Overview

Yes, religious leaders in the Middle Ages believed they honored science. But they only did so when science first agreed with scripture.

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Catholics even today can’t seem to give up the conceit that legendary Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) wasn’t persecuted by the Church in the 17th century for heretical religion but, instead, for bad science.

As if.

No matter that the Inquisition, the Church’s fearsome heresy-prosecuting arm in the Middle Ages, convicted the pioneering, cosmos-exploring scientist of heresy—i.e., criminally unorthodox religious views—not science fraud, for proposing that the Earth orbited the Sun, rather than vice versa (the scientific consensus at the time). He was then sentenced to life under house arrest.

Were top clergy in Galileo’s day science aficionados or deniers?

After all, Catholic pundits claim today, the 17th century Catholic Church had its own in-house priest-scientist cadre and was a thoroughly rational institution based on the era’s most internationally advanced scientific knowledge and analysis.

No matter that, with zero scientific verification, the faith’s core dogma—then as now—holds that an invisible, unlocatable deity universally orchestrates all existence and also personally attends to every infinitesimal aspect of each individual human being’s life on earth—and in the hereafter.

True believers in the permanently unknowable realm (i.e., divine religion) have a serious conflict of interest when also ostensibly professing authentic fealty to the known and unknown-but-knowable realms.

Yet a 2020 article in America: The Jesuit Review ezine—“What the story of Galileo gets wrong about the church and science”—its apologist authors wave any paradoxes aside by insisting that top-ranking Catholic clergy in the time of Galileo embraced cutting-edge scientific knowledge:

When churchmen … were against Galileo, they were not denying science. They had science on their side.

But the authors then added, “Nevertheless, as we know now, they were wrong.”

With science and religion, the twain never meet

No matter how endlessly Catholic thinkers and Galileo naysayers continue to claim faith and science are two sides of the same coin, they must necessarily fail. Indeed, faith can never be rationally conjoined with or contained within science, which requires an unbreakable connection with material reality.

Gods, angels and demons, for example, are not part of material reality as far as anyone can reasonably affirm. But planetary orbits certainly are. As are heresy convictions.

Still, just this week, I tripped over several articles—particularly this one in America: The Jesuit Review—zealously trashing as “myth” the idea that the Catholic Church targeted Galileo because it was presumably “anti-science.” The apologists claim that the Church was and is, in fact, uber-scientific in outlook, and Galileo was not persecuted for his unorthodox religious views but for scientific ideas widely viewed as rubbish in his day.

Why prosecute Galileo for heresy, not fraud?

If so, why did the Inquisition try Galileo for a religious crime and not, say, have a civil court prosecute him under scientific fraud statutes?

Sure, it was a far different time then, but still. The original charge of heresy against Galileo is a big tell of the Inquisition’s core intent. No, this was no civil trial, no principled defense of science purity. It was a power move by the Church to protect liturgical orthodoxy under the guise of protecting scientific truth.

And Catholic orthodoxy in Galileo’s time was, as Ptolemy and then Aristotle had long before (erroneously) surmised and the Bible then seconded: that the Earth is the center of the universe, and all heavenly bodies—the Sun and stars and other planets, etc.—revolve around it.

The Bible—particularly Ecclesiastes 1:5 (KJV)—embedded this speculative idea as divine law in medieval Western culture:

The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.

Even lionized American author Ernest Hemingway referenced this piece of scripture in the title of his novel The Sun Also Rises.

The Bible assumes the Sun rises. It doesn’t.

Except the “ariseth” Sun wasn’t true (the Sun, not Earth, is the celestial body around which other orbs “hasteth” in our solar system), and as medieval proto-scientists started snooping around the universe available to their eyes and primitive instruments, they began to see the lie in the Bible’s astronomical assumptions.

NASA’s Earth Observatory website observes:

For nearly 1,000 years, Aristotle’s view of a stationary Earth at the center of a revolving universe dominated natural philosophy, the name that scholars of the time used for studies of the physical world. A geocentric worldview became engrained in Christian theology, making it a doctrine of religion as much as natural philosophy. Despite that, it was a priest who brought back the idea that the Earth moves around the Sun.

The Polish Catholic priest “who brought back the idea,” Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543), was also an astronomer. In 1515 he heretically realized that the Earth floated in a heliocentric (Sun-centered) solar system, where everything orbited the Sun.

Faith can never be rationally conjoined with or contained within science, which requires an unbreakable connection with material reality.

Copernicus, reportedly fearful of Church disapproval of his theory (although some scholars believe he was more worried about his findings being falsified), did not publish his heliocentric conclusions until shortly before he passed away in 1543.

Copernicus’ revolutionary theory unheralded for many years

From a modern vantage, it seems unfathomable, but Copernicus’ revolutionary idea did not catch fire for many years after his death, because disciples in his own and other countries also feared the Church’s wrath if they publicly supported heliocentrism.

