For the Intersection of the Everyday and the Sacred

Science and Religion Friday: The Galileo Affair, Part 3

In previous posts, I’ve noted how the central points of conflict between Galileo and his opponents were between different ideologies and personalities, and not religious in nature. Today, I’m going to talk about the actual period of trials Galileo underwent.

The First Examination of Galileo

Following the sermon by Caccini condemning Galileo, and after Caccini’s superior personally apologized to Galilelo, an investigation was opened into Galileo’s views. Another Dominican and friend of Caccini, Niccolo Lorini, submitted a formal complaint to the Roman Inquisition. This led to the respected theologian Robert Cardinal Bellarmine being appointed to arbitrate between the various sides. In general, it seems Bellarmine had no issue with heliocentrism and, for the most part, was very favorably disposed toward Galileo. At no point during this period was Galileo ever condemned, nor was he ever even under trial. The primary problem that Galileo would need to overcome, as he saw it, would be the issue of reconciling heliocentrism with Scripture. One attempt to do so can be found in Galileo’s lengthy letter, written the summer of 1615, to the Grand Duchess Christina. In the letter, Galileo quotes at length from older theologians, though tending to focus primarily upon Augustine, and affirms the absolute truthfulness of Scripture. At one point saying:

It being true that [these] two truths cannot contradict one another, it is the function of wise expositors to seek out the true senses of scriptural texts. These will unquestionably accord with the physical conclusions which manifest sense and necessary demonstrations have previously made certain to us.

Galileo himself thought that there was no genuine contradiction between the witness of Scripture and his support for a heliocentric universe.

However, in February of 1616, possibly under pressure from the current pope (who may have felt some pressure from the Dominicans), the “qualifiers” of the inquisition gave their report that heliocentrism was somewhat dubious and told Galileo to cease publicly promoting Copernican astronomy. It seems that, for the most part, Galileo complied until a new pope was installed.

More Popes, More Problems (or something like that)

In 1623, Pope Urban VIII was installed as the new Pope. He was considerably more favorably disposed toward Galileo, and so Galileo took this as an indication he could resume his work on the heliocentric universe. Roughly a decade later, in 1632, he published A Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems: Ptolemaic and Copernican, defending his heliocentric ideas. Apparently, this raised the ire of some prominent Domicans, already a bit disgruntled by his lesser known, but equally anti-Aristotelian work, The Assayer. And the inquisition reconvened.

It should be noted that by this time, Galileo’s lifelong nemesis, the Jesuit Christoph Scheiner, whom I mentioned last week, was also in Rome and the records indicate he gave advice to the inquisition that was against Galileo. The result was, as we known, the censure of Galileo’s book, which he was ordered to recant of as “vehemently suspect of heresy” and Galileo was placed under house arrest for the remainder of his life. It seems that not even a friendship with the pope was enough this time. It should be noted that Galileo himself was never condemned of heresy and, barely more than a century later, his book was removed from the censure list.


This brings us back to the primary question of this series, was the Galileo Affair an incident of Religion and Science in conflict. I have suggested throughout that the actual conflict was the result of competing secular philosophies, on the one hand, but more substantially competing personalities, on the other. It wasn’t Galileo’s ideas in and of themselves that were at issue, but the manner in which Galileo treated those he encountered. In other words, he embarrassed the wrong people. I’m not the only one who thinks so. A number of philosophers have suggested that the primary reason for the conflict was Galileo’s approach, not his thoughts, such as atheist philosopher Ernst Bloch. What do you think? Is this a valid example of conflict between science and religion?


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12 thoughts on “Science and Religion Friday: The Galileo Affair, Part 3

  1. Mr. Medley,

    I have a number of scientists in my circle of family and friends. I am a mere technician compared to them, but, by observation, I would say that scientists are just as prone to jealousy, vanity, pride, insecurity, etc. as the rest of humanity. I am also well acquainted with a number of pastors, elders, deacons and such from several churches. I see similar traits in many of them. The human condition, it seems to me, encourages us to fear the unknown or unfamiliar, reject as a threat any new idea not our own, and seek favor for our own pet philosophies, theories, etc. This being the case, I believe your assessment of the conflict between Galileo and the Dominicans, that Galileo simply offended the wrong people, to be very likely.


  2. Great commentary, Trey! I agree with the previous comment. No matter what your opinion is, you’re going to offend someone. Sometimes it’s just best to keep your mouth shut!

