THE GALILEO AFFAIR

George Sims Johnston


The Galileo Affair

No episode in the history of the Catholic Church is so  misunderstood as the condemnation of Galileo. It is, in  Newman's phrase, the one stock argument used to show  that science and Catholic dogma are antagonistic. To  the popular mind, the Galileo affair is prima facie  evidence that the free pursuit of truth became possible  only after science "liberated" itself from the  theological shackles of the Middle Ages. The case makes  for such a neat morality play of enlightened science  versus dogmatic obscuratism that historians are seldom  tempted to correct the anti-Catholic "spin" that is  usually put on it. Even many intelligent Catholics  would prefer that the whole sorry affair be swept under  a rug

John Paul II and Galileo

This is not, however, the attitude of Pope John Paul  II. In 1979, he expressed the wish that the Pontifical  Academy of Sciences conduct an in-depth study of the  celebrated case. A commission of scholars was convened,  and they presented their report to the Pope on October  31, 1992. Contrary to reports in The New York Times and  other conduits of misinformation about the Church, the  Holy See was not on this occasion finally throwing in  the towel and admitting that the earth revolves around  the sun. That particular debate, so far as the Church  was concerned, had been closed since at least 1741 when  Benedict XIV bid the Holy Office grant an imprimatur to  the first edition of the Complete Works of Galileo

What John Paul II wanted was a better understanding of  the whole affair by both scientists and theologians. It  has been said that while politicians think in terms of  weeks and statesmen in years, the Pope thinks in  centuries. The Holy Father was trying to heal the  tragic split between faith and science which occurred  in the 17th century and from which Western culture has  not recovered. Following the guidelines of the Second  Vatican Council, he wished to make clear that science  has a legitimate freedom in its own sphere and that  this freedom was unduly violated by Church authorities  in the case of Galileo.

But at the same time--and here the secular media tuned  out--the Holy Father pointed out that "the Galileo case  has been a sort of 'myth,' in which the image  fabricated out of the events was quite far removed from  the reality. In this perspective, the Galileo case was  the symbol of the Church's supposed rejection of  scientific progress." Galileo's run-in with the Church,  according to the Pope, involved a "tragic mutual  incomprehension" in which both sides were at fault. It  was a conflict that ought never to have occurred,  because faith and science, properly understood, can  never be at odds.

Since the Galileo case is one of the historical  bludgeons that are used to beat on the Church--the  other two being the Crusades and the Spanish  Inquisition--it is important that Catholics understand  exactly what happened between the Church and that very  great scientist. A close look at the facts puts to rout  almost every aspect of the reigning Galileo legend.

The Victorian biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, who had no  brief for Catholicism, once examined the case and  concluded that "the Church had the best of it." The  most striking point about the whole affair is that  until Galileo forced the issue into the realm of  theology, the Church had been a willing ombudsman for  the new astronomy. It had encouraged the work of  Copernicus and sheltered Kepler against the  persecutions of Calvinists. Problems only arose when  the debate went beyond the mere question of celestial  mechanics. But here we need some historical background.

"Saving the Appearances"

The modern age of science began in 1543 when Nicholas  Copernicus, a Polish Canon, published his epochal On  the Revolution of the Celestial Orbs. The popular view  is that Copernicus "discovered" that the earth revolves  around the sun. Actually, the notion is at least as old  as the ancient Greeks. But the geocentric theory,  endorsed by Aristotle and given mathematical  plausibility by Ptolemy, was the prevailing model until  Copernicus. It was given additional credibility by  certain passages of Scripture, which seemed to affirm  the mobility of sun and the fixity of the earth. Most  early Church Fathers simply took it for granted; but  they weren't really interested in scientific  explanations of the cosmos. As St. Ambrose wrote, "To  discuss the nature and position of the earth does not  help us in our hope of the life to come."

