"Angels and Demons," the Vatican-based thriller starring Tom Hanks, has raked in more than $450 million worldwide since its mid-May release.
That fact probably helps explain the staying power of the myth that is the movie's basic premise: that the Church and science don't get along.
The storyline has such a firm hold on popular culture that even Catholics have been known to harbor lingering suspicions that the myth bears some truth.
The supposed iconic example of the Church's disdain for scientists is Galileo Galilei, an inventor of the telescope and one of the fathers of modern science. We all know the story: Based on his observations of the nighttime sky, Galileo bucked 2,000 years of Aristotelian scientific tradition and theorized that the earth orbits around the sun, not the other way around. The official Church pronounced this view "absurd" and "heretical, because it contradicted Scripture and the Church Fathers," and condemned Galileo to house arrest.
That's all true, unfortunately. As Jesuit George Coyne, former director of the Vatican Observatory, writes on Page 12 this week, it was "a tragedy for Galileo, for science and for the Church."
But the popular summary of the Galileo story doesn't tell the whole truth. This was not a David vs. Goliath match, in which a lonely and courageous scientist goes up against a malevolent and monolithic institution. Many churchmen were supporters of Galileo, including one prophetic official Church censor, who wrote: "I believe our age is to be glorified by future ages ... thanks to the deep and sound reflections of this author [Galileo] in whose time I count myself fortunate to be born."
The core mistake of Galileo's judges -- which persists today in the United States among some Protestant fundamentalists and even some Catholics -- was a temptation to read the Bible as if it was a scientific text intended to tell us about the workings of the natural world. But as a cardinal who was one of Galileo's contemporaries said, the Scriptures were written to teach us how to go to heaven, not to explain how the heavens go.
Authentic Catholicism not only sees no conflict with scientific research, it actively engages in it. Witness the achievements of Catholic priest/scientists throughout history like Father Gregor Mendel, the father of modern genetics and a familiar name to every elementary schoolchild; or Belgian Father Georges Lemaître, who first proposed the Big Bang Theory of the universe.
Promotion of the harmony between faith and science has shaped up as a theme of Pope Benedict XVI's pontificate. Ironically, last year he was accused of being "hostile to science" and his appearance at Rome's La Sapienza University was blocked because of an erroneous report that he supported the Church's condemnation of Galileo.
Under Pope Benedict, the Vatican regularly has brought together top scientists and theologians for talks. Just this year, it hosted conferences to mark the 400th anniversary of Galileo and the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin's "On the Origin of the Species."
The myth of the Church's hostility to science will live on, perpetuated by films like "Angels and Demons." But that doesn't mean we have to take the accusation lying down, or even look very long in other popular cinematic fare for an appropriate rebuttal: Just take "Star Trek" Captain Jean-Luc Picard. Know whom he is named for? Father Jean-Felix Picard, a 17th-century priest-astronomer who was the first to accurately calculate the earth's size.
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