The Galileo Trial Wasn’t Anti-Science?

The Catholic Church is no longer actively opposed to science, as we’ve mentioned a few times before — see, e.g.: The Catholic Church and Science, and also The Catholic Church and Evolution. But that wasn’t always the case.

All of you are familiar with Galileo’s famous confrontation with the Inquisition, known as the Galileo affair. For almost 400 years, the trial of Galileo has been cited as a classic confrontation of science and religion, and the trial end with a confession of heresy — see Recantation of Galileo. June 22, 1633.

Galileo was compelled by the Inquisition not only to confess heresy, but also to renounce the solar system. His book, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, was banned and placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, and he was kept under house arrest for the remaining seven years of his life. According to Wikipedia’s list of authors and works listed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, more than a century after it was banned, a censored version of Galileo’s book was permitted in 1741, and almost another century passed until the entire book was finally removed from the Index in 1835.

We’ve written about the astronomical evidence Galileo produced in favor of the sun-centered solar system — see Creationism, Galileo and the Phases of Venus. We’ve also written about occasional attempts to re-write history, to show that Galileo was the bad guy in the drama — see Defending the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, and also The Galileo Affair — Was the Inquisition Wrong?

Today we found yet another attempt to re-write history. It’s Rethinking the Galileo case, sub-titled “The famous trial does not show that church opposed science.” It appears in the Catholic Sentinel, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon, which claims to be “the oldest Catholic newspaper on the West Coast.” Here are some excerpts, with bold font added by us for emphasis:

Those with a predisposition to argue that the Catholic Church opposes science inevitably turn to the 1632-33 trial of the astronomer Galileo Galilei. … It turns out that even the Galileo affair, while not a proud moment for Catholicism, in no way shows an anti-science agenda. Scholars have revealed inconvenient truths for church critics.

Okay, we’re willing to consider what the author, Ed Langlois (managing editor of the Catholic Sentinel) has to say. Here it comes:

Few people know it, but Galileo was punished not for his science, but for propagating a theory with insufficient proof. A 1615 letter from Cardinal Robert Bellarmine makes it clear that he and others in church leadership were open to changing their views had Galileo backed up his ideas.

BWAHAHAHAHAHA! It sounds like they employed a particularly rigorous form of peer review in those days. But of course, Galileo did have evidence — it was twofold. First, the phases of Venus were compatible with a Sun-centered solar system, but not one that was Earth centered. While not proof of heliocentrism, it was certainly disproof of the geocentric model. Also, there were the moons of Jupiter, which Galileo was the first to observe. We described their importance in Creationism, Galileo and the Phases of Venus.

Then the Catholic Sentinel tells us:

Galileo was promoting heliocentrism, a theory that the Earth moves around the sun. The paradigm shift had been proposed in 1543 by Copernicus, a Polish priest. For decades, the church allowed the theory to be debated, but demanded scientific proof before it allowed the theories to be discussed as anything more than mathematical models.

“The church was never against the idea. It just said Galileo did not have proof,” says Benedictine Brother Louis de Montfort Nguyen, a monk-scientist who teaches a course at Mount Angel Seminary on faith and science. “So it was questioned. That is the way science works.”

Science was a rough business in those days. If you couldn’t prove your theory, they’d put you on the rack. The defense of the Inquisition continues:

It’s important to understand that science in the 17th century was not the same as it is now. Philosophy, theology and physical studies were linked then. The committee of cardinals that looked at the Galileo case didn’t overstep its bounds as modern critics might say. They were the experts. Not until decades after Galileo’s death, when Isaac Newton offered his math, did proof of heliocentrism emerge. The church eventually was able to accept heliocentrism because it had never declared that the Earth was the center of the universe.

Newton proved heliocentrism? BWAHAHAHAHAHA! Although this article claims that the Galileo trial was all about science, from records of the trial we know of two specific scripture passages were used as evidence against Galileo:

Ecclesiastes 1, verse 5: The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.

Joshua 10:13: And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies. Is not this written in the book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day.

The article in the Catholic Sentinel goes on for a great number of paragraphs, but we’ve excerpted enough. What we can’t understand is why they do things like this. Why can’t they proudly say what we know to be true — that they’ve grown wiser than they were 400 years ago? Articles like this are an embarrassment.

Copyright © 2017. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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21 responses to “The Galileo Trial Wasn’t Anti-Science?

  1. What can you expect from a church which banned the Hebrew language because if scholars learned it, they could read the Old Testament without reference to the “authorized” translations.

    These were people who considered the Bible as the last word, except when it came to making money. Then one could sell indulgences and church offices galore and make millions if not billions of dollars (current value) from gullible people. In fact, the whole religious enterprise seems to have been created to separate gullible people from their ducats, kroner, dollars, shekels, etc. Hah, just like the Discovery Institute, so they are using a religious model!

  2. I wonder what would have happened if the church applied the same evidentiary standards as they applied to Galileo heliocentrism to the Biblical claims of miracles and other supernatural voodoo?

    “Confirmation bias” much, Cardinal Bellarmine?

    I do admire the use of “instruments of torture” as part of the scientific peer review process, however; judiciously applied today, we might alleviate the burden of so much “junk science” that gets published each year.

  3. More alternative facts from a Catholic apologist? Just pathetic to argue that the Bishops were actually engaged in a rigorous scientific review. Just how are the Bishops considered to be Galileo’s peers by the way? What’s next an argument that the rack was really a medical device created to relieve back stress?

  4. I almost spit out my coffee reading this:

    “Few people know it, but Galileo was punished not for his science, but for propagating a theory with insufficient proof.”

    It takes a special kind of chutzpah for religion to insist on proof.