Prone as we are to what C. S. Lewis called  "chronological snobbery," we must try to understand the  prevailing attitude toward science when Galileo began  his work. Since the time of the Greeks, the purpose of  astronomy was to "save the appearances" of celestial  phenomena. This famous phrase is usually taken to mean  the resorting to desperate expedients to "save" or  rescue the Ptolemic system. But it meant no such thing.  To the Greek and medieval mind, science was a kind of  formalism, a means of coordinating data, which had no  bearing on the ultimate reality of things. Different  mathematical devices--such as the Ptolemaic cycles-- could be advanced to predict the movements of the  planets, and it was of no concern to the medieval  astronomer whether such devices touched on the actual  physical truth. The point was to give order to  complicated data, and all that mattered was which  hypothesis (a key word in the Galileo affair) was the  simplest and most convenient.

Toys For Virtuosi

The almost universal belief that the purpose of science  was not to give a final account of reality, but merely  to "save appearances," accounts for how lightly the  Church hierarchy initially received Copernicus's  theory. Astronomy and mathematics were regarded as the  play things of virtuosi. They were accounted as having  neither philosophical nor theological relevance. There  was genuine puzzlement among Churchmen that they had to  get involved in a quarrel over planetary orbits. It was  all one to them how the "appearances" were "saved."  And, in fact, Copernicus, a good Catholic, published  his book at the urging of two eminent prelates and  dedicated it to Pope Paul III, who received it  cordially.

That Copernicus believed the helioocentric theory to be  a true description of reality went largely unnoticed.  This was partly because he still made reassuring use of  Ptolemy's cycles and epicycles; he also borrowed from  Aristotle the notion that the planets must move in  circles because that is the only perfect form of  motion. There was, moreover, the famous preface by  Osiander, a Protestant who oversaw the printing of the  first edition. Osiander knew that Luther and  Melanchthon violently opposed any suggestion that the  earth revolves around the sun. So he wrote an unsigned  preface, which everyone took to be Copernicus's,  presenting the theory as a mere mathematical devise for  charting the movements of the planets in a simpler  manner than the burdensome Ptolemaic system, one that  was not meant to be a definitive description of the  heavens.

The Copernican Revolution

But in reality Copernicus's book marked a sea change in  human thought, one that caught the universities even  more off guard than the Church. Owen Barfield, in his  fascinating book Saving the Appearances, calls it "the  real turning-point" in the history of science: "It took place when Copernicus  (probably--it cannot be regarded as certain) began to  think, and others, like Kepler and Galileo, began to  affirm that the heliocentric hypothesis not only saved  the appearances, but was physically true .... It was  not simply a new theory of the nature of celestial  movements that was feared, but a new theory of the  nature of theory; namely, that, if a hypothesis saves  all the appearances, it is identical with truth."

Copernicus had delayed the publication of his book for  years because he feared, not the censure of the Church,  but the mockery of academics. It was the hide-bound  Aristotelians in the schools who offered the fiercest  resistance to the new science. Aristotle was the Master  of Those Who Know; perusal of his texts was regarded as  almost superior to the study of nature itself. The  Aristotelian universe comprised two worlds, the  superlunary and the sublunary. The former consisted of  the moon and everything beyond; it was perfect and  imperishable. The latter was the terrestrial globe and  its atmosphere, subject to generation and decay, the  slagheap of the cosmos.

Ptolemy's methodizing of Aristotle to explain the  motion of the stars was part of this academic baggage.  And it made perfect empirical sense; by using it, ships  were able to navigate the seas and astronomers were  able to predict eclipses. So why give up this time- honored system for a new, unproved cosmology which not  only contradicted common sense (as no less an authority  than Francis Bacon averred), but also the apparent  meaning of Scripture?

Galileo's Telescope

Such was the scientific mind of Europe when Galileo  burst on the scene in 1610 with his startling  telescopic discoveries. Up to that point, the forty-six  year-old Galileo had been interested mainly in physics,  not astronomy. His most famous accomplishment had been the formulation of the laws of failing bodies.  (Contrary to legend, he never dropped anything from the  Tower of Pisa.) Galileo was a gifted tinkerer, and when  he heard about the invention of the telescope in  Holland, he immediately built one for himself, characteristically taking full credit for the  invention.

