The Catholic Church and the Galileo
controversy: acclaimed scientist attests to a distortion of history
Church pressured to retreat into
On two recent occasions Pope Benedict XVI has recognized
Galileo's role in the advance of science. In his Epiphany Homily he
recalled that exploration of the stars, indeed of science per se, should
not lead to confusion between creation and the Creator. Galileo,
understanding that the universe is truly governed by love, did not make
such a mistake. Scripture tells us that the magi followed a star to
where they found Jesus and adored him as humanity's King. For them, the
star, a marvel of nature, was not an end in itself.
The Pope's Angelus Message
on 21 December 2008 also included a greeting to participants in events
to commemorate the International Year of Astronomy (2009), that coincide
with the fourth centenary of Galileo's first observations by telescope.
The Pontiff commented that "Among my Predecessors... there were some who
studied this science". And together with all those versed in the
empirical sciences we become increasingly aware how "the laws of nature"
are "a great incentive to contemplate the works of the Lord with
gratitude" (L'Osservatore Romano English edition, 24/31 December
2008, p. 1).
widespread belief that there is an ongoing "clash" between faith and
science the Holy Father continues to speak of a positive relationship
Dr David C. Lindberg,
Hilldale Professor emeritus of the History of Science at the University
of Wisconsin, U.S.A., and a foremost authority on the Galileo dispute,
takes an interesting approach to the matter. Dr Lindberg describes
himself as a "liberal Protestant" who is convinced that society has
inherited a deliberately flawed version of facts related to Galileo.
The Catholic Church, he
maintains, has to a great extent been wrongly vilified. Regrettably,
there are few who attempt to properly analyze the historical data.
This author questioned Dr
Lindberg on his point of view.
1. Does the issue of the
Galileo controversy concern you personally?
The issue does touch me on
a very personal level because as a research scholar and teacher I am
obligated to identify and promote the accuracy of the historical record.
Acting to correct misconception is a crucial dimension of my educator's
role. I think, for example, of the famed Roger Bacon (c. 1214– 92), the
English Franciscan friar who is generally considered to be the founder
of modern experimental science. He recognized that while mythology has a
value for the pursuit of classical history and culture, some mythologies
which are presumed to be factually true have filtered into popular
consciousness. But they are not true in that sense and this must be
emphasized. There is a duty incumbent upon the scholar of science to
expose why certain myths have been so readily embraced on the popular
level. Permit me to illustrate.
There is a common notion
that medieval society thought of the earth as being flat. This is
erroneous. Numerous academics during the Middle Ages were quite familiar
with the learning traditions of the Ancients and especially their legacy
concerning geometry and mathematics and the application of these to
cosmology (the study of the cosmos, for example, the heavens) and to the
structure of the earth. Most Christian thinkers accepted the wisdom
which long dismissed any notion of a flat earth.
But why did such a view of
Medieval ignorance prevail? This can be traced directly to an 1828 work
by American author and biographer, Washington Irving (1783-1859), The
Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. Irving is the originator
of this precise myth. And since his publications circulated widely
during his day, his "myth" was eagerly welcomed by a public which was
thoroughly disposed to degrade the Medieval period as the Dark Ages.
Their bias, reinforced by Irving, was that the "darkness" of an
autocratic Catholic Church opposed reason and oppressed scientific
inquiry. History, however, demonstrated otherwise. But respect for
historical reliability was omitted.
And we see a similar
situation in terms of Galileo. Generations of commentators have been
content to declare that the Church pitted itself against Galileo because
the Church was threatened by science and thus became the inevitable
enemy of almost every advance in science and technology.
The myth abides. I invite you to read my essay, "Galileo, the Church,
and the Cosmos", to evaluate the complexity of what pertained to Galileo
and the Church's approach to him. I propose to challenge the usual
version of what happened and of what did characterize the Church's
attitude (see Chapter 2 of, When Science and Christianity Meet,
coedited by David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers, University of
Chicago Press, 2003).
2. The essay to which you refer mentions the negative
influence of Andrew Dickson White on the customary interpretation of the
Galileo controversy. Who is White?
