When it comes to PR disasters, the Church’s handling of the Galileo Affair is right up there. To the modern mind, the Galileo Affair is the ultimate proof that the Church is anti-science. The popular narrative is that Galileo proved Copernicus’s theory that the earth goes around the sun, and so the Church condemned Galileo as a heretic because the Bible says the Sun goes around the Earth.
But misconceptions and falsehoods about the Church’s response to Copernicanism abound. I remember being told by a chemistry grad student at my university that Copernicus was burnt at the stake. If this student had been somewhat more knowledgeable, he might have known that when Copernicus’s theory was presented to Pope Clement VII in 1533, the pope received it very favourably and rewarded the presenter with a generous gift.
Still, in 1610 when Galileo presented an account of Copernicus’s theory, its reception was rather less favourable. The Church had no problem with Copernicanism as a mathematical model for producing calendars and calculating star charts. But the problem with Galileo’s version of Copernicanism was that it contradicted Aristotelian physics.
According to Aristotle, the cosmos consisted of a series of concentric spheres. At the very centre, there was a sphere of earth which was surrounded by water, then air, and then fire. These were the four elemental bodies. But above fire were the celestial spheres in which the Moon, the Sun, and the other planets were embedded. These celestial spheres were governed by heavenly beings who would rotate them in order to educe material forms in the sublunar world. There was thus a hierarchy of being. The underlying principle of this hierarchy was that it is more noble to contain something rather than to be contained. It was this principle that accounted for why things moved. Fire moved up because its proper place was to form a sphere containing the lower elements, whereas earth moved down because its proper place was to be contained. And so in an analogical way, everything moved in the cosmos so as to maintain or strive for its proper mode of containment. In this hierarchy, human beings were the most noble of physical beings since they contained immaterial intellects, but they were the least noble of the spiritual beings because they still needed physical matter to exist.
Thanks to medieval theologians like St Albert the Great and St Thomas Aquinas, much of Aristotle’s physics was synthesised with Catholic doctrine. For example, the Church adopted Aristotle’s definition of the soul as the form of a living body. Theologians were so attracted to the Aristotelian-Christian synthesis that they would interpret passages of scripture in an Aristotelian light. Thus, when Ecclesiastes says “the sun rises and the sun goes down”, this was to be interpreted as saying the Sun moves around the Earth. By invoking Aristotle in biblical exegesis, theologians thought they were just appealing to the most up-to-date science of their day. So it’s understandable why the Inquisition took exception to Galileo’s claim that Aristotle had it all wrong.
But did the Church definitively state that it was heretical to claim the Earth went around the Sun? Well, there were certainly theologians who thought it probably was heretical, but the official acts of the Inquisition during the Galileo Affair were only disciplinary in nature, rather than doctrinal. In 1615, St Robert Bellarmine wrote that to teach that the Earth moves around the Sun was a very dangerous thing likely to harm our Holy Faith. But he also said if it could be demonstrated that the Earth moves around the Sun, then “one would have to proceed with great care in explaining the Scriptures that appear contrary, and say rather that we do not understand them than that what is demonstrated is false. But I will not believe that there is such a demonstration until it is shown to me.”
Galileo himself failed to offer such a demonstration. For instance, Galileo proposed that the tides offered such a demonstration, whereas the tides are actually an effect of the Moon rather than the Earth’s motion around the Sun. Incidentally, nearly three centuries later, the belief that there could be no absolute demonstration of motion was a fundamental principle of Einstein’s theory of relativity – only relative motion of one thing with respect to another can be demonstrated.
But the Inquisition which condemned Galileo also made mistakes. As Pope John Paul II said in 1992, the Inquisition “failed to distinguish properly between particular interpretations of the Bible and questions which in fact pertained to scientific investigation”. The Galileo Affair teaches us that we shouldn’t subordinate biblical interpretations to indemonstrable scientific theories. Some ideas of Aristotle are very attractive, but our faith doesn’t hang on them, so if we still choose to defend his ideas, we should do so in a way that doesn’t contradict the established findings of contemporary science.
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