Getting the story straight: Galileo and the church


Galileo observes the stars

One of the great joys of history, to me, is the diving into a story and finding that the details of the true story do not correspond well with the popular myths. For example, most sailors of the late 15th century were aware the Earth is a globe, when Columbus sailed — his crew did not fear falling off the edge of the Earth. This fact raises questions about why the great European powers were not more enthusiastic about exploring to the west, and that question is probably more difficult to answer. That means more work for the historian.

Here’s an essay from Peter Klein at the economics blog Organizations and Markets, on details of the story of Galileo, setting the record straight, but raising a lot more issues about what actually happened in this story from the history of science.

The problem is that the leaders of Galileo’s day didn’t think the sun revolves around the earth. My former colleague Thomas Lessl is an expert on Galileo, and from him I learned that virtually every aspect of the Galileo legend is false.

Consider these facts:

1. Neither Galileo, nor any other scientist, was put to death by the medieval Church. Giordano Bruno, a 17th-century Dominican, was indeed condemned by the Inquisition, not for his scientific views, but for preaching a quirky, New Age-ish view called hermeticism, which was only incidentally connected to heliocentrism.

2. The Catholic authorities of Galileo’s day had little trouble with heliocentrism per se. Many of the leading Catholic scientists were actually Copernicans. Copernicus’s treatise on heliocentrism had been in print for seventy years prior to Galileo’s conflict with the Church.

3. Galileo remained a devout and loyal Catholic until the end of his life. He held no animosity toward the Church over his conflict with Church authorities.

4. Most important, the conflict between Galileo and the Church took place in the context of the Protestant Reformation, a context that is almost always omitted from popular accounts of Galileo’s trial. The key issue in this conflict was not heliocentrism per se, but the authority of the individual Believer to interpret Scripture. Galileo’s argument that scientists should interpret the Bible to conform to their scientific views was close to Luther’s view that the Believer should be his own interpreter of Scripture. It was Lutheranism, not heliocentrism, that alarmed the Church leaders.

Galileo, in other words, was caught up in a larger, theological and ecclesiastical controversy. He was not simply a truth-seeking scientists going up against a bigoted Establishment.

Klein urges that we should be distrustful of scientists who invoke the old myths about the Galileo story. He fails to assert the more powerful point, to me: Christianity traditionally supported good science, and therefore creationism is the odd duck — the Bible, and Christianity, are not opposed to good science.

Preachers should be preaching for the truth, not for creationism. Of course, one should ponder when, if ever, preachers have paid attention to economists.

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11 Responses to Getting the story straight: Galileo and the church

  1. John F says:

    Just reading “Double Cross: The Code of the Catholic Church” (by David Ranan), a book which puts the Galileo story in context of the Catholic Church’s history. It really helps you understand how the Church operated and continues to operate.

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  2. Ediacaran says:

    Klein wrote: “3. Galileo remained a devout and loyal Catholic until the end of his life. He held no animosity toward the Church over his conflict with Church authorities.”

    No animosity? As if Galileo could claim otherwise without fear of reprisal from the church. Remember Bruno? I’ll bet Galileo remembered him. This odd defense of Klein’s reminds me of Darwin’s argument with Captain Fitzroy (captain of the H.M. S. Beagle). Darwin opposed slavery, while Fitzroy defended it. Darwin wrote:

    “Early in the voyage at Bahia, in Brazil, FitzRoy defended and praised slavery, which I abominated, and told me that he had just visited a great slave-owner, who had called up many of his slaves and asked them whether they were happy, and whether they wished to be free, and all answered “No.” I then asked him, perhaps with a sneer, whether he thought that the answer of slaves in the presence of their master was worth anything? This made him excessively angry, and he said that as I doubted his word we could not live any longer together.”

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  3. Ediacaran says:

    Klein claims: “2. The Catholic authorities of Galileo’s day had little trouble with heliocentrism per se. Many of the leading Catholic scientists were actually Copernicans. Copernicus’s treatise on heliocentrism had been in print for seventy years prior to Galileo’s conflict with the Church.”

    Of course it had been in print; but it had been prohibited by the Church. If Klein’s claim about “little trouble with heliocentrism” were true, why were scientific works advocating heliocentric theory on the index of prohibited books by the Church, until it was finally lifted in the mid 1700s, long after Bruno had been murdered and Galileo had been punished? I’m not a church historian, but according to Wikipedia, “The Catholic Church’s 1758 Index of Prohibited Books omitted the general prohibition of works defending heliocentrism, but retained the specific prohibitions of the original uncensored versions of [Copernicus'] De revolutionibus and Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. Those prohibitions were finally dropped from the 1835 Index.”

