Those with a predisposition to argue that the Catholic Church opposes science inevitably turn to the 1632-33 trial of the astronomer Galileo Galilei. There are no other incidents in history that can support their flimsy project, since the Catholic Church actually laid the groundwork for Western science and has never condemned any other scientific theory.
It turns out that even the Galileo affair, while not a proud moment for Catholicism, in no way shows an anti-science agenda. Scholars have revealed inconvenient truths for church critics.
“When it comes to Galileo, many people think they know what happened,” says Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory. “They think they know the story already. But they don’t know.”
he lacked proof.
Few people know it, but Galileo was punished not for his science, but for propagating a theory with insufficient proof. A 1615 letter from Cardinal Robert Bellarmine makes it clear that he and others in church leadership were open to changing their views had Galileo backed up his ideas.
Galileo was promoting heliocentrism, a theory that the Earth moves around the sun. The paradigm shift had been proposed in 1543 by Copernicus, a Polish priest. For decades, the church allowed the theory to be debated, but demanded scientific proof before it allowed the theories to be discussed as anything more than mathematical models.
“The church was never against the idea. It just said Galileo did not have proof,” says Benedictine Brother Louis de Montfort Nguyen, a monk-scientist who teaches a course at Mount Angel Seminary on faith and science. “So it was questioned. That is the way science works.”
It’s important to understand that science in the 17th century was not the same as it is now. Philosophy, theology and physical studies were linked then. The committee of cardinals that looked at the Galileo case didn’t overstep its bounds as modern critics might say. They were the experts. Not until decades after Galileo’s death, when Isaac Newton offered his math, did proof of heliocentrism emerge.
The church eventually was able to accept heliocentrism because it had never declared that the Earth was the center of the universe.
Jesuit Father Paul Mueller, on staff at the Vatican Observatory, says what happened to Galileo was not a confrontation between the church and modern science, but a matter of the church requiring better science from the brilliant Florentine astronomer. “Galileo could not produce a demonstration of Copernicanism,” says Father Mueller.
Stephen Barr, in his 2016 book “The Believing Scientist,” calls it “one of the great ironies of scientific history” that while Galileo was on the right track, his notions that the sun was center of the universe and that the rotation of the Earth causes tides were both wrong.
The first real evidence that the Earth moved didn’t come until 1728 when the clergyman James Bradley observed light aberration among stars.
Galileo’s difficult personality played a role in his troubles.
When Galileo met with controversy, there was no shortage of foes willing to pile on.
“There was something about Galileo’s personality that just wouldn’t allow him to make any argument merely halfway,” Father Mueller says. “Galileo had to go for the kill, every time.”
He tended to humiliate other thinkers. In his writings, Galileo put Pope Urban VIII’s words in the mouth of a character named Simplicio, who is treated condescendingly. Readers would have seen the pope as the butt of a joke. This was bound to make Galileo look pretentious, since the pope was not only the pope, but was seen as an expert in physics on a par with Galileo, plus a better theologian.
Pope Urban likely opposed Galileo for complex political reasons, not because he disliked the science.
Historians must grapple with a question: Why didn’t trouble come for Galileo before 1632? He had been touting his theory for 20 years. Pope Urban’s personal censor had approved Galileo’s book in 1631.
Brother Guy explains that the pope likely condemned Galileo to send a strong message to Spain and France, major foes in the Thirty Years’ War, which had reached a vital point in 1632.
“Galileo was not some outsider who got stomped on by the church for having radical ideas,” says Brother Guy. “He was an insider.”
Galileo was a favorite of the Medici court of Florence, which was controlled by French influence.
For a pope caught between warring Catholic powers, Spain and France, squashing the Medici’s favorite intellectual showed Spain he had the power to keep Medici money out of the war. It ingratiated the pope with Spain without directly antagonizing the French.
Galileo’s case is an exception to the rule.
The Galileo affair “is an exception to a beautiful relationship the church has always had with science,” says Brother Louis. “The church isn’t in any way against science.”
For example, the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 proved seminal for science. Church leaders declared that creation was ex nihilo, or “out of nothing.” It put an end to the notion that nature is an ongoing cycle or a kind of deity. Instead, nature exists in time and operates according to its rules. Science is the endeavor to discover those rules.
The Copernican model championed by Galileo never was meant to describe how humanity stands in relation to God. During his trial, Galileo quoted his friend Cardinal Caesar Baronius, who had said that Scripture tells us “not how the heavens go but how you go to heaven.” That would become a reigning Catholic view of science and the Bible.
Brother Louis says the Galileo case did prompt a fortunate development: Science and theology have their own spheres and it’s best if neither intrudes into the other. Brother Louis is critical, for example, when creationists seek to censor evolutionary science.
Galileo was a faithful, practicing Catholic who never left his faith. He died in 1642, having spent the last eight years of his life under house arrest, but cared for by church authorities.
A monument to Galileo was built at a Florence church in 1734. By 1820, the church allowed heliocentrism to be taught as fact, but many Catholic leaders had accepted it long before.
In 1984, St. Pope John Paul II formed a commission that concluded church officials erred in condemning Galileo. A decade later, the pope even had the astronomer’s image struck on a Vatican postage stamp.
• “Faith Science and Reason: Theology on the Cutting Edge,” by Christopher T. Baglow
• “The Believing Scientist,” by Stephen Barr
• “Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?” by Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno and Jesuit Fr. Paul Mueller