One such scientist, Italian Giordano Bruno, was burned at the stake and his tongue pulled out with a red-hot poker in 1600 for teaching his students heliocentrism, among other ideas deemed heretical by the Church.

German astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) synthesized and expanded on Copernicus’ ideas, formulating three formal laws of planetary motion, including the actuality of heliocentrism and the discovery that planets followed elliptical rather than circular orbits.

But, unhelpfully, Kepler had a mystical bias toward his discoveries, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica:

Kepler himself did not call these discoveries “laws,” as would become customary after Isaac Newton derived them from a new and quite different set of general physical principles. He regarded them as celestial harmonies that reflected God’s design for the universe.

Galileo devised a much more powerful telescope than previously existed, with which he was able to see what no one had seen before. NASA writes:

When Galileo pointed his telescope into the night sky in 1610, he saw for the first time in human history that moons orbited Jupiter. If Aristotle were right about all things orbiting Earth, then these moons could not exist. Galileo also observed the phases of Venus, which proved that the planet orbits the Sun.

Galileo friend became an enemy once elected pope

But even Galileo’s old friend Mafeo Barberini, who when he was ostensibly a science-supporting cardinal backed Galileo after his heliocentric theory was attacked by another cardinal, ultimately—after Barberini became Pope Urban III—was unconvinced by the theory and considered it biblically heretical.

Worse, Pope Urban believed Galileo had betrayed their friendship by publishing a book slyly espousing heliocentrism in a fictional conversation between three men. In Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, one of the men, conservative Simplicio—“a composite of all of Galileo’s opponents”—promoted the geocentric system, which science was edging toward completely debunking and Galileo had spent the previous 400 pages of Dialague systematically trashing.

Opponents of Galileo convinced Pope Urban that by having Simplico endorse the threatened geocentric—earth-centered—view of the solar system, Galileo’s “intent must have been to make fun of it and, worse, of Urban himself,” noted a 1998 Washington Post article by Hal Hellman, author of Great Feuds in Science: Ten of the Liveliest Disputes Ever (1998).

READ: Religious bigotry muzzled Copernicus, Galileo, Jefferson and Darwin

Why this would matter to Christendom is plain: The centrality of mankind and Earth, which everything in the cosmos revolves around, according to scripture, are a critical precept of Christianity. This dovetails nicely with ancient Earth-centered cosmology. In addition, Hellman wrote:

The Christian idea of heaven and hell also melded beautifully with the geocentric system, which saw the heavenly bodies as perfect and immutable.

Church feared heliocentrism would ‘shred’ Christian doctrine

Hellman also suggests that Church authorities well knew even for years before Galileo published his damnable treatise that if heliocentrism were irrefutably demonstrated, “it would shred a significant portion of church doctrine.”

on the other hand
ON THE OTHER HAND | Curated contrary opinions

America/The Jesuit Review: What the story of Galileo gets wrong about the church and science

In 1616, well before Galileo published Dialogue, Cardinal Robert Bellarmine commented on a heliocentric treatise in support of Copernicus’ findings. In a letter to its author, Rev. Paolo Antonio Foscarini, he wrote:

I say that, if there were a true demonstration that the Sun was in the center of the universe… then it would be necessary to use careful consideration in explaining the Scriptures that seemed contrary… But I do not think there has been any such demonstration.

In a series of meetings between Pope Urban III and Galileo, the pontiff believed that the scientist had agreed to only write about heliocentrism as a hypothetical, not manifest fact. Urban’s view was that Dialogue sneakily did the opposite.

Inquisition ‘suspected’ Galileo of heresy

In the end, Galileo was convicted by the Roman Inquisition of having “rendered yourself suspected by this Holy Office of heresy.” After being forced to disavow heliocentrism and the integrity of his life’s work in science, and not write or talk publicly about it, he was sentenced to life under home confinement. Also, Dialogue was added to the Church’s endless list of banned books.

It wasn’t until 300 years later, in 1992, that the Church formally accepted heliocentrism, absolved Galileo, and de-banned the scientist’s earth-shaking treatise.

Even learned scientists in Galileo’s day refused to accept the idea that the Earth, rather than the Sun, moved. They offered the argument that if it were true, if you threw a ball in the air, it would land behind, in front or beside of you, depending which way the Earth was moving.

Which, of course, it wouldn’t.

But, it’s like the famous 1935 Porgy and Bess lyric by Ira Gershwin in his brother’s song, “It Ain’t Necessarily So”:

It ain’t necessarily so

It ain’t necessarily so

The things that you’re liable to read in the Bible

It ain’t necessarily so

However, as the history of religion proves, if you have enough ecclesiastic power, you can just arbitrarily command that it’s so.

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Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...