    Read the translations of the depositions of Galileo, and see if Klein’s claims stand up to scrutiny:

    http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/galileo/depositions.html

    Remember as you read Galileo’s answers of 1633 (including his discussion of his earlier appearance before Church authorities in 1616), that Bruno had been burned at the stake in 1600 for religious heresy – including Bruno’s cosmological views, which the church deemed heresy.

    It has been awhile since I read The Galileo Affair: A Documentary History by Maurice A. Finocchiaro, but rereading this excerpt makes me realize how little things have changed among those who cling to religious dogma in opposing science. Note the following answer by Galileo:

    “In the month of February 1616, Lord Cardinal Bellarmine told me that since Copernicus’s opinion, taken absolutely, was contrary to Holy Scripture, it could be neither held nor defended, but it could be taken and used suppositionally. In conformity with this I keep a certificate by Lord Cardinal Bellarmine himself, dated 26 May 1616, in which he says that Copernicus’s opinion cannot be held or defended, being against Holy Scripture. I present a copy of this certificate, and here it is.”

    Today’s inquisitorial creationists on school boards (and other political offices) follow suit. Exposing their ignorance of the scientific meaning of the word “theory”, creationists try to require that evolution not be taught as a fact, as with first two lines of the Cobb County Georgia stickers with their evolution disclaimer:

    “This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things.”

    We must oppose historical revisionism of the kind promulgated by Klein and apologists for the Inquisition and its parent church. After all,

    “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

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  4. Ediacaran says:

    Klein is by no means setting the story straight. This Peter Klein essay sounds like historical revisionism of the worst kind, being an ap;ologetic for the powerful organization that committed the atrocity of murder, in Bruno’s case (and many other murdered victims of the Inquisition). Here’s Klein, as quoted by Ed:

    “Neither Galileo, nor any other scientist, was put to death by the medieval Church. Giordano Bruno, a 17th-century Dominican, was indeed condemned by the Inquisition, not for his scientific views, but for preaching a quirky, New Age-ish view called hermeticism, which was only incidentally connected to heliocentrism.”

    Bruno was burned at the stake in the Campo dei Fiori, Roma, NOT ONLY for what the Roman Catholic Church considered religious heresy but ALSO for some of his scientific views. This act by the church was an atrocity even if the charges hadn’t included any of Bruno’s scientific claims – but his views on cosmology were part of the charges.

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  5. “The only good things to come from the Catholic period of domination came from those who actively or passively resisted or criticized the church.”

    That’s a broad statement. By reading the post, you’ll also find that it’s false. Heliocentrism was an important development, and it was put forth during the “Catholic period of domination.” It was neither repressed nor suppressed.

    It’s a shame that the Church is such a popular target these days. It encourages blatantly false accusations — like the above post — even if there’s no real basis for them.

    http://awaitingtenure.wordpress.com/

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  6. bernarda says:

    The Catholic church has always been a bad influence and authoritarian since it was given a state monopoly by Emperor Constantine in the 4th century. At the time, there were many different dogma’s by groups that called themselves xian. However, with the Council of Nicaea an arbitrary group of men decided arbitrarily what was the “true” dogma.

    Since at the time they were in the minority, they began purges supported by the state to eliminate opposing points of view. The more widely accepted views of Arius were crushed and Arius himself banned. Arius’s writings were burned.

    The Catholic church dogma is based on the decisions of this small group of men and has nothing to do with any divine origin.

    Later you had theologians like St. Augustine who said that it was better to remain ignorant and be “saved” than to study and learn and risk damnation.

    The only good things to come from the Catholic period of domination came from those who actively or passively resisted or criticized the church.

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  7. eyeingtenure says:

    It seems that history books really have it out for the Church.

    In reading in my textbook about the Renaissance, the Dark Ages, the Reformation, in all of those topics the books takes the view that “the Church is a bad influence and authoritarian” as the common theme. As a Catholic, my dad had more than a few rants on this when I was growing up.

    http://awaitingtenure.wordpress.com/

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  8. Rebecca says:

    Richard Panchyk’s Galileo for Kids is a great book for correcting these common misapprehensions, and useful in the classroom, too.
    I love your bolded (and bold) statement. Stephen Jay Gould wrote quite a good book on that subject, but it wouldn’t have fit on a bumper sticker.
    T shirts coming up, maybe?

    Like

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