Skip to comments.The legend of Galileo: central chapter in a long history of warfare between science and religion?
Posted on 09/05/2001 10:28:43 PM PDT by Brian Kopp DPM
Galileo and the Catholic Church
By Robert P. Lockwood, Catholic League Director of Research
*The trial of Galileo in 1633 has been an anti-Catholic bludgeon aimed at the Church. Galileo has become an all-encompassing trump card, played whether the discussion is over science, abortion, gay rights, legalized pornography, or simply as a legitimate reason for anti-Catholicism itself.
*The myth of Galileo is more important than the actual events that surrounded him. Galileo represents the myth of the Church at war with science and enlightened thought.
*Most of the early scientific progress in astronomy was rooted in the Church. Galileo would attempt to prove the theories of a Catholic priest who had died 20 years before Galileo was born, Nicholas Copernicus. Copernicus argued for an earth that orbited the sun, rather than a fixed earth at the center of the cosmos.
*Copernicus died in 1543 and the Church raised no objections to his revolutionary hypothesis as long as it was presented as theory. The difficulty that both the Church and the leading Protestant reformers had with the theory is that it was perceived as not only contradicting common sense, but Scripture as well.
*The myth we have of Galileo is that of a renegade who scoffed at the Bible and drew fire from a Church blind to reason. In fact, he remained a good Catholic who believed in the power of prayer and endeavored always to conform his duty as a scientist with the destiny of his soul.
*In 1615, Cardinal Robert Bellarmine noted that if the Copernican theory was ever proven then it would be necessary to re-think the interpretation of certain Scriptural passages.
*In February 1616, a council of theological advisors to the pope ruled that it was bad science and quite likely contrary to faith to teach as fact that the sun was at the center of the universe, that the earth is not at the center of the world, and that it moves. *Galileos name or his works were never mentioned in the edict, nor was the word "heresy" ever employed. This led Galileo to believe that he could still consider the Copernican theory as hypothesis.
*Galileo met with Pope Urban VIII and believed he had permission to re-visit the Copernican debate.
*In 1632, Galileo published the Dialogue. The Dialogue could be read as a direct challenge to the 1616 edict, as it forcefully argued the truth of the Copernican system. It was greeted with skepticism from the Church and the scientific community of the day.
*In his trial in 1633, Galileo was found "vehemently suspected of heresy" in teaching as truth that the earth moves and is not the center of the world. He was found guilty in persisting in such teaching when he had been formally warned not to do so in 1616. His book was prohibited, he was ordered confined to formal imprisonment, to publicly renounce his beliefs, and to perform proper penance.
*The finding against Galileo was hardly infallible. The condemnation had little to do with defining doctrine. It was the finding of one canonical office, not a determination by the Church, that set out a clear doctrinal interpretation.
*While Galileo would continue to conduct important scientific studies and publish books on those studies the fact remains that his condemnation was unjust. The theologians who interrogated him acted outside their competence and confused the literary nature of Scripture with its theological intent.
*Galileo died in 1642. In the 19th century, "scientism" became its own religion. In an era where intellectuals viewed science and scientific method as the only means to attain truth, Galileo was resurrected and canonized a martyr.
*The trial of Galileo is most often portrayed in terms that it clearly was not: Galileo the scientist arguing the supremacy of reason and science over faith; the tribunal judges demanding that reason abjure to faith. The trial was neither. Galileo and the tribunal judges shared the view that science and the Bible could not stand in contradiction.
*The mistakes that were made in the trial came from Galileos own personality and acerbic style, the personal umbrage of Pope Urban VIII who believed Galileo had duped him, jealous competitive scientists, and tribunal judges who erroneously believed that the universe revolved around a motionless earth and that the Bible confirmed such a belief.
*Galileo had not succeeded in proving the double motion of the Earth. More than 150 years still had to pass before such proofs were scientifically established.
*"Theologians failed to grasp the profound, non-literal meaning of the Scriptures when they describe the physical structure of the created universe. This led them unduly to transpose a question of factual observation into the realm of faith." (Cardinal Paul Poupard in his presentation to Pope John Paul II on the results of the papal-requested Pontifical Academy study of the Galileo trial.)
*If there is a war between science and religion, it is not a battle based on any denial from the Church of the need for scientific progress. Rather, it is from certain segments of the scientific community that have adopted a religion of science that scornfully disregards religious faith. It is far more common today for certain scientists to declare war on faith, than faith to object to science and its search for truth.
