I’ve worked at the Vatican Observatory for a quarter of a century, and as you can imagine I’ve gotten a lot of questions about Galileo! When I reply I try to emphasize three points that surprise a lot people, because most of us have been raised on the “Galileo Myth.”
1. Everything you know about Galileo is probably wrong. Galileo was never convicted of being a heretic, never went to jail, certainly did not burn at the stake. Galileo remained a devout Catholic even after his trial; he had two daughters who both became nuns. And he wrote his most important scientific work on physics after the trial.
But the truth doesn’t make the Church look any better. The Church was wrong to go after Galileo, whatever its reasons for doing so were … and, incidentally, no one is really sure what those reasons were. Whether it was to deal with insults or matters of politics, Pope Urban VIII abused his religious authority by putting Galileo on trial.
2. The Galileo trial was not a debate between science and religion. You can read the transcript of the trial for yourself if you don’t believe me. A good English translation can be found, among other places, in an excellent sourcebook called The Galileo Affair, published by the historian Maurice Finocchiaro in 1989.
The Church supports science, and has long been part of the scientific enterprise (think of all those Catholic hospitals, for example). Many churchmen were doing science during the time of Galileo. When Bellarmine and Galileo spoke in 1616, the joke is that Galileo was the better theologian, but Bellarmine was the better scientist. In fact, the debates over Galileo’s science — by scientists, both inside and outside of the Church — continued for another 100 years after Galileo.
3. The idea that the Church is anti-science is a 19th century myth. It did not come out of the Galileo era, but it was the invention of anti-clerical politicians in Europe and anti-immigrant prejudice in America. Indeed, the word “scientist” did not even exist until the 19th century; before then, people who studied nature were “natural philosophers” and most of them were either noblemen or clergy — who else had the education (and free time) to study nature?
This prejudice came out of the 19th century sense that “science” with its electricity and steam engines (even then, people tended to conflate technology with science) would inevitably solve all human problems, making religion obsolete. At the same time, exacerbating the situation, the Church was suffering from its own temptation to “Triumphalism” with some church people conflating modern science with the violence of the French Revolution.
Now, as I say, I work at the Vatican so you can expect I’m going to be giving the “company line” on this topic. But I don’t want to do that. Instead, I’d like to raise some questions that you should be asking yourself.
First of all, why did anyone, let alone a religion, have a problem with Galileo? I mean, scientists today can argue one point over another, sometimes even in public, in popular books or on the internet. But either most people don’t care, or they are mostly on the sidelines, amused. They aren’t moved to make one side or another stand trial and face house arrest. So why did the Church care?
Presumably there were theological or philosophical or political issues, but were they the ones that everyone thinks they were? Were there issues behind the issues?
Before you jump to some “obvious” answers, consider a simple timeline of the whole Galileo affair:
First, in 1543, Copernicus publishes a book promoting the idea that the Earth moves around the Sun. More than twenty years later, Galileo is born in 1564. In 1610, Galileo’s first book about the telescope and what he saw with it is published.
In 1615 he circulates a letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, the mother of his employer the Duke of Tuscany. Christina had expressed concern, not over what Galileo had observed with the telescope, but over how he had interpreted those observations, and whether his interpretations conflicted with the Bible. The letter was his reply to her, explaining why his ideas actually fit Catholic theology very well. (He was right, they do.) A year later he is called in by the chief theologian of the Church, Cardinal Bellarmine, who agrees that Galileo is not a heretic (he even gives Galileo a certificate to that effect) but tells him to hold back from teaching such controversial material.
By 1619 the Church in Italy (but not elsewhere) is instructed that the Copernicus book should be “corrected” to say that his ideas of the Earth moving are just hypotheses, not proven fact. Other books supporting Copernicus are criticized or condemned at this time; but Galileo’s books, conspicuously, are not.
In 1632, Galileo writes a book where the Copernican system is debated. Even though it was published with Church approval, a year later Galileo is made to stand trial for the things he says in the book. Following the trial he is sentenced to house arrest. In 1638, he publishes his major book on physics, the fruit of his lifetime scientific work. In 1643 he dies, at the age of 78.
Those dates are worth a closer look. Imagine bringing them forward 400 years. Start with a technical scientific book that was published back during World War II, in 1943. Our “parallel” Galileo isn’t even born until 1964 (think Jeff Bezos, Stephen Colbert, Sarah Palin). He publishes a book in 2010; he faces some controversy over it in 2016. He’ll go on to publish other popular books on similar topics in 2023 and 2032 (all with Church approval); but the last one will lead to a trial in 2033, when he’s nearly 70 years old.
