By Charlie Johnston
In the early half of the 17th Century, the Catholic Church got deeply involved in scientific debates about heliocentrism (whether the sun revolves around the earth or vice versa). The Church formally banned the books by astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus that claimed that the earth revolved around the sun, rather than vice versa as the errant scientific consensus of the time maintained. This culminated in the formal condemnation of astronomer Galileo Galilei in 1633 for maintaining the same. It was one of the greatest embarrassments for the Church in its history.
It did not have to happen. As early as 1615 the man who would become the Church’s main point man on the matter, St. Robert Bellarmine, warned that treating heliocentrism as literally true would constitute “…a very dangerous thing, likely not only to irritate all scholastic philosophers and theologians, but also to harm the Holy Faith by rendering Holy Scripture as false.” The case was more complicated than is commonly known. Galileo was a good scientist, but dabbled in some very bad theology and some controversial politics. In the end, in an imprudent bargain, the Church did the state a favor by condemning Galileo on errant theological grounds to vitiate his political irritation to the state and theological irritation to the Church – neither of which had much of anything to do with his scientific research. In short, the stated grounds for his condemnation were not the actual grounds – and in the process, the Church gave itself a major, unforced black eye.
The simple truth is that while authorities of the Church often have good reason and always every right to weigh in on scientific, economic, and political (including diplomatic) matters, it has no binding formal authority on these matters, except to condemn means that are illicit by their very nature. Now the media is filled with reports that the Vatican is going to require Priests to preach about “global warming.” At this point, the reports are a bit overblown, as it is not yet known what tack that requirement will take. If it is about man’s duty to act as good stewards over nature and our environment, it is in perfect accord with the Church’s responsibility to the faithful. If it is to prescribe which are the sole means to accomplish this, it is an usurpation of the primary prudential responsibility of the laity and can only lead to another black eye.
I do not argue that no politician has anything useful to say about the faith. But I have been a lifelong defender of the faith against efforts by political classes to usurp the Church’s lawful authority on faith and morals. Neither would I suggest that Church authorities have nothing useful to say about science, economics or politics. But I will defend the laity’s primary prudential authority on such matters against any illicit efforts by the Church to claim formal authority it does not and never has had – and that when it has tried to expand it, has usually badly damaged both the faith and the polis. The great danger when an institution claims formal authority it does not have is that it risks diluting and discrediting the authority it legitimately has.
I have noted consistently that on those matters on which Pope Francis has spoken definitively and Magisterially on matters of faith and morals, he has been solidly orthodox. I have had occasion to be dismayed at times by his seeming reflexive personal preference for temporal methods that are coercive and authoritarian – and that, when tried historically, have almost always yielded the opposite results of his nobly stated ends.
This is a time when the spiritual authority and prestige of the Church should be carefully shepherded and guarded. St. John Neumann once encapsulated the heart of shepherding prudence by stating that if a Bishop did not HAVE to speak on a matter, he SHOULD NOT speak on it. I pray that authorities of the Church will not add to the confusion that is rising in the world, but I am aware that some of these things must come.
I have been and will remain a consistent defender of the Church against illicit assaults on its legitimate authority by the imprudent ambition of the polis. But I will also be a consistent defender of the polis against any illicit assaults on its legitimate authority by imprudent clerical ambition.