The Church and Galileo

October 12, 2006 | 8 comments

It’s funny how two people can read the same book and get totally different insights. When I read Galileo’s Daughter I found it inspiring that both he and his brilliant daughter (a Poor Clare nun) were devout Catholics who had deep faith in God and the Church. I found it interesting that his goal with his scientific work was to defend the Italian Catholics’ reputation against infidels and Protestants. At the time I wasn’t even considering becoming Catholic, but reading this book definitely piqued my interest in the Church.

My dad, an atheist, is reading it now and had this to say:

I have resumed my reading of Galileo’s Daughter and last night came to the part where the Vatican issued an opinion on the Copernican writings that the sun was the center of the universe. Galileo had been speaking out for this theory also. The pope convened a committee to review it and the committee was chaired by Cardinal Bellarani who was the Inquisitor at the trial of Giordano Bruno, who was, of course, burned at the stake for his astronomical observations. Amazingly the committee voted unanimously that Copernicus’s ideas were heretical.

A priest in Florence had written a book saying that Copernican theories actually complemented the Bible. The printer of that book was arrested and the priest died suddenly at age 36 (probably didn’t eat well and exercise).

Cardinal Bellarani had soldiers pick up Galileo and bring him to the Vatican and told him he really shouldn’t be saying Copernicus was right. That there was no hard evidence to prove it. Galileo said that maybe his calculations had been a little off and maybe Copernicus was wrong. What a wimp. He should have told Bellarani to stick it in his ear and he would say whatever he wanted. That’s what I would have done!!! [In case it’s not obvious, he’s being facetious in these last couple sentences. -JF]

I’d like to respond to this but am not sure what to say. The facts he states above are true. My take on it is:

(1) Yes, the Church burned people at the stake and censored certain scientific thought. I don’t think they should have done it. But it’s not like that indicates that there’s something inherently evil about the Church or religion in general. People have fared far worse in atheistic societies (see: Stalinist Russia).

(2) It seems totally outrageous to us to execute people for questioning religious authorities. And I do think that this is wrong, but I can see how it didn’t seem like an outrageous idea back then. Today God is irrelevant to our luxurious lives. Food, shelter and medicine are abundant. It’s easy to be blase about God and the soul and the afterlife when everything is going so well here on earth. But in pretty much every other time and place people were all too close to the concept of suffering and death.

I sometimes look at my children and remember that if I’d lived a couple hundred years ago it would not be unlikely that at some point in my life I’d bury a young child. I realize then why people took matters of religion so seriously back then. If one of my children were to fall seriously ill the question of God and what he wants us to do to be with him in the afterlife would be the absolute #1 priority in my life. I wouldn’t want to screw it up. I can see how people back then, who faced the death of infants and children and loved-ones all the time, would take it very seriously when they perceived that someone was trying to lead people away from God. Death was not a distant, theoretical concept for them, so matters of faith were of the utmost importance.

(3) This one is a stretch and I won’t mention it in my reply but, for what it’s worth, I sometimes wonder if God was not using the Church to advance science in the whole Galileo affair. Galileo was on the wrong path with his ideas about astronomy. He thought comets were reflections of the sun inside the earth’s atmosphere and ridiculed astronomers who suggested they were celestial bodies. He thought the tides were caused by the motion of the earth. Given the path he was on, I don’t think much more would have come of his investigation into astronomy.

It was only when his beloved Church told him to stop studying the orbits of the planets that he moved on to study motion and mathematical proportions. And those studies revolutionized science. Albert Einstein said that his work in this area makes him “the father of modern physics — indeed the father of modern science altogether.”

It’s interesting what you see when you give the Church and God the benefit of the doubt.

Anyway, those are my thoughts off the top of my head. Anyone have any suggestions for additional points I could make in my reply?


  1. Martin

    OK … first off, Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for heresy, not for his thoughts on astronomy. The Catholic Encyclopedia article linked gives details on this. Granted that burning people at the stake isn’t a bright spot in Church history, heresy was seen as a threat to order and the State. (Technically it was the State that had people executed .. not the Church.)