Galileo and the Catholic Church
By Robert P. Lockwood, Catholic League Director of Research
In October, 1992 Cardinal Paul Poupard presented to Pope John Paul II the results of the papal-requested Pontifical Academy study of the famous 1633 trial of Galileo.1 He reported the studys conclusion that at the time of the trial, "theologians . failed to grasp the profound non-literal meaning of the Scriptures when they describe the physical structure of the universe. This led them unduly to transpose a question of factual observation into the realm of faith (and) to a disciplinary measure from which Galileo had much to suffer."2 The headlines that followed screamed that the Church had reversed itself on the seventeenth century astronomer and commentators wondered about the impact of the study on papal infallibility. The New York Times snickered that the Church had finally admitted that Galileo was right and the earth did revolve around the sun. Others proclaimed that the Church had surrendered in the alleged war between faith and science.
For over three and a half centuries, the trial of Galileo has been an anti-Catholic bludgeon aimed at the Church. In the 18th, 19th and early 20th century, it was wielded to show the Church as the enemy of enlightenment, freedom of thought and scientific advancement, part of a caricature of an institution dedicated to keeping mankind in a theocratic vice. In the cultural wars of our own day, Galileo is resurrected as a martyr of an oppressive Church, a Church that is the enemy of so-called reproductive advances that would prove as right as Galileos science and the Church as backwards in opposing them. Galileo has become an all-encompassing trump card, played whether the discussion is over science, abortion, gay rights, legalized pornography, or simply as a legitimate reason for anti-Catholicism itself.3
The story of Galileo and the Church is re-told in Galileos Daughter4 by Dava Sobel. Throughout the account of Galileos life, scientific studies, and his difficulties with the Church, Sobel weaves surviving letters to him from his illegitimate daughter, Sister Maria Celeste, a Poor Clare nun. The breathless jacket copy describes the book as the story of "a mythic figure whose seventeenth-century clash with Catholic doctrine continues to define the schism between science and religion." The book itself, however, is a straightforward account of the life of Galileo Galilei that gains poignancy through his daughters descriptive and loving correspondence. It provides a balanced presentation of the conflict that evolved between Galileo and Church authorities, as well as Galileos own deep Catholic faith. The austere and devout life of Sister Maria Celestes small and nearly indigent Poor Clare convent in the seventeenth century, as well as the depth of her piety and intelligence, stand in marked contrast to the bleak portrait often painted by prejudiced observers of the Church on the eve of the so-called European Enlightenment. Readers who expected an anti-Catholic, ultra-feminist manifesto from Galileos Daughter will be disheartened, or pleased.
If Galileo had never lived, the anti-Catholic culture would have had to invent him. The myth of Galileo is more important than the actual events that surrounded him, much as the famous quote attributed to him was never spoken. After recanting his view of the earth orbiting the sun, he was said to have defiantly muttered aloud as he left the trial chamber, Eppur si muove! ("And yet it does move"). It was a quote known by every school child in Protestant America in the nineteenth century, though it was a legend created nearly 125 years after his death.5 As the jacket cover for Galileos Daughter confirms, the legend of Galileo became part of the anti-Catholic baggage of Western, particularly English-speaking culture. Galileo represents the myth of the Church at war with science and enlightened thought.
The World of Galileo
Galileo Galilei was born in Pisa on February 18, 1564,6 the same day that Michelangelo died. If Michelangelo represented the last of the Renaissance, Galileo was born to the world of the Reformation. The Council of Trent, which confirmed the Churchs formal response to Martin Luthers revolt of 1517, had ended the year prior to his birth. In England, Elizabeth I had assumed the throne six years before his birth to radicalize and formalize Henry VIIIs schism with Rome. It was a world where the Bible had become a source for a thousand different theologies that would be the pretext for the Thirty Years War in Galileos lifetime, a universal European conflagration seen by its greatest historian as the first war of modern nationalism, fought under the guise of religion.7 It was a Europe where witches were burned, the deadly plague still erupted, and the glories of the Renaissance had succumbed to an "unhappy desolation"8 brought on by the breakdown in the unity of Christian culture through Luthers Reformation. Even the flowering of learning that was the Renaissance had been reduced to a rigid slavery to all things ancient.