Looking through his new spyglass, he made some  discoveries which shook the foundations of the  Aristotelian cosmos. First, he saw that the moon was  not a perfect sphere, but pocked with mountains and  valleys like the earth. Second, and more astonishing,  Jupiter had at least four satellites. No longer could  it be said that heavenly bodies revolve exclusively  around the earth. Finally, he observed the phases of  Venus, the only explanation of which is that Venus  moves around the sun and not the earth.

The response to these discoveries ranged from  enthusiastic to downright hostile. The leading Jesuit  astronomer of the day, Christopher Clavius, was  skeptical; but once the Roman college acquired an  improved telescope, he saw for himself that Galileo was  right about Jupiter's moons, and the Jesuits  subsequently confirmed the phases of Venus. These men  were not ready to jump on the Copernican bandwagon,  however; they adopted as a half-way measure the system  of Tycho Brahe, which had all the planets except the  earth orbiting the sun. This accounted quite  satisfactorily for Galileo's discoveries. Still,  Galileo was the man of the hour; in 1611 he made a  triumphant visit to Rome, where he was feted by  cardinals and granted a private audience by Pope Paul  V, who assured him of his support and good will.

Galileo returned to Florence, where he might have been  expected to continue his scientific research. But for  about two decades after 1611, pure science ceased to be  his main concern. Instead, he became obsessed with  converting public opinion to the Copernican system. He  was an early instance of that very modern type, the  cultural politician. All of Europe, starting with the  Church, had to buy into Copernicus. This crusade would  never have ended in the offices of the Inquisition had  Galileo possessed a modicum of discretion, not to  mention charity. But he was not a tactful person; he  loved to score off people and make them look  ridiculous. And he would make no allowance for human  nature, which does not easily shuck off an old  cosmology to embrace a new one which seems to  contradict both sense and tradition.

Cardinal Newman, who was not one to think that secular  truths are determined by ecclesiastical fiat, wrote  concerning Galileo's crusade, that "had I been brought  up in the belief of the immobility of the earth as  though a dogma of Revelation, and had associated it in  my mind with the incommunicable dignity of man among  created beings, with the destinies of the human race,  with the locality of purgatory and hell, and other  Christian doctrines, and then for the first time had  heard of Galileo's thesis.... I should have been at  once indignant at its presumption and frightened at is  speciousness, as I can never be, at any parallel  novelties in other human sciences bearing on religion."

The Astronomer's Beligerence

But Galileo was intent on ramming Copernicus down the  throat of Christendom. The irony is that when he  started his campaign, he enjoyed almost universal good  will among the Catholic hierarchy. But he managed to  alienate almost everybody with his caustic manner and  aggressive tactics. His position gave the Church  authorities no room to maneuver: they either had to  accept Copernicanism as a fact (even though it had not  been proved) and reinterpret Scripture accordingly; or  they had to condemn it. He refused the reasonable third  position which the Church offered him: that  Copernicanism might be considered a hypothesis, one  even superior to the Ptolemiaic system, until further  proof could be adduced.

Such proof, however, was riot forthcoming. Galileo's  belligerence probably had much to do with the fact that  he knew there was no direct proof of heliocentricism.  He could not even answer the strongest argument against  it, which was advanced by Aristotle. If the earth did  orbit the sun, the philosopher wrote, then stellar  parallaxes would be observable in the sky. In other  words, there would be a shift in the position of a star  observed from the earth on one side of the sun, and  then six months later from the other side. Galileo was  not able with the best of his telescopes to discern the  slightest stellar parallax. This was a valid scientific  objection, and it was not answered until 1838, when  Friedrich Bessel succeeded in determining the parallax  of star 61 Cygni.

