Arguably, no one was more instrumental than Dominican
Fr. Enrico di Rovasenda in the Vatican's decision to reevaluate the case
of Galileo Galilei, which over the centuries had become the leading symbol
of a supposed clash between religion and science, between rigid dogmatism
and the free spirit of scientific inquiry.
Still going strong, di Rovasenda celebrated his 100th birthday in Genoa
on June 17. Cardinals Tarcisio Bertone of Genoa, the next Secretary of
State, and George Cottier, the Dominican who served John Paul II as
theologian of the papal household, were present for the festivities.
In summary form, in 1616 the Vatican's Congregation of the Index
declared the Copernican theory of heliocentrism to be "false and
altogether contrary to Scripture." In 1633, Galileo was found guilty by a
Roman tribunal of failing to observe the 1616 decree, and was forced to
publicly abjure his position. (Legend has it that afterwards he muttered
eppur si mouve, "and yet it moves.")
When the Vatican acknowledged in 1992 that many in the church had been
"incapable of disassociating the faith from an age-old cosmology," it was
greeted as a revolution in Catholicism's attitude towards science.
Rare for a cleric of his generation, di Rovasenda entered the
Dominicans as a late vocation at the age of 23, after having graduated
university with a secular degree in engineering. He moved in circles
connected to Fuci, an association for Catholic university students, whose
ecclesiastical patron was then-Fr. Giovanni Battista Montini, who would
later become Pope Paul VI. In that era, di Rovasenda took part in
struggles for freedom of speech against youth movements linked to the
Later, Paul VI asked di Rovasenda to help draft his memorable speech to
the United Nations in 1965, intended as a statement of universal human
values. Paul VI, according to di Rovasenda, once said with pride that in
the U.N. speech he had quoted St. Paul, but placed him on the same level
Paul VI appointed di Rovasenda as chancellor of the Pontifical Academy
of Sciences in 1974, a position he held until 1986.
In 1979, shortly after his election as pope, John Paul expressed his
wish for a re-examination of the Galileo case. In February 1981, he asked
di Rovasenda for a proposal as to how to go about it. On March 11, 1981,
di Rovasenda responded, suggesting the creation of a commission with
French Cardinal Gabriel-Marie Garrone as chair. John Paul took up the
suggestion, and in October 1981 the commission met for the first time. The
commission worked off and on until mid-1983, meeting seven times until
Garrone fell ill. The body's activity was effectively suspended until
1990. In May of that year, French Cardinal Paul Poupard was asked to bring
the commission's work to a close.
In summing up that work, Popupard said on Oct. 31, 1992:
Certain theologians … failed to grasp the profound,
non-literal meaning of the Scriptures when they described the physical
structure of the created universe. This led them unduly to transpose a
question of factual observation into the realm of faith.
It is in that historical and cultural framework, far removed from our
own times, that Galileo's judges, unable to dissociate faith from an
age-old cosmology, believed quite wrongly that the adoption of the
Copernican revolution, in fact not yet definitively proven, was such as
to undermine Catholic tradition, and that it was their duty to forbid
its being taught. This subjective error of judgment, so clear to us
today, led them to a disciplinary measure from which Galileo had much to
Looking back, di Rovasenda insists that what John Paul did was not a
"rehabilitation" of Galileo or a "revision" of the church's original
judgment, so much as a vindication for a more open point of view that has
existed within Catholicism since the 17th century.
"There has always been within the church an opinion and a judgment that
can be reconciled with Galileo's discoveries," di Rovasenda wrote. "Those
who dissented from it were bound to ancient traditions and beliefs. It's
only a matter of analyzing and rewriting something that was written in
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