The Anti-Catholic’s Trump Card


In October 1992, Cardinal Paul Poupard presented to Pope John Paul II the results of the Pontifical Academy’s study of the famous 1633 trial of Galileo. He reported that at the time of the trial, "theologians . . . failed to grasp the profound non-literal meaning of the Scriptures" when they condemned Galileo for describing a universe that seemed to contradict Scripture.

The headlines that followed screamed that the Church had reversed itself on the 17th-century astronomer. Commentators wondered about the impact of the study on papal infallibility and if the Church had finally surrendered in its war with science.

All this only proved once again that the trial of Galileo—even more so than the inquisition—is the granddaddy of all Catholic urban legends. Galileo is the alleged proof that the Church is anti-science and anti-modern thought. He is the all-encompassing trump card, whether the discussion is about science, abortion, gay rights, legalized pornography—or simply a legitimate excuse for anti-Catholicism itself. If Galileo had never lived, the anti-Catholic culture would have had to invent him.

Because we are all infected a bit by the propaganda surrounding Galileo, here are a few facts worth mentioning the next time someone tries to throw this urban legend in your face.

Was the Church opposed to scientific study at the time of Galileo?
Most early scientific progress, particularly astronomy, originated in the Church. Galileo would not so much "discover" that the Earth revolved around the sun but attempt to prove the theories of a Catholic priest who had died 20 years before Galileo was born: Nicholas Copernicus. Under the aegis of Pope Gregory XIII, the Church introduced one of the major achievements of modern astronomy when Galileo was in his teens. At that time the Western world still marked time by the Julian calendar created in 46 B.C. By Galileo’s day, the calendar was 12 days off, leaving Church feasts woefully behind their proper seasons. Pope Gregory presented a more accurate calendar in 1582. Though Protestant Europe fumed at the imposition of "popish time," the accuracy of Gregory’s calendar led to its acceptance throughout the West. (See Truth be Told, July/August 2008.)

What did Copernicus discover?
Through mathematical examination, Copernicus came to believe that the sun is the center of the universe, and the planets, including Earth, revolve around it—contrary to popular and scientific understanding, which fixed Earth at the center of the universe. Copernicus’ manuscript circulated in scholarly circles, though it was not formally published until he was on his deathbed in 1543. But Pope Leo X (r. 1513-1521) was intrigued by his theories and showed interest in their advancement.

For the most part, the Church raised no objections to Copernicus’ revolutionary hypothesis after his death—as long as it was represented as theory, not undisputed fact. The difficulty that the Church had with the theory is that it seemed to contradict Scripture: Joshua made the sun stand still and the Psalmist praised the earth "set firmly in place." Most important, the theory could not be proven by current scientific technology.

Galileo is often portrayed as a purely rational scientist, ranting and raging against religious oppression. Is this an accurate picture of the man?
The myth we have of Galileo—a faithless renegade attacked by a Church afraid of science—is false on all counts. Galileo was a believing Catholic (his daughter was a devout nun) who saw no contradiction between his science and his faith. He had begun to study the Copernican theory and was recognized as the leading astronomer of his day. In 1611, he was honored in Rome for his work, receiving a favorable audience with Pope Paul V. He became friends with Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, the future Pope Urban VIII, who would celebrate the astronomer with a poem.

Sounds good so far. What happened?
In 1610, Galileo produced his first book, The Starry Messenger, detailing his observations of the moons of Jupiter, the location of stars, and the shape of the moon. He became a controversial celebrity, while his fellow scientists carved him up.

At the same time, instead of keeping the debate on a theoretical plane involving mathematics, astronomy, and observation, Galileo entered the murky post-Reformation waters of theology and scriptural interpretation. His theory was that nature cannot contradict the Bible, and if it appeared to do so, it is because we do not adequately understand the deeper, biblical interpretation.

This sounds pretty much like a Catholic understanding of the role of faith and science. How did he get into so much trouble?
First, he was teaching Copernican theory as fact, rather than hypothesis when there really was no scientific fact to back it up. Second, the popularity of his writings brought a philosophical discussion into the public arena, requiring some sort of Church response. Third, by elevating scientific conjecture to a theological level, he was raising the stakes enormously. Instead of merely scientific disputation, Galileo was now lecturing on scriptural interpretation. Galileo could have avoided trouble if he had presented his work as theory and if he had stuck to science rather than elevating the whole issue to a theological dispute over the meaning of Scripture.

At the same time, Galileo was making few friends within the scientific community. Nowadays Galileo is portrayed as the hero of science over religion; what is overlooked is that most of his real enemies were fellow scientists.

Why did scientists oppose his views?
Throughout Galileo’s career, the vast majority of astronomers still supported the Ptolemaic view of the universe. Ptolemy’s view, which placed the Earth at the center of the universe (geocentrism), was accepted as fact from the time of the ancient Greeks until the 17th century.

Even after Copernicus raised serious questions regarding geocentrism, most astronomers clung to the Ptolemaic system. (One of them, the famed Tycho Brahe, placed the Earth at the center of the universe with the sun revolving around it but suggested the other planets revolved around the sun in a complex set of epicycles.) The invention of telescopes in 1609 advanced the study of astronomy, but decades passed before Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion and Newton’s Laws of Gravitation were widely embraced.