Galileo's other problem was that he insisted, despite  the discoveries of Kepler, that the planets orbit the  sun in perfect circles. The Jesuit astronomers could  plainly see that this was untenable. Galileo  nonetheless launched his campaign with a series of  pamphlets and letters which were circulated all over  Europe. Along the way, he picked fights with a number  of Churchmen on peripheral issues which helped to stack  the deck against him. And, despite the warnings of his  friends in Rome, he insisted on moving the debate onto  theological grounds.

There is no question that if the debate over  heliocentricism had remained purely scientific, it  would have been shrugged off by the Church authorities.  But in 1614, Galileo felt that he had to answer the  objection that the new science contradicted certain  passages of Scripture. There was, for example, Joshua's  command that the sun stand still. Why would Joshua do that if, as Galileo asserted, the sun didn't move at  all? Then there were Psalms 92 ("He has made the world  firm, not to be moved.") and 103 ("You fixed the earth  upon its foundation, not to be moved forever."), not to  mention the famous verse in Ecclesiastes. These are not  obscure passages, and their literal sense would  obviously have to be abandoned if the Copernican system  were true.

Scripture and Science

Galileo addressed this problem in his famous Letter to  Castelli. In its approach to biblical exegesis, the  letter ironically anticipates Leo XIII's encyclical,  Providentis-sumus Deus (1893), which pointed out that  Scripture often makes use of figurative language and is  not meant to teach science. Galileo accepted the  inerrancy of Scripture; but he was also mindful of  Cardinal Baronius's quip that the bible "is intended to  teach us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go."  And he pointed out correctly that both St. Augustine  and St. Thomas Aquinas taught that the sacred writers  in no way meant to teach a system of astronomy. St.  Augustine wrote that:

One does not read in the Gospel that the Lord  said: I will send you the Paraclete who will teach  you about the course of the sun and moon.      For He  willed to make them Christians, not mathematicians.

Unfortunately, there are still today biblical  fundamentalists, both Protestant and Catholic, who do  not understand this simple point: the bible is not a  scientific treatise. When Christ said that the mustard  seed was the smallest of seeds (and it is about the  size of a speck of dust), he was not laying down a  principle of botany. In fact, botanists tell us that  there are smaller seeds. He was simply talking to the  men of his time in their own language, and with  reference to their own experience. Hence the warning of  Pius XII in Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943) that the  true sense of a biblical passage is not always obvious,  as the sacred writers made full use of the idioms of  their time and place.

But in 1616, the year of Galileo's first "trial," there  was precious little elasticity in Catholic biblical  theology. The Church had just been through the bruising  battles of the Reformation. One of the chief quarrels  with the Protestants was over the private  interpretation of Scripture. Catholic theologians were  in no mood to entertain hermeneutical injunctions from  a layman like Galileo. His friend Archbishop Piero Dini  warned him that he could write freely so long as he  "kept out of the sacristy." But Galileo threw caution  to the winds, and it was on this point--his apparent  trespassing on the theologians' turf--that his enemies  were finally able to nail him.

The Opposition Musters

In December, 1614, a meddlesome and ambitious Dominican  priest, Thomas Caccini, preached a fiery sermon in  Florence denouncing Copernicanism and science in  general as contrary to Christian faith. The attack was  clearly aimed at Galileo, and a written apology from a  Preacher-General of the Dominicans did not take the  edge off Galileo's displeasure at having been the  target of a Sunday homily. About a month later, another  Domincan, Father Niccolo Lorini, read a copy of  Galileo's Letter to Castelli and was disturbed to find  that Galileo had taken it upon himself to interpret  Scripture according to his private lights. He sent a  copy to the Inquisition in Rome--one, moreover, which  had been tampered with to make Galileo's words more  alarming than they actually were. The Consultor of the  Holy Office (or Inquisition) nevertheless found no  serious objections to the letter and the case was  dismissed.

