e-mail us
Echoes of Galileo in ordination controversy


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 condemnation 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. Shortly thereafter, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote that whoever does not accept the pope’s teaching on this matter “separates himself from the church.”

To support its teaching on both of these matters the ecclesiastical authorities provided justification from the Bible and from tradition. Since the Bible states in many places that the sun moves and the earth is immovable, the Holy Office inferred that the Copernican theory was untenable. The decree also cited the “common agreement of the fathers, as well as the teaching of learned theologians.”

Similarly, Paul VI, John Paul II and Ratzinger have all based this decision regarding the exclusive nature of the priesthood on these same two authorities. Although Jesus did not expressly state, “Women are not to be ordained,” this is to be inferred from the fact that Jesus chose only men to be apostles and did not include the Blessed Mother in the ministerial priesthood.

Since the question of women’s ordination did not even arise among the fathers of the church, no support for or against this practice can be cited from that quarter. In this respect the case against Copernican theory was actually much stronger, since one can find many passages among the fathers where they expressed their belief in the stability of the earth and the mobility of the sun.

In another respect, the reaction of the church has been remarkably similar. In both the 17th and 20th centuries, church officials have been true to the dictum, “Roma locuta est, causa finita est.” Galileo was told not to “hold, teach or defend” the Copernican theory and when under house arrest could receive only Catholic visitors under the condition they did not discuss Copernican theory. Likewise, Pope John Paul II has stated that there is to be no more discussion about the possibility of women’s ordination, an admonition repeated by Cardinal Ratzinger.

Finally, the motives of the protagonists are worth examining. Galileo’s loyalty to and love of the church cannot be questioned. As a scientist, he was committed to promoting the Copernican theory. As an Italian Catholic, he wanted to see the church respected and admired not only for its spiritual leadership but for its promotion of secular learning as well.

Similarly, many Catholics who have supported the ordination of women have done so because in their hearts and minds they are convinced that it will help relieve the shortage of priests and will enrich the church’s ministry.

When Galileo died in 1642, it must have seemed that his efforts to win ecclesiastical acceptance of Copernican theory had failed. Church authorities even took steps to prevent a public funeral or the erection of a monument. In time, however, this judgment was reversed.

Will church authorities in time also take a different position on the ordination of women? That chapter of church history has yet to be written.

Benedictine Br. Wilfred Theisen is a member of the Department of Physics at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn.

National Catholic Reporter, February 27, 1998