Friday, December 31, 2010

The Galileo Incident

The Galileo Incident

Fictitious Scenario: You're chatting with Uncle Henry and Aunt Maude about the kids' new school and "Why, yes, it's a Catholic school." When you're hit WHAM with (cue foreboding music) The Galileo Incident and how much the Catholic Church hates science.

Your heart pounds. Your mouth goes dry. You search for a hole in the shag carpet to crawl into. Finally you change the subject. "Oh dear, the coffee pot's empty." And you scurry to the kitchen and turn on EWTN radio super low praying they'll happen to have a show on that topic.

Did the Church torture Galileo for saying the sun is the center of the universe? Did they toss him in prison? Do they forbid hard science?

This livingroom scene isn't such a far out scenario. We hear mutterings all the time about the Church's intolerance for science. Let's break down the issues into bite size bare bone chunks. Then we'll expand.

1. Galileo was not the first to write about heliocentrism (astronomical model that the planets revolve around the sun.) Galileo was working off of the model of Copernicus, an astronomer and respected man in the Church. Ten years prior to Galileo, Kepler, "found opposition among his fellow Protestants for his heliocentric views and found a welcome reception among some Jesuits who were known for their scientific achievements."(The Galileo Controversy

2. The goal of Galileo's trial was basically to determine if he had followed a previous injunction that said he was only allowed to state the heliocentric theory as a mere theory (as opposed to fact) and not advocate the theory. He could discuss the pros and cons of it.

3. He was not tortured. He was found guilty. He was put under house arrest in a comfy cottage with a servant and he continued writing.

Read on if you want to know details and to learn why this strange trial occurred.


Basic and Background Stuff (You can skip it if you want to get on with Galileo):

First off- The Catholic church is not fundamentalist. We take the Bible literally, not literalistically. The difference is that when the Bible says the world was created in six days we don't necessarily think it means six 24-hour days.

In a literal approach we recognize metaphor. In a literalist approach, if a text says it was raining cats and dogs, then the reader assumes actual animals fell from the sky.

Next- "The Bible tells us how to go to Heaven; it doesn't tell us how the Heavens go." This quote is from one of the Cardinals at Galileo's trial. Sounds like something St. Augustine would have said. You can have a taste of Augustine here

When Brother Guy Consolmagno (Astronomer and curator of meteorites at the Vatican Observatory) was interviewed on Catholic Answers July 22, 2009, he talked about Galileo among other intriguing things. Did you know about 35 of the moons craters are named after Jesuits, because they were the ones mapping the moon about twenty years after the Galileo trial? Remember the Clavius Base in the movie 2001? Yep, that's a real crater named after Father Clavius.

Chris Baglow was on Catholic Answers (Oct. 8, 2010) on a segment called, "Can Science Beat up Religion?" He talked about Galileo and also priests who made huge scientific breakthroughs. Guys like Blessed Nicholas Steno (1600's). Steno was the first to compare the bodies of marine animals to fossils and to hypothesize the history of the earth could be recoverable by looking at the layers of the earth.

The Church has never asked us to choose between faith and science.

The Galileo Incident:

It was wrong of the Church to put Galileo on trial and put under house arrest. The Church admits it was wrong to do this. On October 1992 the Pope officially cleared Galileo of any wrongdoing.

And just to clear up one more detail, geocentrism (belief that the Earth is the center of the universe) was never a dogma of Catholicism. 

Recall that Copernicus (1473-1543) sparked a heliocentric (sun centered cosmology) revolution. He was encouraged by fellow Catholics to publish his ideas. He dragged his feet about publishing his book because of the scientific climate, not pressure from the Catholic Church. It was actually Protestants who were hostile to the idea.

During the Galileo affair (which was after Copernicus's death) Copernicus's book was put on the prohibited book index by a handful of clerics until less than ten sentences were corrected because they felt it characterized the heliocentric theory as a fact rather than a hypothesis. (Remember it would be 200 years before it could be proven.) But why did they suddenly do this? Remember, this was during the 30 Year War, the tail end of the Reformation. This was a politically turbulent time.

Along comes Galileo

As we mentioned earlier, in 1616 he was told he was allowed to discuss the hypothesis of heliocentrism but not advocate the theory. That is, he couldn't say he was all about it, but he could offer evidence for and against it. He followed the order, though he still felt strongly that it was true.

In 1623 he had a friend who became the Pope (Urban VIII). They talked about it. The Pope said he really shouldn't revoke the earlier decision but encouraged Galileo to write a new book posing points both for and against the theory. He wrote The Dialogue on The Two Great World Systems (pub. 1632 ).

He was tried in 1633 for disobeying the injunction. Some Cardinals thought the book did others that it didn't. He was found guilty and placed under house arrest and there he wrote what some consider his best work, The Discourse on The Two New Sciences (pub. 1638).  He died in 1643 at age 78.

What's up with that? He was told to write the book and then he got in trouble for it?

According to Brother Guy Consolmagno, The politics surrounding The 30 Year War (which was, I believe, the last of the religious wars that sprang from the Reformation) had a huge impact on the Galileo incident. (In the bit of his interview that addresses that begins around 5:40) Brother Consolmagno says that Galileo was a good Catholic and intended no wrong. No doubt this was a politically turbulent time.

Some scholars have accused Galileo of telling Church theologians how to interpret the Bible. See this article at When Pope Urban VIII encouraged Galileo to write The Dialogue, he also offered an argument for him to use. Galileo did and put that argument in the mouth of a foolish character named Simplicio, thus insulting his old friend.

Was Galileo a good Catholic who got caught in a political storm or did he provoke the Pope and Cardinals? Or maybe a bit of both? They dealt with him gently, so I think whatever the case, (cue foreboding music) The Galileo Incident need not scare you when anti-Catholics bring it up.

No, The Church shouldn't have put him on trial, but it acknowledges that. They shouldn't have banned his book. Or Copernicus's book. Or Kepler's. But they know that. It was a bad incident but not a pattern. The Church is now and always was open to science.


Brother Guy Consolmagno interview   
Creation and Genesis at (w/that bit about Augustine)
Chris Baglow interview "Can Science Beat up Religion?"
"Dogma" my own post on the topic.
The Galileo Contriversy at
"Science" my own post on science and the Church

Works Consulted:

Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion by Ronald Numbers
The Papacy and Galileo by Patrick Madrid
Six Wrong Things You Though When You Heard Galileo's Name This Week by Ted Olsen

Note: To the best of my knowledge this post is accurate. The authors of works sited and works consulted (aside from my own) were not consulted before, during, or after writing this post. I simply read their works. In other words, I did not seek their endorsement.


  1. I think a lot of the confusion for many people is when folks like this: make it seem like this is the sort of thing the official church endorses. There's just wacky misinformation all over.

  2. That's just sad. Funny, but sad. The Vatican still has astronomers who are way into hard science and I can tell you they don't believe in geocentrism, nor are they flat-earthers, and they don't think the moon is made out of green cheese. That's just nuts. They can call themselves Catholic but it's not sponsered by the Church.

  3. Here's what Mark Shea (one of the Catholic writer speaker dudes I trust) says about that geocentric conference