My point is, the Galileo story is not something that happened all at once. It took years and years to unfold. So, that leads to another set of questions to ask yourself:
Why did it take 75 years before anyone found theological problems with Copernicus? It’s not that people weren’t paying attention to theology; this was the century of the Reformation! The Council of Trent, where the Catholics spent twenty years defining what it believed was true and condemning heresy, began just three years after Copernicus published his work. But Copernicus was never discussed. Why suddenly was it an issue half a century later?
Why did Galileo get off with just a warning in 1616? Maybe it had something to do with his status with the Duke of Tuscany; but then, what does that say about the mix of politics and personalities in Galileo’s case? And why didn’t that protect him when he finally went to trial, seventeen years later?
Why did everything go wrong for Galileo in 1632 and 1633? He hadn’t changed any of his well-published views during the intervening decades, and he’d maintained good relations with Popes, Cardinals, and noblemen. His 1632 book that caused all the fuss had even passed Church censorship in both Rome and Florence.
Why did he write and publish his most important work after his trial and house arrest? How did he get away with that?
The answer to all these questions is… it’s complicated. And the answers are controversial and still a matter of intense debate. There’s no consensus. To dig into them you might want to read a good book about Galileo; there are hundreds and hundreds that have been written, all of them giving a different set of answers!
A number of short-hand explanations have been proposed for Galileo’s eventual troubles, what has been called a “tragic conflict of world views.” The issue of course is to understand how a conflict of world views can become “tragic.”
The “myth” promotes the prejudice that the Church is always afraid of new ideas. But the Church invented the University system where new ideas are promoted, debated, and promulgated.
Of course, that was part of the problem. The Church served the role of “the academy” of that time, the community of scholars (most of them clergy) who acted then like the referee of a science paper does today, to test those ideas and weed out both honest mistakes and the cranks. And an inspection of both Galileo and his opponents shows that, by modern standards, Galileo didn’t have the goods. His basic idea that the Earth moves is correct; but his proofs were wrong, and he had no good answers for the objections raised by other scientists of his time.
Another set of explanations turns the Galileo affair into a conflict of strong personalities. It suggests that he made too many personal enemies with his brilliant but sarcastic style. The philosophers were out to get him, so goes this version; or maybe the Jesuits were out to get him; and his book personally insulted the Pope. After the Galileo trial, a prominent Jesuit wrote that if only Galileo had stayed on good terms with the Jesuits rather than attacking them, he wouldn’t have gotten into such trouble. Galileo read this and interpreted it to mean that his trial was the revenge of the Jesuits, but that certainly was not the case.
Pope Urban VIII saw himself not only as Galileo’s friend but as Galileo’s peer in matters of natural philosophy. (Pope Urban had a degree in the subject; Galileo did not.) They were both members of the Academy of the Lynxes, the scientific society organized by Prince Cesi. Galileo wanted Copernicus to replace Aristotle or Ptolemy as the essential cosmology adopted by the Church, but Pope Urban rightly recognized that no “world system” is the last word. (Thinking that science can ever provide such a last word is a common mistake even today.) After all, no one today believes the details of Copernicus’ work proposing a completely immobile Sun and planetary orbits made of perfect circles. Our astronomy has progressed since 1543; and even the Big Bang will look quaint and obsolete some day.
Another issue is that science was only just being invented at the time of Galileo (by Galileo and his contemporaries). They all saw different issues at stake than we do now. They equated what we call science with natural philosophy, and philosophy with truth. But today we know that science only gives a probable description of nature, not a final truth. And fruitful science doesn’t merely “solve” problems, it also provokes the kind of deeper insights that uncover new issues to explore. Ultimately that’s why Copernicus was better than the astronomers before him: not because Copernicus was “right” but because his work led to Newton’s physics, which led in turn…
And a final theory suggests that the Thirty Years War played a crucial role in the Galileo affair. The Pope had supported Galileo in the past, but this war between Spain and the northern German states was threatening to spill into Italy, and the Pope’s position was both precarious and ambiguous. Spain claimed to support Catholicism against the Protestant Germans, but both the Pope and Catholic France were worried about Spain’s growing power. The sides in the war were evenly balanced, and Galileo’s wealthy patrons in Tuscany, the Medici, were keeping a careful neutrality. The Galileo trial was launched right at the time when the war was at a crisis. Perhaps it was designed as a distraction to keep pressure off the Pope? That might explain why, once the crisis was past, Galileo was allowed to return to his villa and keep up his scientific work.
In any event, none of the explanations (except the “myth”) have science versus religion at the core of the Galileo affair. So this raises one final question. Why is there still a Galileo myth?
The old 19th century idea that science would cure all our ills was pretty much destroyed in the horrors of the 20th century. And anyone wishing to criticize the Church can find far more serious (and true) faults with it. But clearly, the cachet of “science versus religion” still holds strong.
Maybe that should make you wonder… who gains when science and religion are at loggerheads?