A month later, Caccini appeared in Rome uninvited,  begging the Holy Office to testify against Galileo.  Arthur Koestler writes that "Caccini beautifully fits  the satirist's image of an ignorant, officious, and  intriguing monk of the Renaissance. His testimony  before the Inquisition was a web of hearsay, innuendo,  and deliberate falsehood." The judges of the  Inquisition did not buy his story, and the case against  Galileo was again dropped.

But the Letter to 'Castelli. and Caccini's testimony  were on the files of the Inquisition, and Rome was  buzzing with rumors that the Church was going to  condemn both Galileo and Copernicanism. Galileo's  friends in the hierarchy, including Cardinal Barberini,  the future Urban VIII, warned him not force the issue.  But Galileo only intensified his campaign to get the  Church to accept Copernicanism as an irrefutable truth.

Bellarmine Challenges Galileo

At this point, one of the great saints of the day,  Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, entered the drama.  Bellarmine was one of the most important theologians of  the Catholic Reformation. He was an expansive, gentle  man who possessed the sort of meekness and good humor  that is the product of a lifetime of ascetical  struggle. As Consultor of the Holy Office and Master of  Controversial Questions, he was unwillingly drawn into  the Copernical controversy. In April 1615, he wrote a  letter which amounted to an unofficial statement of the  Church's position. He pointed out that:

1. it was perfectly acceptable to maintain  Copernicanism as a working      hypothesis; and 

2. if  there were "real proof" that the earth circles around  the sun, "then we should have to proceed with  great circumspection in explaining passages of  Scripture which appear to teach the contrary......"

Bellarmine, in effect, challenged Galileo to prove his  theory or stop pestering the Church. Galileo's response  was to produce his theory of the tides, which purported  to show that the tides are caused by the rotation of  the earth. Even some of Galileo's supporters could see  that this was patent nonsense. Determined to have a  showdown, however, Galileo came to Rome to confront  Pope Paul V. The Pope, exasperated by all this fuss  about the planets, referred the matter to the Holy  Office. The Qualifiers (i.e., theological experts) of  the Holy Office soon issued an opinion that the  Copernican doctrine is "foolish and absurd,  philosophically and formally heretical inasmuch as it  expressly contradicts the doctrine of Holy Scripture in  many passages......

This verdict was fortunately overruled under pressure  of more cautious Cardinals and was not published until  1633, when Galileo forced a second showdown. A milder  decree, which did not include the word "heresy", was  issued and Galileo was summoned before the Holy Office.  For that day, February 26, 1616, a report was put into  the files of the Holy Office which states that Galileo  was told to relinquish Copernicanism and commanded "to  abstain altogether from teaching or defending this  opinion and doctrine, and even from discussing it."

There is a still unresolved controversy over whether  this document is genuine, or was forged and slipped  into the files by some unscrupulous curial official. At  Galileo's request, Bellarmine gave him a certificate  which simply forbade him to "hold or defend" the  theory. When, sixteen years later, Galileo wrote his  famous Dialogue on the Two Great World Systems, he  technically did not violate Bellarmine's injunction.  But he did violate the command recorded in the  controversial minute, of which he was completely  unaware and which was used against him at the second  trial in 1633.

Papal Overreaching

This second trial was again the result of Galileo's  tactless importunity. When, in the 1623, Galileo's friend and supporter Cardinal Barberini was elected  Pope Urban VIII, Galileo naturally thought that he could get the decree of 1616 lifted. Urban gave several  private audiences to Galileo, during which they discussed the Copernican theory. Urban was a vain, irascible man who, in the manner of a late prince of  the Renaissance, thought he was qualified to make  pronouncements in all areas of human knowledge. At one audience, he told Galileo that the Church did not define Copernicanism as heretical and would never do so. But at the same time, he opined that all this quibbling about the planets did not touch on reality: only God could know how the solar system is really disposed.

