Echoes of Galileo in Ordination Controversy

By Theisen, Wilfred | National Catholic Reporter, February 27, 1998 | Go to article overview

Echoes of Galileo in Ordination Controversy


Theisen, Wilfred, National Catholic Reporter


Striking parallels exist between the church's behavior in the 17th century with respect to new scientific discoveries and its conduct now with regard to the ordination of women. Drawing attention to them might help today's ecclesiastical leaders avoid the errors of their predecessors. Santayana's dictum comes to mind: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

First of all, it must be stressed that Copernicus' claim that the earth revolves around the sun was condemned as a heresy, not merely by "certain theologians," as John Paul II implied in a 1992 address, but by the official church. It was the Holy Office (now the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) that condemned it as heretical in 1616. Pope Paul V instructed Cardinal Robert Bellarmine to convey the decision to Galileo. Shortly afterward, the Congregation of the Index placed Copernicus' book on the forbidden list.

It is clear, therefore, that two of the church's governing congregations and a pope agreed that the Copernican theory was contrary to the "deposit of faith."

Seventeen years later, Galileo was brought before a special commission of cardinal-judges with the charge of being "under vehement suspicion of heresy." If Urban VIII did not personally orchestrate the trial, there is no doubt that he was very much aware of the proceedings, being a former friend of the accused. The pope made no attempt to overthrow the guilty verdict and the consequent sentence.

That these decisions were not temporary lapses of judgment is clear from the fact that for 200 years they stood as guidelines for ecclesiastical policy. As late as 1822, a church official refused to grant the imprimatur to a book that assumed the truth of the Copernican system. Only in 1835 were the works of Copernicus and Galileo taken off the Index.

During all this time the church never purported to teach infallibly that the earth is at the center and immovable and that the sun revolves around it. But considering the weight of the authority behind this teaching and its consistency, can one avoid concluding that the teaching was intended to be definitive? Had Catholics regarded the cendemnation of the theory to be merely the opinion of "certain theologians," could they have escaped retaliation from the Holy Office? Europe's greatest scientist, Galileo, tried that route and suffered for it.

With regard to the teaching on the ordination of women, it is only in the last two pontificates that this issue has been expressly addressed. In 1975 Pope Paul VI wrote to Archbishop Donald Coggan, stating that "The Catholic church holds that it is not admissible to ordain women to the priesthood." This pronouncement was followed by a declaration from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In 1994, Pope John Paul II affirmed that the non-ordination of women must be held definitively by all the church's faithful.

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