VATICAN CITY -- Pope John Paul II Saturday lifted the Vatican's condemnation of 17th century Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei for saying the Earth was not the center of the universe.
He said the 376-year-old Galileo case had caused a 'painful misunderstanding' and a 'tragic reciprocal incomprehension' between the Catholic Church and science which must not be repeated in future.
The pope spoke at a formal ceremony in the Vatican at which the Pontifical Academy of Sciences heard a final report from a special commission set up by John Paul in 1979 to examine the full circumstances of the church's action against Galileo.
The church's Holy Office, better known as the Inquisition, first took action against Galileo in 1616, and condemned him in 1633, for saying the Earth orbited around the sun and revolved on its own axis -- at a time when religious teaching maintained the Earth was the center of the universe.
Galileo was merely repeating the theories expressed by Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus about a century earlier, but church inquisitors forced him to retract his statements or face punishment for heresy.
In presenting the special commission report, which the pope approved, commission chairman Paul Poupard said the Inquisition acted against Galileo in the 17th century because it feared his theories could undermine the Catholic Church tradition.
'This error of judgment, so clear in our day, led it to a disciplinary action from which Galileo suffered greatly,' Poupard said. 'It is a question of loyally recognizing this wrong.'
As far back as 1820, the Catholic Church in effect vindicated Galileo when the Inquisition accepted the publication of a book by a religious author that repeated the Copernican theories. But no formal move had been made until now to admit the church error and in effect cancel the condemnation of the Italian astronomer.
In addition to appointing the commission in 1979 to examine the case, Pope John Paul II has frequently praised Galileo and expressed regret for the wrongs done to him in recent years.
In his speech at Saturday's ceremony, which was attended by 20 cardinals, the pope said the Galileo case had become 'the symbol of a supposed refutal on the part of the church of scientific progress, or dogmatic obscurantism opposed to a free search for the truth.'
The pope said this led 'many men of science to believe in good faith that there was an incompatibility between the spirit of science and its search ethic on the one hand, and the Christian faith on the other.
'A tragic reciprocal incomprehension has been interpreted as the reflex of a constituent opposition between science and faith,' he said.
John Paul said in order to avoid a repetition of this error, both the church and science must show great reponsibility.
'It is a duty of the theologians to keep themselves regularly informed on scientific acquisitions in order to examine, where necessary, whether or not they should take account of them in their reflections, or revise their teaching,' the pope said.
'It is a question of knowing how to take into consideration a new scientific finding when it seems to contradict the truth of the faith,' he said. 'The pastor must show himself ready for authentic boldness, avoiding the double pitfall of an uncertain attitude and a hasty judgment.'