Sunday, April 05, 2009

The Galileo Controversy

Many people believe that the Catholic Church persecuted Galileo for his heliocentric theory, forcing him to recant. I recently read an excellent article about the Commons - software, literary and artistic products here. While praising the sharing of ideas, and intellectual freedom, the author writes:
Scientists learn from very early in their training the faults of suppressing information, perhaps most iconically in the person of Galileo Galilei, who published evidence supporting the Copernican theory that the planets orbited the Sun (primarily his observations of Jupiter’s satellites), and was proscribed and forced to recant his beliefs by the Catholic Church.

Scientists view Galileo in heroic terms, and the Church’s resistance to the Copernican theory was ultimately futile. Without the Copernican theory, we’d have never made it to the Moon. So it is fitting that Galileo’s famous hammer and feather experiment was actually demonstrated by Cmdr. Dave Scott at the Apollo 15 landing site on the Moon.

Galileo is presented as the person who proved the Copernican theory, and the Church as anti-scientific and out-dated. Since neither you nor I were present then, we can only understand about the facts if we delve a little deeper.

Myth #1: The Catholic Church hates science

Scientific discoveries require funding to be sustainable. The Church funded many scientific discoveries over the centuries and many eminent scientists where priests, for example, Georges Lemaitre, who proposed the big bang theory; or religious or sponsored by the Catholic Church. Nicholas Copernicus, who proposed the heliocentric theory was a canon of a Cathedral, and dedicated his work to Pope Paul III. These are just a couple of examples from a whole list of priest scientists.

Myth #2: The Church was afraid that science would prove the Bible wrong

The Church did not immediately endorse Copernicus theory, because She decided to proceed with caution until things were proved conclusively. This is because the Church believes She has been entrusted with the mission by Jesus Christ, to safeguard the truth, so that people may not be misled. So proceeding with prudence, She did not change her stance before time.

The Church does not say that the Bible is a scientific or historical book. Though it contains these aspects, it was written with the intention of showing God's creative, redemptive and salvific action in human history, containing stories, wisdom and lessons to teach people. So interpretation of Scripture should be in the context of what it was written.

Myth #3: Though scientists knew that heliocentric theory was true, the Church rejected it

The accepted theory, not within the Catholic Church at the time, but among scientists, was towards geocentricism. Even Copernicus delayed the publication of his work because he feared ridicule from his colleagues. The Church did not interfere with science first. It was Galileo who interfered with religion first. He said that on the basis of his theory, the Bible is wrong. This was what the Church officials took exception to, not the theory itself. Even so, his trial and arrest were unwarranted.

Myth #4: Galileo was attacked though he did not provoke anyone

Galileo went to Rome to get Church approval, since this would guarantee good publicity for his work. The then pope, Urban VIII, was a friend of Galileo, and agreed.

Galileo placed a character of his making, called Simplicio in the book, who was a kind of joker and fool, and had Simplicio speak the Pope's words. The Pope felt mocked and insulted and Galileo was tried by a court.

Myth #5: The Pope's reaction contradicts papal infallibility

First, papal infallibility is applicable when the Pope is speaking in his public and official capacity as spiritual head of the Universal Church. This happens rarely, for example in the case on a canonization or the promulgation of a dogma. It is not applicable outside this realm, and certainly not in Galileo's case.

Second, the subject of the proclamation should be with regard to faith and morals, which was certainly not true in this case.

Also, the Pope should make a solemn proclamation to be held by all the faithful, and there are well defined, unambiguous formulas in which such teachings are made.

Finally, Papal infallibility is a charisma, personal to the Pope, not communicated to another. But in Galileo's case, the Pope did not personally conduct the trial, rather a certain Cardinal Bellarmine conducted it.

Myth #6: Galileo was tortured into submission by the Church

The reason matters went to such a stage was because of the personal reaction of Pope Urban to what he perceived as Galileo's mockery. Yet, quite contrary to belief, Galileo was treated very well when under house arrest, and was well provided for. The Church does not deny that Galileo's case should not have resulted in arrest and recently, Pope John Paul II apologised for the mistreatment of Galileo, though it was just a personal overreaction of a previous Pope, acting on his own, and outside the scope of his role as pastor of the Church.

Read more at Catholic Answers


  1. How are you so sure about everything you say? What is your source? How do you knoe that the church did not write history the way we want to read it?
    Well the naswer is that we just dont know, since we were not there, and it is not even verifiable. Hence I found you writing such a long post defending the church's action somewhat strange.

  2. You can't justify everything that church did in the past or what it is doing now. The truth is like any other organization on earth church too had some bad leaders at times who made the church take unholy and non-christian actions.

    All that you state here are a good trial to justify church. But I wouldn't justify every action by church because church and leaders need to learn and correct their path like any of us...

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  4. Anonymous8:16 AM

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  5. @Debayan: Thanks for your comment, but I'm unable to understand your question. If your question is about the Church modifying history, I'd be glad if you can point to a specific instance of this being done.

    Regards, Terence

  6. @Christy: Thanks for the comment.

    Sorry for the confusion. The blog post does not claim that a person or a group of persons are perfect - whether the Church or any other group. It simply clarifies a few myths.

    But theologically speaking, Christians believe that God brought about perfection in the authors of the Bible. So why can't God bring about perfection when the Holy Father promulgates a dogma?

    All readers: the Church (and hence I) believe that faith(theology) and reason don't conflict, but that's too vast a topic to cover here.

  7. Kindly note: no two people think exactly alike and dialogue is encouraged but I comments must follow some basic rules:

    1. objections have to be specific
    2. no answering your own question like "Debayan" has done. it has to be a dialogue