In the midst of this "unhappy desolation," the era would see the beginnings of modern science, developed from those very same Greek and Roman studies encouraged and supported by the Church in the Renaissance. Contrary to the assorted black legends that have come down to us, most of the early scientific progress in astronomy was rooted in the Church. Galileo would not so much discover that the earth revolved around the sun. Rather, he would attempt to prove with his studies and propagate through his writings the theories of a Catholic priest who had died 20 years before Galileo was born, Nicholas Copernicus.
It was also the Church, under the aegis of Pope Gregory XIII, that introduced the "major achievement of modern astronomy"9 when Galileo was in his teens. The Western world still marked time by the Julian calendar created in 46 B.C. By Galileos day, the calendar was 12 days off, leaving Church feasts woefully behind the seasons for which they were intended. A number of pontiffs had attempted to correct the problem, but it was Pope Gregory XIII who was able to present a more accurate calendar in 1582. Though Protestant Europe fumed at the imposition of "popish time," the accuracy of Gregorys calendar led to its acceptance throughout the West and, essentially, throughout the world by the 20th century.
Copernicus was born in 1473. Ordained to the priesthood, he studied in Italy where he became fascinated with astronomy. The world generally accepted what the senses told and had been taught since Ptolemy (2nd century A.D.), that the earth is fixed and the suns, stars and planets revolve around it. Through mathematical examination Copernicus came to believe that the sun is the center of the universe and the planets, earth included, revolve around it. He never published his studies in his lifetime, though excerpts of his manuscript would circulate in scholarly circles. (His book De revolutionibus appeared as he was on his deathbed in 1543.) Pope Leo X (1513-1521) was intrigued by his theories and expressed an interest in hearing them advanced. Martin Luther, calling Copernicus a fool, savaged his theory, as did John Calvin.10
Copernicus died in 1543 and for the most part the Church raised no objections to his revolutionary hypothesis, as long as it was represented as theory, not undisputed fact. The difficulty that both the Church and the Protestant reformers had with the theory is that it was perceived as not only contradicting common sense, but Scripture as well where it was taught that Joshua had made the sun stand still and the Psalmist praised the earth "set firmly in place."11 The theory also could not be proven by current scientific technology. This is where Galileo would falter, and would "have much to suffer" as a result, "treading a dangerous path between the Heaven he revered as a good Catholic and the heavens he revealed through his telescope."12
Galileo and Copernican Theory
The myth we have of Galileo is that of a "renegade who scoffed at the Bible and drew fire from a Church blind to reason."13 In fact, "he remained a good Catholic who believed in the power of prayer and endeavored always to conform his duty as a scientist with the destiny of his soul."14 Galileo Galilei was raised in Pisa where his father dabbled in business and taught music out of his home. The young Galileo hoped to become a monk but instead studied medicine at the University of Pisa at his fathers direction, where he became enthralled with mathematics. He would return to Pisa as a teacher of mathematics and moved on to the University of Padua in the Republic of Venice, where he would eventually secure a high post with the ruling Medici family.
While at Venice, Galileo heard of the invention of a spyglass that allowed one to see objects that were far away. From this spyglass, Galileo would develop the telescope and turn his eyes toward the exploration of the heavens. He produced his first book The Starry Messenger detailing his observations in 1610, describing the moons of Jupiter, the location of stars, and that the moon was not a perfect sphere. Galileo had overthrown contemporary astronomy and, while being carved up by fellow scientists, became a controversial celebrity. In 1611 he was celebrated in Rome for his work, receiving a favorable audience with Pope Paul V, and became friends with Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, the future Pope Urban VIII, who would honor the astronomer with a poem.
Galileo had begun his teaching career expounding the earth-centered universe, but his observations through his telescope quickly moved him toward support of the Copernican theory. In the Sunspot Letters (1613) Galileo forcefully argued for a Copernican understanding of the universe and, by his bombast, alienated much of the scientific community that upheld the Ptolemaic principles, particularly many within the Church. Tact and diplomacy were never Galileos strong points, and his acerbic personality, particularly in scientific debate, made him few friends. His personality would be of little help when his views came under question.
