In the 17th century, Galileo Galilei was involved in an unequal wrestling match with the Roman Catholic Church concerning the functioning of the solar systems in the universe, specifically over whether it was the Sun that went around the Earth and the other planets, or the other way round.
In those days, the Church held that it was indeed the Sun that moved – apparently they thought the Bible said so – but Galileo politely disagreed.
With the help of a new and more sophisticated telescope, the great astronomer had come to the conclusion that the Sun was the centre of the Universe and that everything else waltzed round it.
I am saying he “politely” disagreed, because it has recently been revealed in letters made public in London that Galileo went to great pains to present to Vatican officials watered-down versions of his scientific discoveries in order to avoid charges of heresy that would have earned him excommunication and possible death.
Galileo arranged for letters he wrote to his scientific friends – which would necessarily pass under clerical eyes – to contain material that appeared to make him less critical of religious dogma than he really was.
The cardinals were not fooled, however, and they insisted that Galileo repent his heresy, and after protracted interrogation during which he suffered psychological torture involving sleep deprivation, he signed a recantation so he could be spared eternal damnation. But some accounts state that, as he was being helped out of the interrogation chamber – haggard, dishevelled, totally broken – he was heard to murmur under his breath, Eppur si muove! And yet it moves!
Though he remained under house arrest till his death eight years later, his work survived and became the bedrock of modern astronomy.
It is inconceivable today that anyone, no matter how obscurantist their religious persuasion, could come up in defence of the “science” of the Church in Galileo’s time. All of us tend to agree with the notion that the earth is moving, even though we do not feel it under our feet.
Still, we can empathise with the medieval mind, which was not liberated enough to be able to question every phenomenon it was confronted with, it being “understood” that received wisdom was dogma, and that to even think that there might be an alternative was to call God into question.
The Church ruled this world in matters temporal as well as spiritual, and no amount of gazing into a telescope could change anything that was held to be sacrosanct. Roma locuta, causa finita. Rome has spoken, the matter is closed.
It is a far cry from what we have today, where thought has been so liberated that founts of truth can be found by the sidewalk, and barefoot philosophers dare challenge crowned heads. Neither excommunication nor the fear of being burnt at the stake concentrate minds the way they used to in the days of Galileo.
Now, if this is so, why has it become hard for the oldest church in the world – and admittedly the most powerful – to work up enough courage to deal with an issue that keeps coming back to bite it?
We know that eventually – though quite reluctantly – the Church made peace with Galileo’s scientific theories, and that has been for the good of all of us. Then why can it not come to terms with something that is much plainer than the unseen (to the naked eye) behaviour of celestial bodies and galaxies?
I am alluding here to the perennial issue of the sexual abuse of children at the hands of clergy.
In this one issue lies probably the most damaging indictment of the Church, one from which it cannot extricate itself, whatever the homilies we receive from the Vatican from time to time.
It would seem that there is an entrenched culture of omerta allows offenders – most of them serial – to evade censure even when their malfeasance is well known in their communities.
With understandable trepidation (because it may not be my station), I dare to suggest that there is an elephant in the room.
Jenerali Ulimwengu is chairman of the board of the Raia Mwema newspaper and an advocate of the High Court in Dar es Salaam. E-mail: [email protected]