  3. Ah, the “root of the problem” is that politics tend to be about people, and religion too often gets turned into politic

  4. It still does seem to be a bit of both, and I’m not sure that we can untangle them as much as we (myself very much included would like). It is very hard to get away from the reality that religion has guided the inquiry of science for the majority of human history. That said, as you illustrate well, what passes for religion is often those in power seeking more power or, at minimum, to hold on to the power that they already have.

    Is there truly a conflict between science and religion? I’m strongly inclined to say no. But such unfiltered truth is rarely what we deal with.

  5. I would tend to say that it was indeed a conflict between science and religion, at least as I understand those terms. Bellarmine acknowledged the difficulty, and while he seems to have had no problem with the idea as an idea, actually declaring it to be true was another matter: “But to want to affirm that the sun really is fixed in the center of the heavens and only revolves around itself (i. e., turns upon its axis ) without traveling from east to west, and that the earth is situated in the third sphere and revolves with great speed around the sun, is a very dangerous thing, not only by irritating all the philosophers and scholastic theologians, but also by injuring our holy faith and rendering the Holy Scriptures false. For Your Reverence has demonstrated many ways of explaining Holy Scripture, but you have not applied them in particular, and without a doubt you would have found it most difficult if you had attempted to explain all the passages which you yourself have cited. ”

    Maybe things would have played out differently if not for personality conflicts and Galileo’s tactlessness, but at the end of the day you’ve still got a religious court smacking down a scientist who transgressed dogma and keeping his book on the banned list for more than a hundred years. To me it’s sort of liking arguing that the US didn’t really go to war in Iraq, it was just Dick Cheney’s machinations and Saddam’s idiocy.

    • I would agree up to a point. I suppose I’m trying to separate the religion itself from the religious institution that was constructed by men. But, that’s a Protestant for you (not want to identify the RCC with Christianity so explicitly). With regard to Bellarmine’s comment, I suppose I have to wonder that if Galileo had not initially been tactless resulting in the Dominicans mounting a campaign that was couched in theological terms, would he have felt the need to respond as he did. Indeed, it seems rather odd that the primary basis for arguing in favor of geo-centrism is the passage in Joshua where he commands the sun to stop moving. There are so many things that, even by that time, had been taken as metaphorical language or idioms, why focus on this? I will acknowledge,as Clayton points out, that we might not be able to fully disentangle them. However, my primary goal is simply to discredit the conflict thesis, which states that religion and science are always in conflict because of religious reasons. The goal of the conflict thesis, it seems, is to argue for a dismantling of all religion. In other words, it has no place in the public sphere. I think that is the mistake.

      I would also like to argue for a distinction between people who are religious in conflict with scientists and religion in conflict with science. The primary argument in this three part series is that the conflict was between people who are religious (and used that as a guise) and a scientist (who also happened to be religious). Do I think it was right what happened? No. But I also don’t know that the blame can be put as fully upon religion as is often suggested. True had this religion not had the power it did the Dominicans who were offended might have had a harder time using something else, but my point is really to show that the perceived conflict is not ideological in nature. I think I’ve done that.

  6. mike and brandy on said:

    “In other words, he embarrassed the wrong people. I’m not the only one who thinks so.”

    I’m sure you aren’t suggesting that Gallileo was guilty of the indiscretion of ’embarassing’ the wrong person. More likely, that the one who ‘took offense’ was powerful enough to impose his ‘offense’ to Gallileo’s expense.
    We should not fear the ’embarassment’ of those who would ‘take offense’ regardless of how we act or speak toward them. For some, no matter how gentile and polite and deprecating, irrational and sinfull offense is the default response. Nes pas?

    • I’m not insinuating that Galileo is necessarily in the wrong (though there is something to be said for tact; Christians are called to speak the truth “in love.”). What I am trying to demonstrate is that the conflict was more between personalities and not the result of some deeper ideological conflict (which the “conflict thesis” suggests such conflicts always are). It is entirely possible, if not likely, that in the absence of something like the RCC those offended by the new idea (and people are always offended by new ideas: see global warming) would have found some other way to try to suppress it. We might debate how successful that would have been, but it remains that the conflict was not because of religion, but instead religion was merely the pretense of it.

      (fyi the French is “n’est pas?”)

  7. Pingback: Science and Religion Friday: From Positivism to Logical Positivism « whytheology

  8. Pingback: Science and Religion Friday: From Positivism to Logical Positivism « whytheology

  9. Pingback: Science and Religion Friday: Christianity does have objective criteria « whytheology

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