The Galileo Affair: Separating Truth from Historical Myth

Dear Readers:

I am pleased to present part one of a three-part series from guest writer (and my friend) Ken Mann. Ken is currently wrapping up his M.A. in Science and Religion at Biola University and is a regular contributor to Dr. Holly Ordway’s website, Hieropraxis. He resides with his family in Colorado. I know you will enjoy this excellent article series.



Part I

The trial of Galileo before the Roman Inquisition is perhaps the most distorted episode in the history of science and religion. This three-part series of posts addresses the myths, complexities and lessons we can learn from Galileo’s trial. The focus on the trial, what was really at stake, was the authority of the Catholic Church. Galileo’challenged the Church and the nearly unanimous scientific consensus of his time.

 The question is asked in different ways. Are science and religion compatible? Are science and faith in conflict? The answer, once one has properly defined what is meant by science and faith, is it depends. Critics of Christianity will assert, based on history, that there is an inherent conflict between science and religion and they use the trial of Galileo before the Inquisition as an “example” of the conflict. We’re told Galileo was tortured, forced to recant his belief in a heliocentric universe, and imprisoned for the remainder of his life for the heresy of advocating heliocentrism. This series will address how aspects of this narrative are false and others are misleading. Galileo’s conflict with the Church has been described as “… a clash of ideas¾ between scientific claims fervently held by a small band of scientific reformers on the one hand and opposing theological doctrines supported by centuries of church tradition on the other.”[1] Galileo is described as a martyr of science because the Catholic Church was opposed to science.[2] In order to explain how Christianity and science are compatible today the Christian apologist must be able to explain how, for good or ill, they have interacted in the past. Over the course of these posts we will see that the Galileo affair was not about science but about the authority of the Catholic Church over how to interpret the Bible. The nascent disciplines of astronomy and cosmology suffered at the hands of an entrenched and embattled institution, however the conflict was not about truth per se, but control.

This series of posts addresses the myths, complexities and lessons we can learn from Galileo’s trial. In terms of myths, there are two aspects accepted by history that are in fact false, specifically that during his trial Galileo was tortured and that he was imprisoned for the remainder of his life. In terms of complexity, there were many different factors at play that ultimately culminated in Galileo’s trial. It is simply a grotesque over simplification to assert that this incident represents the collision between science and theological doctrines. Finally, we can learn a great deal about the conflicts in our own day between theological and scientific authorities.

In order to understand these 17th century events it is worthwhile to take a step back and understand the state of cosmology[3] at that time. The Church and much of Europe, since at least the 13th century, had adopted an Aristotelian cosmology. The works of Aristotle had been reintroduced into Europe, in Latin, and were eventually integrated into Church teaching. Aristotle’s view of the cosmos was the source of the geocentric (earth centered) view of the universe. The earth was immobile. The center of the earth is where all matter was drawn, to where things naturally moved. The sun, moon, planets and stars all revolved around the earth on celestial spheres. The moon and beyond was a realm of eternal, changeless perfection, while the domain of matter was subject to change and decay.[4] Aristotle’s view of the cosmos was integrated into Christian theology finding concord with such passages that indicate the earth is stationary (Psalm 75:3; 93:1; 96:10; 119:90; 1Chronicles 16:30[5]) and that the sun moves (Joshua 10). In the second century, Ptolemy developed a model of the geocentric cosmos that would explain the observed motions of planets. The combination of an explanatory model for astronomical observations and the imprimatur of the Church made the geocentric view the only rational and acceptable view of the universe for over 300 years.

In 1543, Copernicus’ magnum opus, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres) was published with the encouragement and blessing of the Catholic Church. It barely caused a whimper. It was in fact the writing and agitation of Galileo some 73 years later that resulted in Copernicus work being put on the Index of Prohibited Books, where it remained until 1835.[6] From its original publication until Galileo, heliocentrism did not draw the ire of Church officials for the simple reason that it was merely a theory. Copernicus offered an alternative mathematical model for the movements of the various heavenly bodies. Neither Copernicus nor any other astronomers in the 16th century argued, at least strongly or publicly, that Aristotelian cosmology was false. In fact, prior to the invention of the telescope in the early 17th century, the only argument in favor of heliocentrism was theoretical elegance or simplicity. The predictions made by Copernicus’ model were no more accurate than those based on Ptolemy’s geocentric model.

Moving now to the early 17th century, Galileo started using the newly invented telescope to make astronomical observations. With an eight-power instrument he started making observations of the moon, the sun, the phases of Venus, and the moons of Jupiter. His publications Starry Messenger (1610) and Letters on Sunspots (1613) launch him into the public spotlight as an advocate of heliocentrism. As Galileo tried to argue (in conversation and in letters) for the truth of heliocentrism, he was confronted with what he thought was an exegetical problem. Simply put, he believed that the scientific content of the Bible needed to be discussed in light of the observations supporting heliocentrism. According to Galileo, the Bible communicated truths about salvation that are beyond human reason. However, he also argued (as summarized by David Lindberg) that, “When the Biblical text oversteps those limits, addressing matters that are within reach of sensory experience and rational knowledge, God does not expect these God-given capacities to be abandoned. … It follows that theologians, before committing themselves to an interpretation of such passages, would be well advised to examine the demonstrative arguments of scientists and natural philosophers.”[7] Galileo’s ideas about exegesis in defense of heliocentrism were eventually brought to the attention of the Inquisition. In 1616 the Holy Office formally censured two key tenets of heliocentrism: the sun is at rest (labeled “formally heretical”) and that the earth moves around the sun (labeled “erroneous in faith”).[8] Galileo was summoned by Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino and informed him that heliocentrism “had been declared false and heretical and was not to be held or defended.”[9] Galileo was not accused of any wrongdoing, but the decision of the Inquisition ended his campaign on behalf of heliocentrism.

[1] David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers, eds., When Science and Christianity Meet, 1st ed. (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2003), 33.

[2] Gary B. Ferngren, ed., Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), 105.

[3] Cosmology being the study of the nature or composition of the universe, the attempt to understand how the universe works.

[4] It is outside of the scope of this paper to address the “Copernican Principle” that supposedly demoted humanity from the center of the universe. In short it would be accurate to say that in ancient Greek cosmology the Earth was the sump of the universe. This is amply, and metaphysically, expressed in Dante’s Inferno.

[5] Richard J Blackwell, Behind the scenes at Galileo’s trial: including the first English translation of Melchior Inchofer’s Tractatus syllepticus (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008), 115.

[6] Lindberg and Numbers, When Science and Christianity Meet, 47.

[7] Ibid., 46.

[8] Ibid., 47.

[9] Ibid., 49.

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