Catholic Church abandons plan to erect statue of Galileo

Rome, Italy - Plans to complete the Catholic Church's rehabilitation of Galileo by erecting a statue of him in the Vatican grounds have been shelved indefinitely. However, the Vatican conceded that it was time to honour Galileo "as an innovator of genius and a son of the Church".

Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, said: "The time is now ripe for a fresh reconsideration of the figure of Galileo and the whole Galileo case. Galileo deserves all our appreciation and gratitude."

He said that a Jesuit-organised conference on the great astronomer – who was tried in the 17th century as a heretic – would be held in Florence in May to mark the 400th anniversary of Galileo's discoveries.

"Today we can recognise Galileo as a believer who, in the context of his time, sought to reconcile the results of his scientific researches with his Christian faith," Monsignor Ravasi said.

Galileo was put on trial by the Inquisition in 1633 and was forced him to recant his belief that the Earth revolved around the Sun. He was held under house arrest for nine years until his death.

Monsignor Ravasi noted that the Second Vatican Council had "indirectly" apologised in the 1960s for the Church's treatment of Galileo, and that the late Pope John Paul II had done so explicitly, saying in 1992 that the Church had made "a tragic error".

Asked by The Times if a statue of Galileo would – as planned – be erected near the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in the Vatican gardens this year, Monsignor Ravasi said that this had "only been an idea" which had now been "suspended".

He said that an artist had made a design and a mould. However, the Vatican had asked the project's sponsor, the Italian aerospace and defence company Finmeccanica, to divert the funds to educational projects in Nigeria and elsewhere "to foster a better understanding of the relationship between science and religion".

The United Nations has declared 2009 World Astronomy Year in honour of Galileo. Professor Nicola Cabibbo, the physicist and head of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, said that he would deliver the inaugural lecture of the May conference at the Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence, where Galileo is buried. Father Jose Gabriel Funes, head of the Vatican Observatory, said that there was no longer any need for "a war between science and faith".

Pope Benedict XVI had to cancel a visit to Rome University last year after a protest by academics and students against his remark in 1990, when still a cardinal, that the trial of Galileo had been ''reasonable and just'' in the context of the time.

Italian scientists are to exhume the body of Galileo to examine his DNA and determine what caused his eye defects and eventual blindness, with the help of Peter Watson, a leading Cambridge ophthalmologist. Church authorities, however, have yet to give the go-ahead for the tomb to be opened.

Paolo Galluzzi, head of the Florence Science museum, said that the tests would cost at least €300,000 (£274,000) but were "very important for the history of science". They would settle arguments over whether Galileo's eye problems explained some of the errors in his observations of the heavens, he said.

The remains of Galileo were at first interred secretly inside the belltower of the Basilica of Santa Croce, because of opposition from the Church. His corpse was not transferred to the church proper until 1737.

His tomb also contains the remains of Vincenzo Viviani, his assistant, who helped the astronomer as he gradually lost his sight, and of a young woman, believed to be Galileo's daughter Maria Celeste, who became a nun and died at the age of 33.

Galileo is acclaimed for discovering spots on the Sun, craters and peaks on the surface of the Moon and satellites orbiting Jupiter in 1609, thereby confirming Copernicus's theory that planets orbit the Sun rather than the Earth.

He complained of eysight problems in his letters as a young man, and is known to have suffered from a degenerative eye disease which eventually left him blind before his death in 1642.

One theory is that he had a genetic disease of the uvea, the horizontal section of the eyeball, also called the uveal layer or tract, which forms the pigmented middle of the three concentric layers that make up the eye. The name is thought to derive from its grape-like shape and its near-black colour.

Professor Galluzzi said that Galileo's sketches contained some "puzzling errors" such as lateral bulges on Saturn which do not exist, rather than the rings of Saturn, which do. "He followed his ideas and tended sometimes to see what he expected to see," Professor Galluzzi said.

Galileo's drawings of the Moon may also reflect his "optical deformations", he added. To recreate what Galileo saw, the scientific team had made an exact replica of his telescope "to generate the images that, to the best of our estimations, Galileo himself would have seen". The telescope is a replica of the device that Galileo gave to his patron, Cosimo II, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, in 1610.