There were many who believed that embracing the Copernican theory was tantamount to heresy and charges of such began to swirl around Galileo. Galileo considered heresy "more abhorrent than death itself"15 and was quick to defend himself. Unfortunately, Galileo would not bow to the temper of his times. Instead of keeping the debate on a theoretical plane involving mathematics, astronomy and observation, Galileo would enter the uncharted waters of theology and Scriptural interpretation. He attempted to explain to a student of his, in response to Christina d Medici, the grand duchess of the Medici family, how the Copernican theory would not contradict the evidence of Scripture. In a long letter he delved into the relationship of science and Scripture. His essential theory clear to Catholic understanding today is that while Scripture cannot err, we can err in our understanding of it. Nature cannot contradict the Bible, and if it appears to do so, it is because we do not adequately understand the deeper Biblical interpretation. Reading astronomical interpretations into Bible passages is a fundamental misuse of the Bible. Scripture serves a more important purpose. As it has been said, the Bible teaches one how to go to Heaven, not how the heavens go.
Essentially, Galileo was slipping into trouble on three accounts. First, despite feeble objections to the contrary, he was teaching Copernican theory as fact rather than hypothesis. Second, the popularity of his writings brought an essentially "philosophical discussion" into the public arena, requiring some sort of Church response. Third, by elevating scientific conjecture to a theological level, he was raising the stakes enormously. Instead of merely philosophical disputation that many in the Church viewed more as an intellectual game, Galileo an untrained layman was now lecturing on Scriptural interpretation.
On December 21, 1614, a young Dominican priest denounced Galileo from a Florence pulpit as an enemy of true religion. Though the Dominican was forced to apologize, the issue was out in the open and began to be discussed in the highest circles in Rome. Pope Paul V, uninterested in scientific debates, passed the matter on to the Holy Office to determine if there were doctrinal issues involved. In 1616, Galileo traveled to Rome to defend himself and continued to forcefully write and argue both on the truth of the Copernican hypothesis, and on proper Scriptural interpretation in the light of scientific developments.
Pope Paul Vs theologian was the Jesuit Cardinal Robert Bellarmine. Cardinal Bellarmine was a leading figure in the Catholic Counter Reformation. Though he had the sobriquet "hammer of heretics," Cardinal Bellarmine was a calm, educated, reasonable and saintly prelate. (He would be canonized a saint of the Church.) In 1615, Cardinal Bellarmine had addressed the Copernican debate in a nuanced fashion. He stated his personal belief that the Copernican theory was not viable as it defied human reason. However, he found no reason for it not to be treated as a hypothesis. More important, he noted that if the Copernican theory was ever proven which he doubted could ever be accomplished then it would be necessary to re-think the interpretation of certain Scriptural passages. It was a vital point that would be forgotten in 1616 and in the trial of Galileo in 1633.16
In February 1616, a council of theological advisors to the pope ruled that it was bad science and quite likely heresy to teach as fact that the sun was at the center of the universe, that the earth is not at the center of the world, and that it moves. Galileo was not personally condemned, but Cardinal Bellarmine was asked to convey the news to him. Cardinal Bellarmine knew and respected Galileo. He met with Galileo, advised him of the panels ruling, and ordered him to cease defending his theories as fact. He also asked him to avoid any further inroads into discussion of Scriptural interpretation. Galileo agreed.
When the edict was formally announced, however, Galileos name or his works were never mentioned, nor was the word "heresy" ever employed. This, along with Cardinal Bellarmines statement to him, led Galileo to believe that he could still consider the theory as a hypothesis, and to hope that the edict might eventually be reversed. In March, he had a private audience with the pope in which, Galileo reported, he was assured of the pontiffs high esteem and protection. The stain of heresy continued to plague Galileo, however, and he requested and received from Cardinal Bellarmine a letter stating that he had not been made to perform penance for his views, nor forced to recant. He was simply informed that the teachings of Copernicus were found to be contrary to Scripture and should not be defended as truth. With that letter in hand, Galileo moved on to other studies.
In 1623, Cardinal Barberini was elected Pope Urban VIII. With the election of his friend and supporter, Galileo assumed that the atmosphere could be ripe for a reversal of the 1616 edict. In 1624 he headed off to Rome again to meet the new pope. Pope Urban had intimated that the 1616 edict would not have been published had he been pope at the time, and took credit for the word "heresy" not appearing in the formal edict.17 Yet, Urban also believed that the Copernican doctrine could never be proven and he was only willing to allow Galileo the right to discuss it as hypothesis, but not as fact. Galileo was encouraged and would proceed over the next six years to write a "dialogue" on the Copernican theory. It would be that book which resulted in Galileos famous trial.
The Trial of Galileo
On Christmas Eve, 1629, Galileo finished his manuscript and proceeded to secure permission to publish and review by Church censors. An outbreak of bubonic plague, printing set backs and reviews by the censors delay
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