could have - realized that something is an hypothesis so long as it is possibly true (or, in some cases, it might be more precise to say conceivably true). This means that once the Church allowed that Copernicanism was possibly or conceivably true, the Church was effectively forcing itself to deal with whether Copernicanism was - and under what conditions Copernicanism would be - compatible with beliefs in and about God.

        It is no doubt the case that, just as the Church had individuals who would have been intrigued by and unafraid of such a delving into compatibilities, the Church also had a contingent of individuals who felt threatened by the very notion that there might ever be a need for a re-visiting of beliefs. Such a discrepancy is, of course, to be expected in any large organization.

        Nevertheless, it seems that, in terms of Feyerabend’s own notions, respectable thinking would have been that which forged ahead with the compatibilities considerations without first waiting for better arguments or evidence for Copernicanism.

        This is not to say that, at the time, the Church thinking which was at odds with the Copernican view should have right away been eschewed; instead, this well serves to point out that respectable thinking best provides for and instigates progress precisely because of its imaginative, its creative, concern in terms of possibilities rather than mere (or alleged) facts.

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