According to a report in a recent issue of Science, the Vatican is about to erect a statue of Galileo in its gardens. "The Church wants to close the Galileo affair and reach a definitive understanding not only of his great legacy but also of the relationship between science and faith," says Nicola Cabibbo, head of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.
Well, we'll see. The relationship is fraught, to say the least.
The Church is of course now willing to admit that the Earth orbits the Sun, rather than the other way around. But heliocentrism was never the real issue in what the Church euphemistically calls "the Galileo affair." What was -- and is -- at issue is the most reliable basis of faith -- reproducible empirical evidence, or tradition, revelation and authority.
As with heliocentrism, the Church has begrudgingly come to terms with evolution and the big bang, but science plays a negligible role in shaping fundamental matters of faith. For all of its intellectualism, Catholic theology is still as beholden to supernaturalism, miracle-mongering and neolithic myth as any other fundamentalist creed on the planet.
Which is a great shame. The Church has proud traditions of sacramental theology and creation spirituality that are wonderfully compatible with science. Alas, every attempt to reconcile these traditions with empirical learning have had rough going against official orthodoxy, and erecting a statue for the pigeons is not likely to change a thing.
My daughter was in Rome recently and while strolling in the busy Campo de' Fiori had a sense of deja vu. Well, yes, she was there forty years ago, where I photographed her standing in front of the statue of Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake on that site in 1600, for various heresies, an event that was surely on Galileo's mind a decade later as he turned his telescope on the sky. Now the great Pisan philosopher gets his own statue, in the Vatican garden no less. A better tribute might be what that other scientist/heretic, Teilhard de Chardin, wrote near the end of his life: "If only Rome would start to doubt herself at last, a little!"