Sunday, May 17, 2015

Galileo, Science, and the Catholic Church

Since tomorrow is third Monday of the month, I'll be on the Son Rise Morning Show to discuss another "troublesome" event in Church History: Galileo, his Heliocentrism hypothesis, and Church reaction to not just his scientific theories but his scriptural interpretations. The Galileo episode is usually presented as one of the proofs that the Catholic Church is opposed to science.

The Vatican Observatory offers some insight here:

Why did Galileo get in trouble with the Church?

Many theories have been put forth over the years to explain why Galileo came into conflict with the Church. The mystery arises precisely because Galileo actually stood squarely in the long history of the Church’s support of science. Many churchmen of high standing, such as Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa, had suggested even more radical cosmologies than Galileo did; Copernicus’ work itself had been available without controversy for more than sixty years before Galileo first published his telescopic observations. Most theories explain Galileo's problems with the Church as a clash of strong personalities; as coming from a fear that his ideas would threaten the basis of contemporary theology; or as a reaction by the Pope to the political pressures of the day.

The interpretation of the bible was certainly one of the principal contributing factors to the controversy. At the council of Trent, at the height of the protestant reformation just about twenty years before the birth of Galileo, the Catholic Church had solemnly declared that only the church could authentically interpret the bible and that private interpretation was forbidden. Now in 1616, just as the controversy about a sun-centered Copernican universe was heating up, the church’s holy office declared that Copernicanism was formally heretical because it contradicted many passages in the bible (e.g. Joshua 10: 11-13, in which the sun stops moving in the sky). Galileo had already written several essays on the interpretation of the bible in which he essentially said that the bible was written to teach us how to go to heaven and not how the heavens go. In these documents he essentially anticipated by about 400 years what the Catholic Church would teach about the interpretation of the bible, but he did so privately.

In these documents and in many others Galileo certainly showed himself to be a person with an acerbic writing style who courted controversy. He also had friends in high places, including Prince Cesi, the head of the scientific “Academy of the Lynxes”. Unfortunately for Galileo, Prince Cesi died just before the controversy arose over Galileo’s book: “Dialogue Concerning Two Chief World Systems” (Dialogue).

For many years Galileo had a close friendship with cardinal Maffeo Barberini who had even sent Galileo a latin ode composed by the cardinal in praise of Galileo’s telescopic discoveries. This same cardinal became Pope Urban VIII, the reigning pontiff at the time of the church’s condemnation of Galileo.

In the dialogue, Galileo provided persuasive, but not conclusive, evidence for a Sun-centered system. In so doing, he challenged the classical Greek philosophy of nature, which had dominated thinking about the universe for millennia. To embrace Copernicanism was to threaten Aristotelianism. The persistent requirement of fidelity to Aristotelianism had nothing to do with a Sun-centered system; rather, Aristotelianism was the basis for the philosophical and theological teachings of the time. If Aristotelian natural philosophy crumbled, some feared that the whole system of theology that it supported would also crumble.

In addition, the trial of Galileo occurred during the Thirty Years War, which entered a critical phase exactly at the time of the Galileo trial in 1632. The trial may have been a reaction to the political pressure being put on Pope Urban VIII by the Spanish (and others). By attacking Galileo, the Pope could be seen as showing the more conservative elements that he was not a radical. Perhaps also this was a veiled way of putting political pressure on the rich and powerful Medici family, who were Galileo’s patrons, to stay out of choosing sides in that war.

You may listen live here tomorrow at 7:45 a.m. Eastern, 6:45 a.m. Central.

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