One absurd, yet frequently recited, attack on the Catholic Church is its supposed hostility toward science. Science, so say promoters of this view, is opposed to religion which is "nothing more than a pre-scientific way of viewing the world." When asked to produce evidence of the incompatibility of science and the Holy Catholic Faith one name and one name alone is ever produced as evidence, Galileo Galilei.
The mere mention of this name is supposed to settle the dispute. What possible refutation can the Catholic have? After all the Church persecuted, with the Inquisition no less, one of the greatest of all scientists for no reason other than Galileo's insistence in siding with science over religion. If religion and science were compatible, there would have been no problem, no Inquisition, no issue. Case closed - all religious people, especially Christians, and most especially Catholics, are anti-science. So at least goes the popular perception. Sadly for the anti-Catholic, the real story is much more complex and much more interesting.
There's a popular saying among Catholic apologists that's usually used in the context of dealing with Protestants of a "Fundamentalist" persuasion, "a text without context is a pretext for a prooftext." The same principle, using some fact without embedding it in the contextual milieu of which it is apart will frequently lead to misunderstanding, is at play here.
The first element of "context" needed to understand what happened with Galileo is to understand the "science" of astronomy in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.
What Was the State of Astronomy in the Seventeenth Century?
Astronomy, according to Wikipedia, is, "a natural science which is the study of celestial objects... the physics, chemistry, and evolution of such objects and phenomena that originate outside the atmosphere of Earth." The first thing to understand about "the Galileo controversy" is that this is not at all what astronomy was in his day. Astronomy wasn't "a natural science," rather it was a branch of mathematics. Astronomers didn't seek to study "celestial objects," rather they set out to construct mathematical models that could predict the movement of "celestial objects." These models were important as they aided in navigation (remember there was no GPS), astrology (which was still popular, Galileo himself read charts on the side to make some extra cash), and perhaps most importantly they were used for the calendar (Pope Gregory having just released his update to the old Julian calendar in 1582). Astronomers were concerned with the ability of a particular model to accurately predict the position of the various "celestial objects" but did not actually consider their models to be accurate reflections of what those objects were really doing. Such knowledge was simply beyond their capabilities and outside of the primary object of their study. Galileo's claim to demonstrate what actually is happening in "the heavens" (what we more prosaic moderns call "space") would be a point of contention later. It is important to note that this wasn't a conflict between Church and science, but between an older view of science (based on Aristotle) and a newer one (which would be based on the nascent "Scientific method").
Why Did the Church Get Involved at All?
Again, context is all important. What was happening in Church history leading up to Galileo's trial in 1633?
1517 - Martin Luther nails his Ninety-Five Theses to the Cathedral door in Wittenberg.
1534 - The Act of Supremacy declares King Henry VIII head of the Church of England
1541 - John Calvin takes over Geneva.
1545-63 - The Council of Trent launches the Counter-Reformation
1564 - Galileo is born
1609 - Galileo observes the moons of Jupiter, sunspots, phases of Venus with telescope
1613-15 - Galileo promotes the view that the Earth moves around the sun
1618-38 - The Thirty Years War rocks Christendom to its foundations
1623 - Galileo's friend and supporter Maffeo Barbarini is elected Pope Urban VIII
1632 - Galileo publishes Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems
As this brief timeline shows, Protestantism (fueled by Luther's novel doctrine of sola scriptura, the idea that anyone can interpret or reinterpret Scripture) had just exploded in Europe and would be the Church's primary concern during Galileo's lifetime. This is important to note. The Church didn't put Galileo on trial for looking through a telescope or for proposing a new model to calculate astronomical motions (neither of which much concerned Churchmen then or now). Had Galileo left off with the proposition of another model he would have never come under inspection by the Holy Office (see Copernicus for proof). But Galileo wouldn't be content to stop there. He instead insisted that Heliocentrism was really how the solar system worked. That doesn't sound scandalous today because we know Heliocentrism actually does reflect reality, but no one (including Galileo) had the science to prove Heliocentrism in the seventeenth century (specifically Galileo couldn't explain the lack of parallax shift in the stars, which was the leading argument against heliocentrism since Aristotle, 18 centuries before Galileo). The Church still would have had no issue with Galileo's pomposity had he not then demanded the reinterpretation of Scripture to reflect his theory. It was this last point, coming as it did on the heels of Luther's own demands to reinterpret Scripture to suit his theories, that forced the Holy Office to deal with our Tuscan astronomer.
