Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Religion and Science, II: What Really Happened

Yesterday we saw that, despite his sincere faith that his theory of tidal motion proved heliocentricism, Galileo’s proof was seriously flawed.  Heliocentric theory was not, in fact, actually proved until the nineteenth century — regardless of the fact that many people accepted it for centuries before that . . . on faith, not because it was proved.

Copernicus: "Galileo was a copycat."
We also learned that, had Galileo been content to present his theory as just that, a theory, he would probably have gotten into no more trouble than Copernicus did before him.  Had he just been content to stop there. . . .

Unfortunately, Galileo didn’t stop there.  He declared that the interpretation of certain passages in the Bible would have to be changed from literal to allegorical or metaphorical to conform to his theory.

Again, the Catholic Church had no problem.  It claims to base even matters of faith on reason, or at least that faith cannot contradict reason.  If Galileo could prove his theory to the satisfaction of other scientists, the Catholic Church would change the interpretation of certain passages of Scripture.

Cardinal Baronius
There were, however, warnings that, perhaps, Galileo might be getting out of his depth when he started pontificating (so to speak) on theological matters in addition to astronomy.  Galileo’s good friend, Venerable Cæsar Cardinal Baronius (1538-1607), reminded Galileo that, “the Bible teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.”

Galileo ignored this advice, even after Baronius repeated it — hey, it was a clever quip.  He then presented his theory in a way that insulted the pope and claimed it was a scientifically proved fact — and therefore the Catholic Church was required by its own principles to change the interpretation of certain passages of scripture.

That put the fat in the fire, and brought the Roman Inquisition (not to be confused with the Spanish Inquisition, which nobody expected — nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition) into the picture.  They assembled a board of reputable scientists and began examining Galileo’s claims.

Not surprisingly, in light of the flawed nature of Galileo’s presumed proofs based on tidal motion, the scientists reported that they were not convinced of the validity of his theory.  Galileo’s theory might be correct — and some of them, who accepted the work of Copernicus, believed that was, in fact, the case — but Galileo’s proofs did not meet the requirements of rigorous scientific inquiry, and had to be rejected.  There was, therefore, no valid scientific basis for changing the interpretation of certain passages of Scripture.

Cardinal Bellarmine
Then there was the issue of Galileo’s meddling in theology and his insulting behavior to the pope.  There Galileo got lucky.  In addition to having a powerful friend in Cardinal Baronius, he had an even more powerful friend in St. Robert Cardinal Bellarmine, S.J. (1542-1621), whom the Catholic Church today honors as a “Doctor of the Church” for his outstanding intellect and achievements, notably in his developments of democratic political theory to combat “Divine Right” theory.

Bellarmine went to bat for Galileo and got him off with a warning not to meddle in theology, at least as it related to the heliocentric theory.  The case was closed and the documents filed away.

Some years later, however, after Bellarmine’s death, Galileo commented on his theory in a way that could be interpreted as violating the terms of his agreement.  Unfortunately, with Bellarmine not there to defend or protect him, the authorities were not inclined to cut Galileo any slack.  He was summoned again before the Roman Inquisition, charged, basically, with violating his parole, and condemned to house arrest in Florence with the obligation of reciting the Seven Penitential Psalms once a day.

This sounds pretty bad, but as the late Paul Harvey used to say, you have to hear the rest of the story.

·      Florence and the Vatican were not exactly on the best of terms.  Galileo’s fellow citizens, in fact, were always suggesting that Galileo should tell the pope and the Roman Inquisition just where they could stick it, and ignore the house arrest.  Galileo, in fact, could have ended his “incarceration” any time he wanted, and everybody in the city would have cheered him on.  (Maybe Galileo was hesitant to follow their advice, knowing how the Firenzans tended to go a little overboard in religious and political matters, as they had when Savonarola preached a century before Galileo.)

·      The Seven Penitential Psalms take about five minutes to recite . . . and even then, Galileo was given permission to have his daughter, a professed nun, recite them on his behalf.

·      Foreign rulers kept issuing invitations to Galileo to seek sanctuary with them from the pope’s tyranny.  The king of the French was perhaps the most insistent.  Everybody wanted the greatest scientist of the day as a court ornament and political prize.  Galileo refused every offer.

The fact is, Galileo rather approved of his own house arrest, or at least went along with it voluntarily.  It allowed him to get a lot of work done that he didn’t have time for previously.  He complained, of course, but pretty much everybody knew it was a mere formality.  Galileo could have walked out the door a free man any time he wanted, thumbing his nose at the pope and the Roman Inquisition.

Did the Catholic Church make a mistake condemning Galileo?  Was Galileo a martyr for science . . . even bad science, or just being pigheaded?  You can decide that for yourself.


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