Reason v. revelation

Reason v. revelation

The Boston Globe‘s science editor, Chet Raymo, is no man of faith. He has made it clear over the years that he puts his belief solely in the natural world and eschews the supernatural. So this article in Tuesday’s paper wasn’t a surprise. It’s still disturbing to read something so plainly biased against the Catholic Church and Christian belief in general. It’s about Galileo, of course.

    Galileo’s story is not just about the conflict between reason and revelation, nor is it only about individual conscience vs. authority. The plot is muddier than that, and it is the muddiness that attracts us.

    Some of the antagonists in the story, Cardinal Robert Bellarmine or Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, for example, were men of intelligence and good will trapped in their loyalty to a monolithic institution they believed to be divinely inspired. Galileo was conflicted, too, struggling under the influence of his daughter, Sister Maria Celeste, to remain a true son of the church.

Notice the key words: trapped, monolithic, believed to be divinely inspired. They’re all perjorative words, that convey a sense that the Church is at best benighted.

The article also makes common historical gaffes or are they just intentional elisions?

    He stands convicted of the crime of heresy, for teaching that the Earth moves. He is lucky not to be sent to the stake, like other heretics of his time. He is instead sentenced to house arrest in Florence for the rest of his life.

Church inquisitions did not sentence people to death, only civil inquisitions. Sure, because bishops were sometimes political leaders, they were also present at some executions, but in general, that would not be the case for someone convicted at the Vatican.

    Having received the judgment of the tribunal, Galileo kneels abjectly on the marble floor of the great hall and recants his ‘‘sin.’’ He says what he thinks the assembled churchmen want to hear: ‘‘With sincere heart and unfeigned faith, I abjure, curse and detest my errors.’’ We’ll never know to what extent Galileo was sincere in his recantation, or merely shrewd.

How does Raymo know that Galileo only “said what he thought they wanted to hear” or that he sincerely meant it? In fact, Raymo admits his ignorance in the next sentence.

    But, of course, the tension between reason and revelation, individual conscience and institutional authority, endures. As always, the conflict is not necessarily between unmitigated good and evil; sometimes principled individuals compromise their conscience in the face of authority (think J. Robert Oppenheimer), and sometimes well-meaning bureaucrats become moral hostages to the institutions they serve (think Cardinal Bernard Law).

How was Cardinal Law a hostage to the institution of the Church? Raymo is trying to make the point that the Catholic Church, as an institution, is the cause of the Scandal, not decisions by individuals. It’s not that Cardinal Law failed in his duty to exercise leadership in the Church, but that Church teaching is at fault.

By the way, Chet Raymo is a professor at Stonehill College, a Catholic college in Easton, Massachusetts. Catholic parents must rest assured in their beds tonight that their childrens’ faith is being strengthened at Stonehill.

Written by
Domenico Bettinelli

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