    In regards to Copernicus, the opposition originally came from the Protestants and it wasn’t for many years later (with Galileo) that there was Catholic opposition. Copernicus actually dedicated his most famous book to the Pope. The Catholic Encyclopedia article on Copernicus says that his book was on the forbidden list for about 4 years , some 70 something years after it was written until it had some minor revisions added. The revisions were basically to state that it was a theory and not necessarily fact.

    Catholic Answers also has an article about Galileo.

    Historically, the Church has been a major supporter of science.

  2. melanie b

    Don’t forget to mention the Vatican observatory! The Church is not anti-science.

    I recently read this very good article on Gallileo (different than the one Martin cites) that I highly recommend you read I won’t try to summarize because I might not do a great job.

  3. Michael B.

    The Church has existed for more than 1900 years. It’s not remarkable that Evil has perverted some of its servants to do wrong in its name. What IS remarkable is that it exists at all, and that it remains a force for Good and Truth. As I see it, this is proof of its supernatural support.

    No other institution on Earth has the Church’s track record for positive influence and good works. Sure, some people have done evil in its name but that reflects on them and their fallability and not on the Church.

  4. SteveG

    I’d like to offer a few resources (some of which I may have already passed you) that might be helpful.

    One of the best sites on the internet that I’ve encountered that addresses Christianity from the perspective of the intellectual/skeptic is Bede’s Library.

    The site is run by a guy who is a Catholic convert (more or less from atheism), and he has quite a bit on his site on the supposed conflict between Faith and Science.

    In particular, his sections on Science and History are just filled with outstanding essays on the subject.

    I highly recommend the site to the person who is of the skeptic and/or intellectual bent.

    In the early part of my own conversion, when I was struggling to overcome my own skepticism, I spent countless hours combing through these essays and they were invaluable in bringing me past that skepticism.

    It is an excellent resource in part because the authors (and contributors) do an excellent job of speaking the language of the skeptic and meeting them where they are (having come from that place themselves).

    Also, this great primer on Catholicism and Science by Rodney Stark is a good article to pass someone to give them a different take on the whole subject of Science and Faith.

  5. Darwin

    One doesn’t want to give the impression of making it sound like it’s okay to burn people at the stake for _some_ things but not others — however I think it is important to note that Giordano Bruno has been built into a mythic saint of early science in a manner almost wholly contradictory to his actual life. While he did endorse a heliocentric solar system, it wasn’t necessarily for very scientific reasons. (Just as the atomic theory of Epicurus has basically nothing to do with modern atomic science.)

    Given that the was excommunicated by Catholics, Calvinists and Lutherans during his intellectual wanderings, it’s probably not surprising (given that all of those groups executed heretics) that he ended up getting executed by someone — though it’s certainly to our shame that it was done by Catholics.

  6. Jim McCullough

    In John Henry Newman’s day Protestants used Galileo to belabor the Church as anti-science–Bruno was too far off the edge with his magic and many heresies. Newman’s reply was not to defend what happened to Galileo, but to point out that in 300 years more of scientific endeavor, he was really the only example they could find.

  7. knit_tgz

    I haven’t checked the articles, so maybe this is a repeat idea, but besides everything that was said here, I remember having read that Galileo was a bit hot-tempered, and while the pope was his friend and liked him, some cardinal(s?) was his personal enemy. They both disliked each other enough to insult each other in public (If I recall, Galileo called him a venomous basilisk). So, there was also a personal motivation of an important cardinal to oppose to Galileo.

    On the Church’s importance to the progress of science, I will give you the example of my country, Portugal. My country has made two grave historical mistakes which destroyed our scientific, technical and educational progress: 1) the expulsion of the Jews in the XVI century, which seriously depleted our scientific worth; 2) the expulsion of the Jesuits in the XVIII century (and later on the persecution of all religious orders), who were the most advanced educators in our country, who had the best schools and were the leaders in teaching science, logic and mathematics. We lost our most important scientists and teachers of science, and only now, centuries passed, we are starting to recover!

  8. Anonymous

    OK, well if this is used to somehow smear the Church, I see two problems.

    1) You could always point out how fun it was to live under atheistic communist rule in the Soviet Union or China. Sin is everywhere, not just in the Church.

    2) The implication here is that the Church is anti-science and wanted to kill scientists. Have him prove it. Not just a few scientists, but science itself. Repression of a view isn’t that great but the larger implication is certainly false.

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