How did the Church respond to Galileo’s views?
In February 1616, a council of theological advisors to the pope ruled that it was possibly heresy to teach as fact that the sun, rather than the Earth, was at the center of the universe, and that the Earth rotated on its axis. Galileo was not condemned, but Cardinal Robert Bellarmine was asked to convey the news to Galileo, advise him of the panel’s ruling, and order him to cease defending his theories as fact. He also asked him to avoid any further inroads into discussion of scriptural interpretation. Galileo agreed.

Did he break his word?
In 1623, Cardinal Barberini was elected Pope Urban VIII. With the election of his friend and supporter, Galileo assumed that the atmosphere could be ripe for a reversal of the 1616 edict. In 1624 he headed off to Rome to meet the new pope. Pope Urban had intimated that the 1616 edict would not have been published had he been pope at the time, and he took credit for the word heresy not appearing in the formal edict.

Yet Pope Urban also believed that the Copernican theory could never be proven and he was only willing to allow Galileo the right to discuss it as hypothesis. Galileo was encouraged, however, and proceeded to write a "dialogue" on the Copernican theory, which he published in February 1632. The book was received with massive protest.

Why was the Dialogue so upsetting?
Galileo had so weighted his argument in favor of Copernican theory as truth—and managed to insult the pope’s own expressed view that complex matters observed in nature were to be attributed simply to the mysterious power of God—that a firestorm was inevitable. His scientific enemies were infuriated with Galileo’s often snide and ridiculing dismissal of their views. The Church viewed the Dialogue as a direct, public challenge to the 1616 edict.

Church authorities viewed Galileo as attacking the veracity of Scripture, with no acceptable proof for his belief that the Earth revolved around the sun. He had attempted to provide proof using an argument based on the Earth’s tides (a scientifically incorrect one) but 17th-century science simply was incapable of establishing that the Earth did, in fact, orbit the sun. And, finally, he appeared to be openly challenging a Church edict to which he had earlier agreed.

What happened at Galileo’s trial?
Galileo’s trial did not take place before 10 cardinals as is often depicted. Participants were Galileo, two officials, and a secretary. (The 10 cardinals reviewed the testimony to render judgment.) Galileo’s defense was that he had understood from Cardinal Bellarmine that he had not been condemned in 1616 and that the Dialogue did not support the Copernican theory as fact. His first defense was probable. He was certainly not aware of a more restrictive notice in the 1616 file specifically targeting him, which was revealed at the 1633 trial. His other defense, however, does not stand much scrutiny. The Dialogue was clearly a defense of the Copernican hypothesis as truth.

Seven of the 10 tribunal cardinals signed a condemnation of Galileo (the other three never signed it). The condemnation found Galileo "vehemently suspected of heresy" in teaching as truth that the Earth moves and is not the center of the world. He was found guilty in persisting in such teaching when he had been formally warned not to do so in 1616. His book was prohibited, he was ordered confined to formal imprisonment, to publicly renounce his beliefs, and to perform proper penance.

Was the trial a battle between faith and science?
The trial of Galileo is most often portrayed in terms that it clearly was not: Galileo the scientist arguing the supremacy of reason and science over faith; the tribunal judges demanding that reason abjure to faith. In reality Galileo and the tribunal judges both believed that science and the Bible could not stand in contradiction. If there appeared to be a contradiction, such a contradiction resulted from either weak science or poor interpretation of Scripture. Cardinal Bellarmine understood this; he had argued the same point in 1615. Cardinal Bellarmine had written that if the "orbiting of the Earth around the sun were ever to be demonstrated to be certain, then theologians . . . would have to review biblical passages apparently opposed to the Copernican theories so as to avoid asserting the error of opinions proven to be true."

The mistakes came from Galileo’s personality and style, the Holy Father’s anger in believing that Galileo had personally deceived him, jealous competitive scientists out to get the acerbic Galileo, and—frankly—tribunal judges who erroneously believed that it was scientific fact that the universe revolved around a motionless Earth and that the Bible confirmed such a belief.

In his 1991 report, Cardinal Poupard briefly summarized the findings. The difficulty in 1616 and 1633 was that

Galileo had not succeeded in proving irrefutably the double motion of the Earth . . . More than 150 years still had to pass before such proofs were scientifically established. . . . At the same time, theologians . . . failed to grasp the profound, non-literal meaning of the Scriptures when they describe the physical structure of the created universe. This led them unduly to transpose a question of factual observation into the realm of faith.

Did the Church reverse itself on Galileo only as recently as 1992?
Galileo died in 1642. In 1741, Pope Benedict XIV granted an imprimatur to the first edition of the complete works of Galileo. In 1757, a new edition of the Index of Forbidden Books allowed works that supported the Copernican theory, as science had reached the point where the theory could be proven.

The story of Galileo has nothing to do with the Church being opposed to science. Galileo was condemned because he could not scientifically prove his theory to be fact, because he was undermined by many of his fellow scientists, and because he had purposefully blurred the lines between science and theology.


Robert P. Lockwood, director of communications for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, is  the author of A Faith for Grown-Ups: A Midlife Conversation about What Really Matters (Loyola Press).

This article appeared in Volume 20 Number 6.