  5. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us…” Catholics are big on confession, yet not only does this dredge up an ugly past, it feebly attempts to justify it. (Reminds me of Catholic League President Bill Donohue, always defending anything absurd the Catholic church currently does.)
    Of course Galileo didn’t help himself, by anthropomorphising the geocentrists as “Simplicio”, but if the shoe fits wear it.

  6. First of all, a trivial mistake. Copernicus was not a priest. He was a layman working in a church job.
    And then, I agree with the statement that the trial did not overstep its bounds. According to the church’s rules, they were acting legally. Which just goes to show that “within its bounds” is not equivalent to “right”.

  7. Michael Fugate

    “insufficient proof” – doesn’t this apply to geocentrism? It was wrong then, so it had insufficient proof.

    A recent book tries to catalog the argument for geocentrism at the time:
    http://undpress.nd.edu/books/P03169
    Graney believes the optics of early telescopes were such that the lack of observed parallax supported the entrenched geocentric model.

    Assumptions about the size of the solar system/ universe and the lack of a working theory of inertia were some of the reasons geocentrism was supported over other models. The problem is figuring out the motivations of those supporting geocentrism – they well could have been in large part religious.

  8. Steve Ruis: “Then one could sell indulgences and church offices galore and make millions if not billions of dollars (current value) …”
    I like the story, plausible if not true, of the highway robbers who, depriving a group of indulgence sellers of their gains, were warned that they would suffer greatly for their grave sin, but replied, “No we won’t, thanks to these indulgences which we bought from you last week.”

  9. The committee of cardinals that looked at the Galileo case didn’t overstep its bounds as modern critics might say. They were the experts.
    Experts in what? Theology maybe, but certainly not astronomy. They relied on and believed in an unshakable Ptolemaic system, that was the level of their expertise.

    “insufficient proof” – doesn’t this apply to geocentrism?Not if they accepted it and likewise it reflects what their bible says, so what more proof did they require?

  10. Speaking of anti-science, here’s a hilarious satirical story about DeVos and the public schools. It’s even worse than the Galileo episode and a foreboding of things to come:
    Betsy DeVos Orders Immediate Flattening Of All School Globes
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/james-schlarmann/betsy-devos-orders-immediate-flattening-of-all-school-globes_b_14639376.html

  11. Proof is what the pope says.

  12. Sigh. Such sad attempts to rewrite the history of the Galileo affair have been a commonplace feature of Catholic apologetics for as long as I can remember. In the present case, not only does it get the history wrong (G was tried for heresy, which as far as I know has never been defined as “advocating a scientific idea on insufficient proof”), it totally misses the point. Even if Galileo had been dead wrong, it takes a truly authoritarian mindset not to see the problem with criminalizing ideas, whether right or wrong.

  13. Michael Fugate

    So Galileo was “punished for propagating a theory with insufficient proof.” Yet the DI complains about about merely being ignored for propagating an insufficient theory with insufficient proof. At least Galileo’s theory was sufficient.

  14. Galileo was punished for going against the “powers-that-be” (a dangerous proposition at any time).

  15. I thought the trial was *precisely* about religion; that Galileo had overstepped by pronouncing the heliocentric theory to be compatible with faith, an issue that should have been left to the Church. I also seem to remember that there was an undercurrent of professional jealousy from Jesuit astronomers towards Galileo. And in the context of its time, the failure to observe stellar parallax would indeed seem to be a good argument against the heliocentric model, while the phases of Venus could equally well be accounted for on Brahe’s model, which had the sun going round the Earth while everything else went round the Sun. Such motion would also establish a kind of precedent for the moons of Jupiter.

    I expect there are people here who know much more about it than I do. Comments?

  16. As I recall, Galileo defended himself in a letter to a friend about overstepping. He said that he was attacked on religious grounds, and thus should be allowed to respond on religious grounds.
    If science were restricted to “how do you know, were you there”, then before the space age, we weren’t there to say anything about heliocentrism vs. geocentrism. Even today, in the face of a determined geocentrist, few people can present good evidence for the Earth’s annual revolution around the Sun.
    Galileo realized that he was lacking in direct observation of heliocentrism, and brought up a theory of the tides (which turned out to be wrong).
    I think that it is worthwhile to point out that it was long realized that the standard geocentric model was in trouble. It was adhered to because there was no alternative model – until Copernicus did the work – and because of the Scriptural backing.

  17. Paul Braterman says: “I thought the trial was *precisely* about religion; that Galileo had overstepped by pronouncing the heliocentric theory to be compatible with faith, an issue that should have been left to the Church.”

    That was one of Galileo’s big offenses. He was well aware of the scriptural description of the sun’s motion, and he dared to suggest that those passages didn’t have to be interpreted literally. But only the Church could decide such matters in those days — especially when they were facing competition from the Protestant movement, so it was really important to maintain their monopoly on the meaning of scripture.

  18. Michael Fugate

    Which just goes to show that either scripture is wrong or theologians don’t know how to interpret it correctly….

  19. Everyone interpreted Scripture wrong. And almost everyone is inzterpreting it wrong today. But I am one of the lucky few over 2000 years who has the one right interpretation.
    Just one little question. How come that God didn’t make the Bible clear for all of those people for all of those years?

  20. The article in the Catholic Sentinel goes on for a great number of paragraphs, but we’ve excerpted enough. What we can’t understand is why they do things like this. Why can’t they proudly say what we know to be true — that they’ve grown wiser than they were 400 years ago? Articles like this are an embarrassment.

    The Catholic Church, like Protestant fundamentalist sects, has a lot invested in its dogmas always having been right. To acknowledge change in the Church’s doctrines is to acknowledge past error, a real problem for those who say their beliefs come straight from God.

  21. I assume, therefore, that fundamentalists do not encourage interest in the history of doctrines.