The Times UK reports that the Vatican is planning a statue of Galileo Galilei for the gardens outside the apartment where he stayed while awaiting trial for heresy in 1633. (Next year is the 400th anniversary of Galileo's adoption/adaptation of the telescope for astronomy.)
Galileo being the poster-boy for secular humanists who want to humiliate the Roman Catholic Church for its putative opposition to science, one might be tempted to look at such a move as letting the wooden horse of scientism inside the walls: as the Vatican capitulating to science or some such nonsense.1
But Pope Benedict has been so insightful on questions of science and nature that I would be thunderstruck if he didn't know exactly the proper context to give to this gesture: that science is important but by no means has the final say on the meaning of life. For example, the Pope's latest encyclical included this excellent reminder that science will never definitively satisfy our desires and that Christians must beware of excessive modesty in the face of science:
Since man always remains free and since his freedom is always fragile, the kingdom of good will never be definitively established in this world. Anyone who promises the better world that is guaranteed to last for ever is making a false promise; he is overlooking human freedom. Freedom must constantly be won over for the cause of good. Free assent to the good never exists simply by itself. If there were structures which could irrevocably guarantee a determined—good—state of the world, man's freedom would be denied, and hence they would not be good structures at all.
What this means is that every generation has the task of engaging anew in the arduous search for the right way to order human affairs; this task is never simply completed. Yet every generation must also make its own contribution to establishing convincing structures of freedom and of good, which can help the following generation as a guideline for the proper use of human freedom; hence, always within human limits, they provide a certain guarantee also for the future. In other words: good structures help, but of themselves they are not enough. Man can never be redeemed simply from outside. Francis Bacon and those who followed in the intellectual current of modernity that he inspired were wrong to believe that man would be redeemed through science. Such an expectation asks too much of science; this kind of hope is deceptive. Science can contribute greatly to making the world and mankind more human. Yet it can also destroy mankind and the world unless it is steered by forces that lie outside it. On the other hand, we must also acknowledge that modern Christianity, faced with the successes of science in progressively structuring the world, has to a large extent restricted its attention to the individual and his salvation. In so doing it has limited the horizon of its hope and has failed to recognize sufficiently the greatness of its task—even if it has continued to achieve great things in the formation of man and in care for the weak and the suffering. (Spes Salvi, 24-25)
(I thought the last sentences deserved emphasizing: believers need to acknowledge their complicity in their own marginalization.)
And of course, we all remember that decisive line from his installation homily nearly three years ago: "We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary."2
Interestingly, I found the Galileo-statue story through Slashdot. The readers' comments on evolutionary topics are usually so dogmatic that I was surprised at their even-handedness on Galileo and the Church. It sounds like "Galileo as secular icon" has run its course, at least in this country.
Europe is a different matter. As shown by the cancellation of the Pope's planned visit to La Sapienza University in January because of protests over a remark about Galileo (taken out of context), Galileo is still a potent symbol in Italy. The Slashdot item also graciously mentions the Pope's cordial meeting with the rector of the University on February 21.
Another interesting item: The Times is also running a story on the possibility that Cardinal Newman will be canonized this year.
1. In truth, the Catholic Church has always been a big proponent of science (witness the widespread Church patronage of scientists through the ages, and the many famous scientists who were priests).
2. Need I hasten to add that he was not questioning the scientific theory of Darwinism here, but its needless philosophical extrapolation?
Richard Owen and Sarah Delaney, "Vatican recants with a statue of Galileo," The Times (March 4, 2008).
"Galileo statue to be placed on Vatican grounds" CWNews.com (4 March 2008).