It's now wrestling with a more sensitive tribute -- a monument to a man who may be its most illustrious heretic.
Nearly 400 years after the Roman Inquisition condemned Galileo Galilei for insisting the Earth revolves around the sun, an anonymous donor to the Vatican's Pontifical Academy of Sciences has offered to foot the bill for a statue of the Italian astronomer.
But nothing that revolves around Galileo is ever simple. He has been making waves since the early 17th century.
Galileo is "like a Mexican soap opera; it never ends," says Monsignor Melchor Sánchez de Toca, of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Culture.
Vatican officials had hoped to keep the statue project quiet, at least until it got beyond the planning stage. They feared its mystery benefactor -- a private company -- might get skittish. But word of the bequest leaked to the Italian press.
"I'm worried that we'll scare off the donor," says Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, the chancellor of the academy of sciences. He won't comment on the identity or the motives of the donor.
For the devout, Galileo has always been a sensitive subject. His 1633 trial and conviction by a church tribunal may be the Vatican's biggest public-relations debacle: It cast the scientist as a martyr to truth, the church as the enemy of reason.
Monsignor Sánchez, who wrote a book about Galileo and the Vatican, thinks a statue would be a "beautiful gesture" and show that faith and science are branches of the same tree.
But he worries it could stir yet another round of finger-pointing. "Everyone will chime in, saying, 'Ah, now the church is saying it's sorry, 400 years too late.'"
Over the centuries, the Vatican has tried, often grudgingly and always in vain, to correct its Galileo gaffe. It began to allow some of his works to be published in 1718. It abandoned the last vestiges of its opposition to the idea that the Earth revolves around the sun in 1835, when it removed all works advocating heliocentrism from its index of banned books. Pope John Paul II in 1992 expressed regret over what he called a "tragic mutual incomprehension."
Today, the church insists it has no problem at all with modern science, and even science fiction. In May, for example, the Vatican's chief astronomer declared that Christian theology can accommodate the possible existence of extraterrestrials. The Bible, he said, "is not a science book."
Arguments about Galileo, however, rage on. In January, students and faculty at Rome's La Sapienza University torpedoed a planned visit to their campus by Pope Benedict XVI. Their gripe: In 1990, the current pope, who was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger at that time, delivered a lecture at La Sapienza that some critics interpreted as a defense of the church's conviction of Galileo. Catholics in Iceland, meanwhile, threatened to boycott a local mobile-phone company earlier this year for creating an ad that pokes fun at the church over Galileo's heresy case.
Friends in the Church
Galileo and the church initially got on well. Celebrated across Europe for his scientific writings, his development of an early telescope and other achievements, Galileo had many friends in the church, which, when not pursuing heretics, played a big role in nurturing intellectual talent.
Even Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, who would later, as Pope Urban VIII, condemn him, once dedicated a poem to Galileo.
The Inquisition, a network of ecclesiastical tribunals charged with enforcing doctrinal orthodoxy, took issue with some of Galileo's early writings but let him off with a slap on the wrist. But things got more serious following his publication in 1632 of "Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems."
The text defended the then novel notion of a sun-centered universe -- known as heliocentrism -- that had been developed by Poland's Nicolaus Copernicus. This view, according to Vatican doctrine at the time, was "false and altogether contrary to scripture." Galileo's book presented what he considered incontrovertible proof that Copernicus, not the church, was correct.
Galileo had many admirers but also lots of enemies. A difficult character, he savaged his critics in print and managed to alienate even his defenders. His personal life also raised eyebrows. He fathered three children out of wedlock.
Summoned to Rome to explain his heliocentric heresy, he eventually agreed to plead guilty to "suspicion of heresy" in exchange for a lighter punishment. Pope Urban VIII, whom he once considered a friend, denounced his "very false and very erroneous" ideas.
He sentenced Galileo to prison for an indefinite period, and his works were placed on the Index of Forbidden Books.
Still, Galileo got off easy compared with many others convicted of defying dogma. He was spared the Inquisition's more grisly punishments -- burning and beheading.
In fact, he served out most of his sentence at the villas of Tuscan noblemen. Toward the end of his life, he was allowed to attend Mass again -- on condition that he not mingle with other congregants. Some church historians say Galileo's actions should be classified as heterodoxy, which is less severe than heresy.
For the Vatican, though, the affair went from bad to worse. Denouncing a man Albert Einstein would later describe as the father of modern science put the church on the wrong side of history. And when the Enlightenment dawned in the 18th century, the church found itself branded a backward institution bent on stalling progress.
Galileo became a global icon, the Che Guevara of secular science. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration named a spacecraft after him. Europe did the same with a huge satellite-navigation project. Guatemala named a university in his honor. The moons of Jupiter bear his name, too.
"More than Darwin or any other figure, he represents the idea that there is a conflict between science and the church," says Monsignor Sánchez.
'Secret Vatican Archives'
Shortly after he became pope in 1978, John Paul II decided to try to correct things once and for all. He lamented that Galileo "had much to suffer...at the hands of individuals and institutions within the church" and later convened a pontifical commission to re-examine Galileo's whole trial.
"We opened the secret Vatican archives and tried to understand everything we could about Galileo's position," recalls Cardinal Paul Poupard, who headed one of the commission's study groups. But after 12 years of intense study, the commission issued a wishy-washy report that blamed "certain persons" for hounding Galileo and steered clear of a full mea culpa.
The Vatican is even struggling with finding a suitable spot to put the statue. "That's kind of tough in the Vatican," says Nicola Cabibbo, a physics professor and the president of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. "You've got a lot of art inside there already. Some of it from great masters. So where do you put a statue of Galileo?"
A Vatican-sanctioned statue, says Paolo Galluzzi, the head of the Institute and Museum of the History of Science in Florence, is just an attempt to hoodwink people into believing that the church has long since made its peace with the scientist.
"It's an effort to make him a symbol, an attempt to make Galileo one of the emblems of the church," says Mr. Galluzzi, whose museum houses two of Galileo's telescopes. "It's the church which needs rehabilitation on this case, not Galileo. He was right."
On the other side of the barricades, meanwhile, some Roman Catholics think the church has already done more than enough to make up with Galileo.
Atila Sinke Guimarães, a conservative Catholic writer, dismisses the church's mistreatment of Galileo as a "black legend."
The scientist, he says, got what he deserved. "The Inquisition was very moderate with him. He wasn't tortured."
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