The Galileo Myth

January 30, 2008

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The Galileo Myth

Professor Rodney Stark has written about “the unique Christian conviction that progress was a God-given obligation”—which may strike some as odd, given that the Catholic Church condemned Galileo Galilei, the “father of science” himself, as a heretic for saying that the Earth moved around the sun. Galileo and the Scopes “monkey trial” generally form the Catholic and Protestant bookends of the case that Christianity is anti-science. However, historian Thomas Woods notes of the former: “The one-sided version of the Galileo affair with which most people are familiar is very largely to blame for the widespread belief that the church has obstructed the advance of scientific inquiry. But even if the Galileo incident had been every bit as bad as people think it was, John Henry Cardinal Newman, the celebrated nineteenth-century convert from Anglicanism, found it revealing that this is practically the only example that ever comes to mind.”


  

As the story goes, an obscurantist church, blinded by dogma, hounded and condemned Galileo because church officials could not square the idea that the Earth moved around the sun with such scriptural declarations as “Thou didst set the Earth on its foundations, so that it should never be shaken.” Reality was not quite so pat. In fact, Jesuit astronomers were among Galileo’s earliest and most enthusiastic supporters. When Galileo first published supporting evidence for the Copernican heliocentric theory, Cardinal Maffeo Barberini sent him a letter of congratulations. When Galileo visited Rome in 1624, Cardinal Barberini had become Pope Urban VIII. The pope welcomed the scientist, gave him gifts, and assured him that the church would never declare heliocentrism heretical. In fact, the pope and other churchmen, according to historian Jerome Langford, “believed that Galileo might be right, but they had to wait for more proof.”


  

Woods notes that Cardinal Robert Bellarmine explained, “If there were a real proof…that the sun does not go round the Earth but the Earth round the sun, then we should have to proceed with great circumspection in explaining passages of scripture which appear to teach the contrary, and rather admit that we did not understand them than declare an opinion to be false which is proved to be true. But as for myself, I shall not believe that there are such proofs until they are shown to me.” And that was the ultimate source of Galileo’s conflict with the church: he was teaching as fact what still at that time had only the status of theory. When church officials asked Galileo in 1616 to teach heliocentrism as theory rather than as fact, he agreed; however, in 1632 he published a new work, Dialogue on the Great World Systems, in which he presented heliocentrism as fact again.


  

That was why Galileo was put on trial for suspected heresy and placed under house arrest. Historian J. L. Heilbron notes that from the beginning the controversy was not understood the way it has been presented by many critics of the church since then. The condemnation of Galileo, says Heilbron, “had no general or theological significance. Gassendi, in 1642, observed that the decision of the cardinals [who condemned Galileo], though important for the faithful, did not amount to an article of faith; Riccioli, in 1651, that heliocentrism was not a heresy; Mengeli, in 1675, that interpretations of scripture can only bind Catholics if agreed to at a general council; and Baldigiani, in 1678, that everyone knew all that.”


  

Speaking about the Galileo case in 1992, Pope John Paul II remarked:


  

The Galileo case has been a sort of “myth,” in which the image fabricated out of the events was quite far removed from reality. In this perspective, the Galileo case was the symbol of the church’s supposed rejection of scientific progress, or of “dogmatic” obscurantism opposed to the free search for truth. This myth has played a considerable cultural role. It has helped to anchor a number of scientists of good faith in the idea that there was an incompatibility between the spirit of science and its rules of research on the one hand and the Christian faith on the other. A tragic mutual incomprehension has been interpreted as the reflection of a fundamental opposition between science and faith. The clarifications furnished by recent historical studies enable us to state that this sad misunderstanding now belongs to the past.


  

John Paul also reaffirmed the fundamentally Christian foundations of modern science: “Those who engage in scientific and technological research admit as the premise of its progress, that the world is not a chaos but a ‘cosmos’—that is to say, that there exist order and natural laws which can be grasped and examined, and which, for this reason, have a certain affinity with the spirit.” In a 2000 address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, he observed that “the man of science…feels a special responsibility in relation to the advancement of mankind, not understood in generic or ideal terms, but as the advancement of the whole man and of everything that is authentically human. Science conceived in this way can encounter the church without difficulty and engage in a fruitful dialogue with her, because it is precisely man who is ‘the primary and fundamental way for the church’ (Redemptor hominis, n. 14).”


  

When modern science was in its infancy, openness to such exploration was common only in Christian Europe, and was conspicuously lacking from the Islamic world.

Adapted from Religion of Peace: Why Christianity Is and Islam Isn’t, by Robert Spencer, with the permission of the author.

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