Opinion: The Pope on Galileo

(Originally published December 23, 2008; this is re-published here as a sidebar to my review of Galileo by Bertolt Brecht performed by Burbage Theatre: motifri.com/galileo-burbage-2017 )

Pope Benedict XVI in a speech Sunday praised Galileo as a man of faith whose legacy could help bridge the gap between religion and science. Pope John Paul II formally rehabilitated Galileo in 1992, declaring that it was an error resulting from “tragic mutual incomprehension” that Galileo was tried for heresy in 1633 and forced under threat of torture to recant his support for the astronomical theory that the earth orbits the sun. Now, nearly four centuries later, the Galileo affair has come to epitomize many of the worst aspects of the Catholic Church as it struggled well into the 19th Century to shake off medievalism, serving as a continuing embarrassment through the present day.

Trying to reclaim Galileo as a symbol of the congruence of faith and reason, however, is a stretch bordering on offensive.

No one has ever questioned that Galileo was Catholic, and he traveled in the same intellectual circles as much of the Catholic hierarchy, especially Pope Urban VIII before his ascension to the papacy. Indeed, it is widely believed that Galileo was emboldened to publish the book that got him into serious trouble, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, because Urban VIII was a supporter of Galileo and a dedicatee of one of Galileo’s books in a previous dispute with the Jesuits about whether comets were astronomical or atmospheric phenomena. Galileo had been to some extent protected by Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, later a saint and doctor of the Church, who under pressure from the Inquisition ordered Galileo not to “hold or defend” the theory that the sun rather than the earth was the center of the solar system, but allowed Galileo to write about it as an hypothesis; that was a substantial concession from Bellarmine, given that there are numerous biblical verses that say the earth does not move (for example, Psalm 104:5 “He hath founded earth on its bases, It is not moved to the age and for ever.”)

Galileo, who was a much better scientist than politician, structured his Dialogue so as to comply with the letter but not the spirit of Bellarmine’s order, crafting the book as exactly the sort of “debate” that technically argued the movement of the earth around the sun as a hypothesis, yet put the contrary argument in the hands of a character named “Simplicio” (implying “simpleton”). Still worse, the words of Pope Urban VIII when they appear in the book come out of the mouth of Simplicio, thereby alienating and offending the pope personally.

Although Urban VIII was one of the most modern and progressive of the Catholic hierarchy at the time, and he was regarded as a capable intellectual although certainly not of the caliber of Bellarmine, he reigned at an awkward intersection of medievalism and modernism. For example, Urban VIII ordered the excommunication of anyone who used tobacco, then most commonly in the form of snuff, because it caused sneezing which was seen as uncomfortably close to sexual ecstasy. Urban VIII was hardly spoiling for a fight and clearly did not want his friend Galileo to be burned at the stake as a heretic — as had happened only a few years earlier to Giordano Bruno, whose heretical offenses included the belief that other planets might be inhabited. Nevertheless, Urban VIII wanted Galileo to shut up and stop embarrassing him in ways that publicly offended his papal dignity, and so he had Galileo tried by an unusual procedure that minimized the power of the Inquisition and ended up finding Galileo guilty not of heresy per se, which would have carried the death penalty, but of “suspicion of heresy.” This served as the basis for all of the writings of Galileo to be banned and for Galileo himself to be placed under house arrest for the rest of his life.

In today’s world, Pope Benedict XVI, even before he became pope, while not anti-science has criticized the amorality of science that by its own admission regards morality and values as outside its purview. That’s not specifically a Catholic or even a religious perspective, and one could certainly find similar concerns voiced by many leading scientists, most famously by Albert Einstein and Betrand Russell in the context of the development of atomic weapons. Nevertheless, when the conflict between science and religion often takes the form of debates over the validity of the Theory of Evolution, it is difficult to see how Benedict’s revisionist view of the Galileo affair is likely to promote reconciliation.

Leave a Reply

Prove that you are human *

Previous post:

Next post: