On Saturday last I was debating with a Northern Irish atheist about deliverance and the Church's ministry of exorcism. Very early in the debate the accusation of "medieval" came up, thereby the gentleman dismissed what I was saying. Now quite apart from the fact the Middle Ages were a time of great thought, art, architecture, chivalry and manners, that term when thrown out is meant to evoke barbarism, ignorance and a Church-ridden society which was backward, blind and utterly oppressive. Medieval practices, in this understanding, are base, superstitious and dark.
Then, after a little more debate my adversary threw in Galileo at which point, I presume, I was to withdraw, head hung in shame having being confronted with the ultimate proof of the oppressive nature of the evil Catholic Church. I did not conform to the expected withdrawal, as do, sadly, many Catholics utterly ignorant of the Galileo case as it actually happened.
The encounter reinforced a number of things for me, one of them being how we as Catholics do not know our faith and our history well enough to drive off the black legends that have been created by the enemies of the Church. The case of Pius XII is obvious enough, and while the battle is still raging, most of the facts are already in the public domain and those who continue to rehearse the accusations against the Pontiff are now just being stubborn, refusing to look at the evidence. That is why Pope Benedict finally signed the Decree of Heroic Virtue for Pius - there was no longer any reasonable barrier, the questions had been answered.
The case of Galileo is not as obvious because, first of all, it was so long ago and with so many Catholics ignorant of what actually happened (and probably not bothered to examine the case), those continuing to air the myth tend not to be caught out. Secondly, the myth has been around for so long many may be inclined to accept it as true because it has been popping up for centuries: say it often enough and for long enough and people will begin to think it's true. It's a pity the proclamation of the Gospel did not have the same effect on some!
One of the issues that the Second Vatican Council had in mind was the formation of the members of the Church - as we are all called to evangelise, we must be capable of that evangelisation. This means that all Catholics have a responsibility to know their faith and its history so they can challenge and debunk the old myths that are fired at us. We are not to leap into the trenches and simple apologise, an attitude which has become the default position in the Church for the last few decades - for fear we offend anyone. Rather we are to be able to engage those who make unsound accusations against us. One of the reasons the Galileo chestnut is still being roasted is because Catholics have not produced the devastating response which is possible. We should be able to argue the facts in such a way that our accusers will take note, abandon the accusation knowing that their unsound position will be quickly exposed as false. That is why, I think, as we need to renew our catechetical programmes, we need to include these cases and myths and respond to them with the facts so the truth is out there, so Catholics of the future will be able to answer and dismiss those peddling old lies.
So, what happened Galileo? Well First Things has a very good summary of the case. The Church was foolish to act in the way she did, St John Paul II acknowledged that, but she did not do what the enemies of the faith accuse her of doing. And Galileo was far from being the poster boy for science.