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Galileo: Science vs. religion or truth vs. fiction?

The intellectual situation surrounding Galileo’s case was rife with politics, and the battle lines were by no means clear cut

The statue of Galileo Galilei outside the Uffizi colonnade in Florence. It was sculpted by Aristodemo Costoli in 1851.
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The life of the great Italian astronomer and physicist Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) is often portrayed as a straightforward battle between dogmatic religion and the rational liberty of science. “To assert that the earth revolves around the sun,” thundered the powerful Jesuit cardinal and future saint Robert Bellarmine, denouncing Galileo’s heresy, “is as erroneous as to claim that Jesus was not born of a virgin.”

Shown is Galileo Galilei’s telescope during a press preview for the “Galileo, the Medici and the Age of Astronomy” exhibition at The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, Thursday, April 2, 2009.
Matt Rourke, Associated Press

But this portrayal is an oversimplification if not, indeed, a falsification. (The supposed quotation from Cardinal Bellarmine cited above, for example, is almost certainly fraudulent.) Nor did Galileo’s trial represent a common occurrence. When critics want to call attention to the alleged war between the Catholic Church and science, they invariably cite the story of Galileo. Why? Because there are few other such stories to tell.

The intellectual situation surrounding the case was rife with politics, and the battle lines were by no means clear cut. Pope Urban VIII, for instance, was Galileo’s friend until the scientist’s arrogance, pugnacity and hypersensitivity ruined their relationship. And it was another prominent ecclesiastical friend, Cardinal Baronio, who suggested to Galileo the famous defense that the scriptures “tell how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.”

At the heart of the story was Galileo’s advocacy of the work of the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (d. 1543), who may even have been an ordained priest. Although no direct evidence of ordination exists, he held a doctorate in ecclesiastical law and was once a candidate for a vacant bishopric. At a minimum, Copernicus was a canon of the cathedral chapter of Frauenburg or Frombork and a member of a family that had strong ties to the Dominican Catholic order. Significantly, Copernicus was never disciplined by the church for his astronomical writing. In fact, he dedicated his epochal “Six Books on the Revolutions of the Celestial Orbits” to Pope Paul III.

Nor did Galileo encounter any problems at first, either. Quite the contrary. He was greeted enthusiastically in Rome by prominent ecclesiastical and secular figures, including Pope Paul V and the great Jesuit astronomers Christopher Clavius and Christopher Grienberger, who had personally verified his discovery of Jupiter’s moons. And, in 1612, when Galileo advocated the Copernican system, for the first time in print, in his “Letters on the Sunspots,” he received an enthusiastic letter of congratulations from Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, who shortly thereafter became Pope Urban VIII.

Etching of astronomer Galileo Galilei is seen in an undated photo.
Associated Press

Part of what precipitated the famous clash between Galileo and the church was the fact that, although at the time actual evidence was lacking to prove Copernicus’s model true, Galileo insisted that it was and that the church should reinterpret the Bible accordingly.

“If there were a real proof,” said the authentic Cardinal Bellarmine, “that the sun is in the center of the universe, that the earth is in the third heaven, and 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. ... In case of doubt one must not abandon the Holy Scripture as interpreted by the Holy Fathers” (see “How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization” by Thomas E. Woods Jr.).

In other words, Cardinal Bellarmine — who, although he died well before Galileo got into real trouble, was another of Galileo’s prominent Vatican friends — was open to the possibility of a heliocentric solar system, but the evidence wasn’t yet there to convince him. And, as a matter of actual fact, it really wasn’t there. It didn’t yet exist. In the meantime, however, Galileo was trespassing upon the turf of the theologians by demanding that they alter their traditional interpretation of the Bible.

He was also insulting the leading scientists of his day. In his classic 1632 “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems,” the views of Aristotle and Ptolemy are represented by a character named “Simplicio” — roughly, “Simpleton” or “Simple-Minded.” Galileo would never have written “How to Win Friends and Influence People.”

For a concise summary of the Galileo case, see Woods’ “How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization” published by Regnery in 2005, pages 67-74. The many relevant works of historian Stillman Drake are essential to a full and proper understanding of the case.

Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs interpreterfoundation.org, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.