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Expert Answer Forum

by Catherine Frakas 25 Jan 2002

Galileo QUESTION from Joe December 2, 2000 Why did it take the church over 400 hundred years to admit that it was wrong in excommunicating Galileo for publicly stating that the Earth was not the center of the universe (although he was later re-instated to the life of the church but maintained under house arrest until he died)? Scientific knowledge over 200 years ago was sufficient to conclusively prove that Galileo was right and the church teachings were wrong on this matter yet, it took until John Paul to admit that it was wrong. Even then a pontifical commission had to be formed to arrive at a conclusion that we all already knew would be inevitable.
This lack of action to make a wrong right makes the leadership of the church appear morally bankrupt. Yes, one can pass the buck on this and say that this was not the church but the popes as individuals or whatever but nonetheless this man was excommunicated for reasons that were later conclusively proven to be wrong and the church failed to act until 400 years later, at least 200 hundred years after it was common knowledge that its earlier action was wrong.
This perception of moral bankruptcy by those who are not Catholics does not do the church much good. Thank You.
ANSWER by Mrs. Suzanne Fortin, B.A. on December 4, 2000 Dear Joe,
This is a good question because through my answer I hope to show would-be Catholic apologists how to react against this kind of flamebait.
I realize that you probably asked this question with the best of intentions. However, whenever we question the Church, we should try to explore the motives of our challenge. Because too often, our motives originate in secular and anti-Catholic assumptions rather than universal principles and Divine Revelation.
When these questions are raised by anti-Catholics, their first object is to make the lukewarm Catholic feel ashamed of the behaviour of the Church (in fact, the Church can never sin on a universal scale). They are meant to pique the pride of Catholic, so that they build a tension between the Catholic's membership in the Church and his subconscious sense of moral superiority and common sense, until finally, brimming with a sense of false righteousness, he renounces the dogmas of the Church or abandons it, which amounts to the same thing. He feels it would be beneath his dignity to remain associated with such sin, such hypocrisy. And non-Catholics develop a similar feeling, thinking that it would be an insult to their intelligence an integrity to take the Church seriously.
These questions then feed off of two things: pride and ignorance. First, the question bruises the Catholic's ego, and makes him feel stupid and complicit in belonging to such a Church. Secondly, it is based on either false history or false principles, or both.
First, let's examine the false principles of this question. The central issue raised is that of moral leadership of the Church and her witness to non-Catholics. There is a fear that by not repenting earlier, we look really bad to non-Catholics.
As Catholics, we should only care about being perceived unfavourably by others if that perception is based on universal truths, and only if the people who are scandalized are motivated by charity and an honest search for the truth. People who judge by secular standards will be scandalized no matter what we do. And those who have neither charity nor intellectual integrity will never be satisfied. While we should try our best to be a true witness of Christ through our personal behaviour, and try to look at history in an honest fashion, we should not fall over ourselves to seek their approval, their praise of our Church's goodness. Their estimation of our goodness is not terribly relevant anyway, as it is liable to be tainted with worldly standards. Our Church is holy because Christ established made it so, not because of our own merits or behaviour.
Since we need not worry about the secular-minded or anti-Catholics, we must address those who are neither. I have to say that a person who is scandalized by the lack of moral leadership of the Church on the Galileo affair is either blind or terribly ignorant of history. If your estimation of the Church's moral leadership in 2000 years of history is reduced to one single episode, then you must know nothing of the Church's history, or you don't want to acknowledge it. Because in two thousands years of history, the Catholic Church has shown more moral leadership than any other body known to mankind. What other body can claim to teach the truth so fearlessly? What other body has championed the poor and the marginalized like the Church has and on such a wide geographic and historic scale? What other group has so gone out of her way to bring the Truth to all peoples, all nations? No matter what universal principle you use, the Church outdoes any other body hands done in charity. Think of the countless saints the Church has produced, both canonized and not; of the depth of humility and sanctity her teaching inspires. The papacy was occupied by corrupt men, but they number less than a dozen; however, dozens and dozens of popes have been canonized or deserve to be; the Church may have been people by countless sinners, but they are nothing compared to the splendor of saints like Francis of Assisi or Teresa of Avila. There's no other body on earth whose teaching inspires such a sense of authentic sacrifice and love of God.
People who will not acknowledge that fact have either distorted morals or are simply too proud.
You might object that this triumphalism is bad public relations. If you examine the history of the Church, you will see that she has very often been on the losing side of the public relations battle. And yet she thrives. Think back to the early centuries of the Church, when Christians were considered nothing more than slack-jawed yokels, mentally captive to their own credulity, superstition and ignorance. And, as if that weren't bad enough, they were falsely accused of all kinds of sins: orgies, treason, impiety, etc. And yet the Church never failed to continue to attract people.
If the Church were doing a great public relations job, we would have to wonder whether we were too conformed to the world.
So the question you raise is, in itself, moot from a Catholic standpoint. These are only matters that the ignorant or the modernist really cares about.
When you get to the heart of the matter, people love or hate the Church because of her teachings. People who do not hate the Catholic system may feel some misgivings about the past, but, they know that what the Church promotes is good. To them, the past is not as relevant as the substance of the Church's teachings.
What will bring people to see the essence of the Church's teachings is our own witness. We must not simply be good. Anyone can be good by following the natural law. What we must do is follow the commandment Christ gave us-- to love one another as HE LOVED US. That means to act beyond what is required by the natural law. It means, as Christ pointed out, to love our enemies, go the extra mile, give our coat as well as our shirt. We must sacrifice, as Mother Teresa, until it hurts.
So perhaps it could be argued that the Church had the moral obligation to remedy the injustice inflicted on Galileo in a more expedient fashion, although the Magisterium never condemned Copernicanism per se. But this is not the heart of the issue. The issue is: why is it perceived as important? If it were asked from the standpoint of wanting to live up to Catholic ideals, it would have some merit. If it were asked from a standpoint of living up to modernist ideals, it has no merit at all.
I would also like to address another aspect of your question: the issue of Church teaching. The Church's Magisterium never taught the Ptolemaic theory as an article of faith. There is no encyclical or bull proclaiming it to be divinely revealed or necessary to the faith. The arguments against Copernicanism were based on Aristotleianism and literal interpretation of Scripture, both of which are not absolutely required of the faithful.
Thank you for your question. God Bless, Suzanne Fortin
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