What Was Galileo's Relationship to Pope Urban VIII?
Not only did Galileo, a layman, decide to appropriate unto himself the authority to interpret Sacred Scripture, he went one further and personally insulted the reigning Pope, his long time supporter and friend Urban VIII (Maffeo Barbarini). Galileo did this in a particularly public manner by taking the arguments Urban VIII offered against heliocentrism and putting them into the mouth of a character named Simplicio (a pun on the Italian word for simpleton) effectively lampooning his former supporter as an idiot. Unsurprisingly, Urban VIII didn't seem to find this funny.
What Happened to Galileo?
The common picture has the astronomer locked away in chains in some squalid dungeon or being stretched on the rack. In reality, Galileo never saw the inside of a prison. He was never tortured and was lodged in the Villa Medici in Rome, which can hardly be described as unpleasant lodgings, much less as a prison or a dungeon, and was later placed under a loose "house arrest" where he completed his most important scientific work.
The trail and condemnation of Galileo is much more complex than often appreciated by those who would use the affair to bludgeon the Church over the head with would care to admit. As we've seen, the condemnation of Galileo had more to do with a changing scientific paradigm, a necessary backlash against private interpretation of Scripture, and personal animosity between Urban VIII and Galileo than it had to do with a Church sponsored "war on religion." However, even if the Galileo affair were all the Church's enemies wish it were (replete with priests refusing to look through telescopes, Galileo muttering "eppur si mouve," torture, etc) one scientist running afoul of Rome in two thousand years would hardly make a case for Catholicism being or ever having been opposed to science. It is no accident that science arose in one society and one society alone, and that a Catholic one.
Those who would claim the Church and science are irreconcilable enemies only point to Galileo's run in with the Holy Office to back up their claims. With Galileo sidelined, someone who wants to continue to suggest the Church and science are at odds will have to come up with some evidence. Which leads us to our challenge. If you think the Church hates science or that science and faith are nemeses or that science disproves Catholicism or some variant on that theme, you'll have to come up with a scientific discovery that irreconcilably conflicts with some established doctrine of the Faith. If you subscribe to this view, I'll ask you,
- Which discovery?
- What doctrine?
- How are they in conflict?
- Why can't the conflict be resolved?
If you can't answer these questions, you'll forgive me for dismissing your unsubstantiated allegation as the product of either ignorance or biogtry.
A Last Word from C.S. Lewis.
Any time I hear someone attempt to attack the Church by appealing to Galileo, I can't help but think of the conversation between "Mr. Enlightenment" and "John" from Lewis' The Pilgrim's Regress . Let's let Lewis have the last word,
"But how do you know there is no Landlord?"
"Christopher Columbus, Galileo, the earth is round. invention of printing, gunpowder!" exclaimed Mr. Enlightenment in such a loud voice that the pony shied.
"I beg your pardon," said John.
"Eh?" said Mr. Enlightenment.
"I don't quite understand," said John.
"Why, it's as plain as a pikestaff," said the other. "Your people in Puritania believe in the Landlord because they have not had the benefits of a scientific training. For example, now, I dare say it would be news to you to hear that the earth was round - round as an orange, my lad!"
"Well, I don't know that it would," said John, feeling a little disappointed. "My father always said it was round."
"No, no, my dear boy," said Mr. Enlightenment, 'You must have misunderstood him. It is well known that everyone in Puritania thinks the earth flat. It is not likely that I should be mistaken on such a point. Indeed, it is out of the question. Then again, there is the paleontological evidence."
"Why, they tell you in Puritania that the Landlord made all these roads. But that is quite impossible, for old people can remember the time when the roads were not nearly so good as they are now, and what is more, scientists have found all over the country traces of old roads running in quite different directions. The inference is obvious."
John said nothing.
"I said," repeated Mr. Enlightenment, "that the inference was obvious."
"Oh, yes, yes, of course, " said John hastily, turning a little red.