Last week New York Times Vatican reporter Rachel Donadio had a fun but flawed piece about the renaming of a Florence museum. Here’s a colorful graph:
Now a particularly enduring Catholic practice is on prominent display in, of all places, Florence’s history of science museum, recently renovated and renamed to honor Galileo: Modern-day supporters of the famous heretic are exhibiting newly recovered bits of his body — three fingers and a gnarly molar sliced from his corpse nearly a century after he died — as if they were the relics of an actual saint.
There were many errors in the piece but here’s a real doozy:
Even today, centuries after Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, the pope’s theological watchdog, had Galileo arrested for preaching Copernicanism, the church has never quite managed to acknowledge that his heliocentric theory is correct. (For his part, Cardinal Bellarmine was made a saint in 1930.)
Hunh? There are a couple of problems with that line. This November 1, 1992, article from, well, the New York Times says exactly the opposite:
Vatican Science Panel Told By Pope: Galileo Was Right
Moving formally to rectify a wrong, Pope John Paul II acknowledged in a speech today that the Roman Catholic Church had erred in condemning Galileo 359 years ago for asserting that the Earth revolves around the Sun.
But at First Things, R.R. Reno notes that, in another sense, you can’t “acknowledge” that Galileo’s heliocentric theory is “correct” because he believed in circular orbits. Johannes Kepler, a contemporary, rightly theorized that planets followed elliptical orbits rather than circular.
There are other problems, too. The church’s position was that the Copernican theory was not based on evidence. Technically, that is not in dispute. The idea is mocked in Donadio’s piece, however. Galileo’s ordeal is often referred to as a trial for heresy. But, strictly speaking, the Copernican system was never officially declared heretical and Galileo was not condemned for heresy. Bellarmine died in 1621 and didn’t arrest Galileo. And so on and so forth.
I know that we’re supposed to believe that Galileo was an unblemished martyr for science over religion but the story is much more complex than an Indigo Girls song. Getting basic facts right is an important part of learning that story. On that note, I recommend this article, for those with interest in the topic, that ran in Scientific American years ago.