In October 1992, a Vatican commission concluded that the Inquisition had treated Galileo too harshly. It added, however, that Galileo was partially to blame by insisting that he had absolute proof for Copernicus’ (heliocentric) system of astronomy. Actually, Galileo’s argument, based on the ebb of the flow of the tides, did not prove the Earth’s motion. It would take another two centuries of scientific study to modify and establish Copernicus’ theory. Today, the Vatican feels the actions of its predecessors were overly zealous, although not wrongly motivated.
Some in the scientific media saw this is as a “half-hearted rehabilitation of Galileo” (Nature, 1992; Cole, 1992). They seemed to take a perverse pleasure in the fact that the Church had taken so long to apologize, and then acted hurt that the retraction was conditional.
The conflict between Galileo and the Catholic Church was, in part, a struggle over intellectual territory. In 1546, the Council of Trent had given equal authority to church traditions and Scripture. Further, it decreed that the Church, and the opinions of the Church Fathers, were the only proper guides for interpretation. Although the Council never debated the Earth’s motion, its broad decree elevated Ptolemy’s (geocentric) system from endorsement to dogma. Likewise, some Fathers had taken various Old Testament passages to mean that the Earth stood still while the Sun moved (cf. Jackson, et al., 1986); this interpretation was now law.
Galileo rebelled, arguing that science was an entirely separate authority. One of his favorite quotes came from Cardinal Baronius: “The intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes.” Galileo argued that any reference to the natural world in the Bible is purely incidental. Science, not the Bible, must convey scientific truth. Further, if science contradicts a literal interpretation of Scripture, then theologians should deem the passage allegorical or metaphorical.
The irony is that Galileo wanted to advise the Church on hermeneutics, while reserving science for himself. For its part, the Church was in no mood to backpedal in the face of a growing Protestant challenge. However, authorities were quite willing to allow scientists to speculate on Copernicus’ theory. It was Galileo’s talk of absolute proof, laced with arrogance, that eventually brought him before the Inquisition.
Perhaps Galileo could have avoided censure if he had played by the rules of what was a very perilous game. The Catholic Church of the time must take the blame for creating such peril. But it is not true to say that the Galileo affair typifies the relationship between faith and science.
Nature (1992), “Eppur si non muove,” 360:2.
Cole, John R. (1992), “Vatican Recants; Galileo Cleared,” NCSE Reports, 12:9.
Jackson, Wayne, Bert Thompson, and Trevor Major, M.Sc., M.A. (1986), “Questions and Answers,” Reason & Revelation, 6:47-50, December.