White (1832-1918) was Professor of History at the
University of Michigan and subsequently became the first President of
Cornell University (New York). In 1896, he published, "A History of
the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom". As expressed
by the title, the Church, particularly during the Medieval epoch was
judged severely. White's discussion of Galileo portrayed him as the
culminating point of those prior centuries when the Church dominated,
manipulated, and betrayed Western intellectual thought.
White's claim was that the
Church's anti-scientific stance accelerated during the 18th and 19th
centuries, though rebuked by such Enlightenment philosophers as
Voltaire. White's work was reprinted extensively and his position was
adopted uncritically in academic and media circles. But his underlying
agenda seems to have consisted of an obsession to denounce religion's
engagement in higher education, notably wherever science was involved.
3. Is this distortion of
the historical data with regards to Galileo pervasive?
Definitely. I am familiar
with instances when normally moderate and objective producers of
educational video resources react with sheer disdain towards any scholar
who is inclined to refute the image of the Church as the bully of
Galileo and those like-minded.
Few have the courage to
resist the Catholic bashing which is considered justifiable when the
name of Galileo surfaces. It is also interesting to observe that other
Christian denominations and religious traditions are "assaulted" to a
far less degree.
4. Is tolerance in
contemporary colleges and universities itself a myth?
Not infrequently. Some on
our campuses assert that tolerance is now defined as a willingness to
conform to the pressure of having to endorse whatever prejudice is most
recent and rampant. To differ can lead to loss of promotion, distrust
from publishers, and the "cold shoulder" from prestigious conferences
and organizations; in short, to career death.
5. Are there lessons which
the Galileo scenario still imparts to us?
There are many lessons. I
am struck by two. First, people must learn to read critically and not to
automatically "buy into" any printed word which happens to fit those
preconceived ideas which they hope to confirm. And second, being a
teacher and being a student both entail responsibility. Be cautious when
a classroom starts to function as a medium to disseminate what amounts
to subjective emotionalism and unsubstantiated tenets, disguised as
academic-sounding rhetoric. Being impressionable is not a sign of
intellectual maturity. Nor is susceptibility an index to measure
6. Your essay, "The
Beginnings of Western Science", suggests that political and ideological
undercurrents habitually lurk beneath the externals of scientific
controversy. Can this be said of Galileo?
Without the slightest
doubt. Honesty requires us to admit that the Protestant Reformers and
their heirs found in their rendition of the Galileo scenario a great
opportunity to undermine the Catholic Church's credibility and
authority. For example, there is ample evidence in the British
scholarship of the 18th and 19th centuries that Catholicism deserved to
be marginalized and to become ultimately extinct.
The so-called anti-Catholic
laws furthered exactly this intent, and the Galileo saga was enlisted to
sanction it. Americans of the time were prone to concur. Today, secular
scholars realize that Galileo can again be conveniently incorporated
into what is often their anti-Church and anti-religion platform. Society
at large, perhaps persuaded by the media regarding Church
inconsistencies and moral lapses, seldom tends to object.
7. Dr Lindberg, you give
the impression that many scientists uphold science to be the sole norm
for determining how society must think and act. Please comment.
Once more considering the
Galileo case, if one insists that the Church has no right to address
scientific questions then there is absolutely no incentive to
re-evaluate where doubt arises concerning the authenticity of
documentation relating to Galileo or how his trial and the recantation
which he signed should be assessed according to the unique historical
milieu and circumstances. Some maintain that such a step would represent
no more than the revival of a memory of a last-ditch stance by the
Church to exert its power of influence. This was a struggle in which the
Church was defeated by the pro-science constituency, convinced that,
after Galileo, the Church can do no more than to retreat into the
silence of its delusion and fantasy. Hence, the Church has no choice but
to concede the forum of public allegiance to science and its advocates.
Such is somewhat of a
synthesis of the perspective which we typically encounter. But it is
both weak and deficient. For it would deny the contribution of countless
scientists, living and deceased, whose commitment to their Church and
faith has been profoundly rational (e.g. the Augustinian Abbot, Gregor
Mendel, the founder of genetics, Fr George Lemaitre who proposed the Big
Bang theory, Blessed Francesco Fa di Bruno, etc.). The defense of truth
must never succumb to becoming a caricature of truth. Such would be at
least as unfortunate as accusations levelled against the Church which
are culled from superficial deductions extracted from a fiction that the
Church persecuted Galileo relentlessly.