The Galileo Myth, getting at the truth

I’ve been reading about the infamous Galileo controversy. And guess what? Everybody who has hurled a dung heap of invective at the Church for denying the “truth” of Galileo’s heliocentric theory, listen up. Galileo’s point was not that our sun was the center of the solar system. Nope. His contention was that our sun was the center of the universe! That idea (which he did not originate and which he presented as fact which he failed to prove) the Church rejected, although she did not forbid Galileo to present the idea as a conjecture. It was the misleading claim of proven fact that she objected to, among other things. The Church didn’t hate Galileo’s idea; she just didn’t want to commit herself to someone’s fanciful opinion without knowing more about it and carefully weighing the evidence.

And, as it turns out, the Church was right. No scientist today thinks that our sun is the center of the universe, though we do realize that the sun is, indeed, the center of our solar system. And I’m glad the Church rejected the earlier, and erroneous, theory disguised as fact.

I can’t help but notice, as I read various accounts of this story around the web, that most versions sound so alike that they could have been copied from the same source and pasted into the various posts. The lack of citations and sources is most annoying too. Below are some links to some of the more interesting versions. I don’t see any reason to link to the standard tellings so ubiquitous on the web, and which promote error as if it were fact (ironically one of the things that got Galileo into trouble so long ago).

More about the Galileo myth

  • The Galileo Myth: Science, Religion and Galileo. From Bagnall Beach Observatory. (Note: Links not working as of May 25 2010. I may have saved the page. I’ll look through the external drives this week; if I find it, I’ll post it. Meanwhile, someone had quoted part of the page on his blog. I’ve posted that quote below.)
  • The Galileo Controversy. From Catholic Answers.
  • Article by Dinesh D’Souza. It is (or at least part of it is) adapted from his book, What’s So Great About Christianity? There are no sources listed in the online article but he says that citations and sources are listed in his book.

    One caveat here: D’Souza says, basically, that Galileo got the heliocentric theory right but for the wrong reasons, though it would seem from other accounts that Galileo got it wrong and for the wrong reasons. Turns out ol’ Galileo was unwilling to let go of a little thing called epicycles long after Kepler had. So even his planetary motion observations we hear so much about were wrong.

The Church and Science

One of the clearest explanations of the Christian Church’s approach to science at the time of Galileo is actually given by Galileo himself. In his Letter to Castelli (21 December, 1613), Galileo wrote:

“For the Holy Scripture and nature both equally derive from the divine Word, the former as the dictation of the Holy spirit, the latter as the most obedient executrix of God’s commands; …”

Galileo’s theological interpretation is even more fully developed in his Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina (1615) where he writes:

“…God reveals Himself to us no less excellently in the effects of nature than in the words of sacred Scripture, …”

Galileo goes on to quote Augustine and Tertullian in support of his arguments. Obviously these arguments did not begin with Galileo. They were part of Christian tradition he inherited, in which nature was understood to be a book which revealed God. However, while the early Church Fathers understood the Book of Nature to be speaking in allegories of the spiritual life, by the beginning of the second millennium the Book of Nature was being interpreted more literally by Christian thinkers. Nature, which hitherto had been a mere source of allegory for the spiritual life, was now being seen as a source of scientific knowledge which revealed God. This new approach to nature expressed itself in a new theology. In the 12th century, Hugh of St Victor (d.1142) perhaps most clearly expressed the thinking of his contemporary peers in declaring that the whole material creation consisted of letters written ‘by the finger of God’. There thus became two sources of revelation, with the Book of Nature standing alongside the Book of Scripture. Professor Peter Harrison sums up the situation concisely: “Nature was a new authority, an alternative text, a doorway to the divine which could stand alongside the sacred page.” The exploration of the natural world was thus approached as a quest for the divine – an approach to Nature which characterised many of the great scientific minds of the second millennium.

Reflection on these theological assertions resulted in a new confidence in the material world as a means to the knowledge of God. As Peter Harrison puts it, “Albert the Great (c.1200-1280), sounding rather like an eighteenth century British empiricist, announced that all universal knowledge arises out of sense experience. His famous protégé, Thomas Aquinas (c.1225-1274), agreed that ‘all our knowledge takes its rise from sensation,’ and that ‘it is the knowledge we have of creatures that enables us to refer to God.’ ”

In England, church functionaries devoted themselves to the discovery of God as revealed in Nature. Robert Grosseteste (1168-1253), first chancellor of Oxford University and later Bishop of Lincoln, pursued the study of light, explaining the rainbow as an outcome of refraction. His follower, Franciscan friar, Roger Bacon (1214-1292), wrote three major works campaigning for mathematics and experimental science. All of these men saw science, not as the enemy of religion, but as part of the religious quest. Roger Bacon credited science first and foremost as “the handmaiden of theology”.

The assumption that the natural world was a means of revelation of God became the chief impetus to the development of science, almost to the end of the second millennium.

So, far from being opposed to science, the Christian Church in the West saw it as a means to revelation of God, and this motivated an intense scientific search.

Quoted from Two Books Approach to Christianity on Positive Liberty.

3 thoughts on “The Galileo Myth, getting at the truth

  1. Edward T. Babinski

    Father Coyne, ex-Vatican astronomer discussed the Galileo Myth in the paper below:

    Galileo and others of his time (Kepler, Castelli, Campanella, etc.) were ahead of their time in proposing freedom of research. (Galileo wrote of it in the Letter to Castelli and in the Letter to Christina [both of which the Church did not allow to be published–even at a later date in Galileo’s “Complete Works.”])