As a scientist, Galileo was perfectly correct in  rejecting this half baked philosophizing. But he  grossly miscalculated Urban's tolerance by writing the  great Dialogue. There he not only made it clear that he  considered the defenders of Aristotle and Ptolemy to be  intellectual clowns, but he made Simplicio, one of the  chief interlocuters of the dialogue, into a silly  mouthpiece for Urban's views on cosmology. Galileo was  mocking the very person he needed as his protector, a  pope whose hubris did not take such barbs with  equanimity. At the same time, Galileo alienated the  Jesuit order with his violent attacks on one of its  astronomers, Horatio Grassi, over the nature of comets  (and, in fact, the Jesuit was right--comets are not  exhalations of the atmosphere, as Galileo supposed.)

The result of these ill-advised tactics was the famous  second trial, which is still celebrated in song and  myth as the final parting of ways between faith and  science. Galileo, an old sick man, was summoned before  the Inquisition in Rome. In vain he argued that he was  never shown the document which, unbeknownst to him and  Bellarmine, had been slipped into the file in 1616  forbidding him to even to discuss heliocentricism.  Contrary to popular accounts, Galileo did not abjure  the theory under threat of torture. Both he and the  Inquisitors knew that the threat of torture was pure  formality. Galileo was, in fact, treated with great  consideration. Against all precedent, he was housed  with a personal valet in a luxurious apartment  overlooking the Vatican gardens. As for the trial  itself, given the evidence and the apparent injunction  of 1616, it was by the standards of 17th century Europe  extremely fair. The historian Giorgio de Santillana,  who is not disposed toward the Church's side, writes  that "we must, if anything, admire the cautiousness and  legal scruples of the Roman authorities" in a period  when thousands of "witches" and other religous deviants  were subjected to juridical murder in northern Europe  and New England.

Galileo was finally condemned by the Holy Office as  "vehemently suspected of heresy." The choice of words  was debatable, as Copernicanism had never been declared  heretical by either the ordinary or extraordinary  Magisterium of the Church. In any event, Galileo was  sentenced to abjure the theory and to keep silent on  the subject for the rest of his life, which he was  permitted to spend in a pleasant country house near  Florence. As the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead  wrote, "In a generation which saw the Thirty Years' War  and remembered Alva in the Netherlands, the worst that  happened to men of science was that Galileo suffered an  honorable detention and a mild reproof, before dying  peacefully in his bed." And it is notable that three of  the ten Cardinals who sat on the Commission did not  sign the judgment, although we do not know their  precise motives for abstaining.

Unjust Condemnation

Galileo's condemnation was certainly unjust, but in no  way impugns the infallibility of Catholic dogma.  Heliocentricism was never declared a heresy by either  ex cathedra pronouncement or an ecumenical council. And  as the Pontifical Commission points out, the sentence  of 1633 was not irreformable. Galileo's works were  eventually removed from the Index and in 1822, at the  behest of Pius VII, the Holy Office granted an  imprimatur to the work of Canon Settele, in which  Copernicanism was presented as a physical fact and no  longer as an hypothesis.

The Catholic Church really has little to apologize for  in its relations with science. Indeed, Stanley Jaki and  others have argued that it was the metaphysical  framework of medieval Catholicism which made modern  science possible in the first place. In Jaki's vivid  phrase, science was "still-born" in every major  culture--Greek, Hindu, Chinese--except the Christian  West. It was the insistence on the rationality of God  and His creation by St. Thomas Aquinas and other  Catholic thinkers that paved the way for Galileo and  Newton.

So far as the teaching authority of the Church is  concerned, it is striking how modern physics is playing  catch-up with Catholic dogma. In 1215, the Fourth  Lateran Council taught that the universe had a  beginning in time--an idea which would have scandalized  both an ancient Greek and a 19th century positivist,  but which is now a commonplace of modern cosmology.  Indeed, the more we learn about the universe, the  closer we come to the ontological mysteries of  Christian faith.

This article is available in pamphlet form from Scepter  Press, P.O. Box 1270, Princeton, NJ 08542.


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