Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Eppur Si Muove

We all know that Galileo, after being forced by the Inquisition to deny that the earth orbits the sun, is supposed to have said, under his breath, "Nevertheless, it moves.”

The story doesn't make much sense and is undoubtedly false, but it does underscore the point that Galileo remained free to believe whatever he wanted about earth's behavior in the privacy of his own skull. The recantation and imprisonment the Church forced on him did nothing to change his mind, and nothing to reconcile church dogma with astronomy. (You may applaud here, feebly and briefly.)

On the other hand, it did prove, once again, that you can get people to say almost anything if you threaten to kill them.

Now, the Vatican is asking the ex-excommunicated Bishop Richard Williamson to recant his belief that the Holocaust didn't happen. They're not going to kill him if he doesn't; they're going to reward him if he does, by readmitting him fully into the Church. As soon as Williamson says that Hitler did so kill Teh Jews, his public utterances will once again be backed by the full faith and credit of the institution that coaxed this apology from him by dangling the bauble of Worldly Power before his eyes. As for the Holocaust, it will be no more reasonable to deny that than it is to deny the Holy Trinity, or the evils of contraception.

The Pope's stance amounts to nothing more than a flexing of muscle. For some, it'll prove the power of the Church. For others, it'll prove the power of the Jews over the Church. But no one, I hope, actually believes that when Williamson says what he must in order to get what he wants (and what the Pope, significantly, wants to give him), there will be one less Holocaust denier in the world. While I don't doubt that race-obsessed lunatics can change, I'm not convinced you can reliably get them to do so by promising them spiritual authority and a funny hat.

If I had a million dollars to spare, I'm sure I could get almost any white supremacist on earth to publicly recant his or her views. The problem is, what I'd probably end up with, for all my trouble and expense, is a white supremacist with a million dollars in the bank.

Granting that the only real forgiveness is forgiveness of the unforgivable, what we're talking about here seems to be a sort of perpetually dispensed forgiveness that begins to look almost like like collusion...especially when you read the odd phrasing of the Vatican's demands:

"Bishop Williamson, in order to be admitted to episcopal functions within the church, will have to take his distance, in an absolutely unequivocal and public fashion, from his position on the Shoah...."
So Williamson must distance himself from his position. Or to put it another way, he must distance himself from himself, as certain priests do when they present themselves as the shepherds of the children they're molesting, and certain gays do when they marry people of the opposite sex in order to keep up appearances. Perhaps Williamson can affirm the reality of the Holocaust, while reminding the faithful that God has His reasons.

Ultimately, the Church is in the same position it was vis a vis Galileo, and that position is not made any more tolerable, morally speaking, by the fact that in this case, it's defending the truth against a lie.

(Illustration: Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition by Cristiano Banti, 1857.)


Anonymous said...

For some reason this discussion reminds me of the incident of ms. f and her student who said that she refused to respect our current president "because he's black." There was much discussion on the afternoon threads about this incident, and how Ms. F. as a teacher should have (or might have wanted to) handle it.

Is it enough to teach (persuade, induce, etc) someone that saying certain things is unacceptable? Or is the right of conscience, the inviolability of the human mind and the right to believe what one considers in their deepest conviction to be true, supreme?

Does it matter if the belief is one that can be objectively proven (the earth does revolve around the sun, Jews and others were systematically murdered in the Holocaust, etc) or one of pure opinion, as in that members of one race are inherently superior to those of another?

I dunno. This is the curse of the compulsion to see both sides of every damn thing.

If the Church was wrong to force Gailieo to recant, is it right to force this other bozo to do so? Of course I believe the answer is yes in both cases, but my study of philosophy was insufficient to come up with a rationale better than "because I say so."

Phila said...

If the Church was wrong to force Gailieo to recant, is it right to force this other bozo to do so? Of course I believe the answer is yes in both cases, but my study of philosophy was insufficient to come up with a rationale better than "because I say so."

Well, when I first read the story, I said, "Good...he should be made to recant."

But as you've probably gathered, I ultimately found that impulse troubling and the church's stance untenable. In the end, I think its authority and history is not such that it should compel anyone to say anything.

It's not a matter of individual conscience being supreme, though. It's a matter of there being nothing moral about forced choice and extorted promises. The Church's stance is entirely a political/economic one and will come to worse than nothing, IMO.

My feeling is that if Williamson were recanting sincerely -- because he understood that the Holocaust had in fact happened, and grasped what it meant to have denied it -- he'd understand at the very same moment why he should refuse the Pope's favor.