    As a matter of fact, the works of Copernicus and Galileo remained on the Catholic Index [of condemned/forbidden books] until 1835.

    Coyne points out:

    In the passage immediately preceding the one just cited, Bellarmine had taken a very restrictive position by stating that:

    Nor can one answer that this [geocentrism] is not a matter of faith, since if it is not a
    matter of faith “as regards the topic,” it is a matter of faith “as regards the speaker;” and
    so it would be heretical to say that Abraham did not have two children and Jacob twelve,
    as well as to say that Christ was not born of a virgin, because both are said by the Holy
    Spirit through the mouth of the prophets and the apostles.16

    Clearly if geocentrism is a matter of faith “as regards the speaker,” then openness to scientific results and circumspection in interpreting Scripture are simply ploys. They
    lead nowhere. Furthermore, Bellarmine cites Scripture itself in the person of Solomon to
    show that proofs for Copernicanism are very unlikely. And still more, at the end of the Letter to Foscarini Bellarmine appears to exclude any possibility of a proof by stating that our senses clearly show us that the sun moves and that the earth stands still, just as
    someone on a ship “sees clearly” that it is the ship that is moving and not the shoreline.

    Also, when Bellarmine concludes his letter with, “But I will not believe that there is such a demonstration until it is shown me,” it is clear that Bellarmine was convinced that there could be no such demonstration. A further indication of this conviction on Bellarmine’s part is that he supported the Decree of the Congregation of the Index which was aimed at excluding any reconciliation of Copernicanism with Scripture.

    If Bellarmine truly believed that there might be a demonstration of Copernicanism, would he not have recommended waiting and not taking a stand, a position embraced at that time, it appears, by Cardinals Barberini and Caetani?18 And why did he agree to deliver the 1616 injunction to Galileo? This injunction prohibited Galileo from pursuing his RESEARCH as regards Copernicanism. Galileo was forbidden to seek precisely those scientific demonstrations which, according to Bellarmine, would have driven theologians back to reinterpret Scripture.

    Galileo and others of his time (Kepler, Castelli, Campanella, etc.) were ahead of their time in proposing freedom of research. (Galileo wrote of it in the Letter to Castelli and in the Letter to Christina [both of which the Church did not allow to be published–even at a later date in Galileo’s “Complete Works.”])

    As a matter of fact, the works of Copernicus and Galileo remained on the Catholic Index [of condemned/forbidden books] until 1835.

    Coyne adds:

    It was the [seventeenth century] Pontifical Biblical Commission that made the hasty conclusion in the exegesis case, and it was the Congregation of the Index, the Congregation of the Holy Office and Pius V who enacted a hasty decree in 1616 and the Congregation of the Holy Office and Urban VIII who proclaimed a hasty condemnation of Galileo in 1633. This reluctance to place responsibility where it truly belongs is repeated in the Papal discourse of October 31, 1992 in regard to the condemnation of Galileo.

    Myths are founded in concrete happenings. In the Galileo case the historical facts are that further research into the Copernican system was forbidden by the Decree of 1616 and then condemned in 1633 by official organs of the Church with the approbation of the reigning Pontiffs. This is what is at the source of the “myth” of Galileo and not a “tragic mutual incomprehension.” Galileo was a renowned world scientist. The publication of his Sidereus Nuncius (The Starry Message) established his role as a pioneer of modern science. He had tilted the Copernican-Ptolemaic controversy decisively against the long-held Ptolemaic system. Observational evidence was increasingly challenging Aristotelian natural philosophy, which was the foundation of geocentrism. Even if Copernicanism in the end were proven wrong, the scientific evidence had to be pursued. A renowned scientist, such as Galileo, in those circumstances should have been allowed to continue his research. He was forbidden to do so by official declarations of the Church. There lies the tragedy. Until that tragedy is faced with the rigor of historical scholarship, the “myth” is almost certain to remain.


    1. Galileo was allowed to conduct research. Many of his backers were Popes and bishops, as I understand it. He was popular at gatherings, the Church was very proud of him. Where he went astray was in making not scientific pronouncements but religious ones. And here he stepped beyond the bounds of his competence. And he was told so. But what got him into trouble was intrigue on the part of his enemies who were jealous of him. And these included some Jesuits and some Protestants. The Church herself did not have it out for him and the problems that she had with him were not because she didn’t want him to continue his research, which she supported. It is true that she did not want him to teach error.

      Below are some links that provide more information about the whole affair, some of which Coyne may not provide. Perhaps you will read these and find them interesting. I wouldn’t let my research begin and end with Coyne. I’ve also got a talk I downloaded from somewhere. If you send me an email to catholicheartandmindATgmailDOTcom, I’ll be happy to email it to you. The talk is about an hour and fifteen minutes long. As soon as I can find the link to it, I’ll post that too.

      Thank you for reading and commenting, Edward. I hope you will use those links. And that you will email me too.


    2. I’d like to add that Galileo was incorrect in supporting the heliocentric theory, that the sun is at the center of the universe. Most people seem to think that Galileo and Copernicus were saying that the sun was at the center of the solar system. But they weren’t; they thought it was at the center of the universe. They were wrong.

      But the Galileo affair involves more than this idea, as you will see if you read the links I posted in my earlier reply. I’ve got the talk I referred to on my iPod, but it doesn’t show the speaker’s name. It would help me search if I could find that. Argh.


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