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Science and the Church

Wednesday, February 1, 2006

Ernan McMullin, ed.,
The Church and Galileo.
The University of Notre Dame Press. 408 pages. $30.00

In 1979, pope John Paul ii called for a new inquiry into the relationship between the Catholic Church and the seventeenth-century philosopher Galileo Galilei, in order to “dispel the mistrust . . . between science and faith” and recognize “wrongs from whatever side they came.” The Church then formed its own Galileo Commission for the purpose in the early 1980s, which ultimately concluded its deliberations and reported its findings in 1992. The pope also invited scientists and scholars to contribute to this new attempt at an old conversation. The Church and Galileo, appearing in the wake of a conference on the subject at the University of Notre Dame in 2002, collects 14 scholarly essays in response both to the original invitation and the Church’s own conclusions regarding the “Galileo Affair.”

Most of the essayists featured in the collection are academics, at both Catholic and non-Catholic institutions. None speaks in any official way for the Church or on its behalf. Only one is a clergyman. The volume addresses the questions surrounding the Galileo Affair, then, from a more or less secular academic perspective, with all the assumptions that entails. Nevertheless, with few exceptions, the essays in The Church and Galileo treat the subject in a fair and open-minded fashion. To be sure, the authors universally see the Church’s actions as terrible mistakes — but acknowledge them as mistakes difficult to anticipate at the time and arising out of genuine concern for the faith. At a time when any issue concerning religion seems immediately to divide commentators into camps, the essays that editor Ernan McMullin has gathered show refreshing sympathy for both sides.


The church’s treatment of Galileo, which culminated when the Holy Office — otherwise known as the Inquisition — tried and condemned him on “vehement suspicion of heresy” in 1633, has always been a volatile subject. When intellectuals of the Enlightenment began to agitate against the Church in the eighteenth century, they often pointed to the Galileo affair as an example of the backwardness, tyranny, and dogmatism they wanted to overturn. It was the founding battle in a story of struggle between the freethinking “enlightened” and the forces of Europe’s reactionary establishments. This highly partisan perspective retains a good deal of currency today. John Paul ii himself characterized it best in 1992, when he spoke of what he called “the myth,” common among scientists and secular intellectuals, that there is “an incompatibility between the spirit of science and its rules of research on the one hand and the Christian faith on the other.” “In this perspective,” the pope continued, “the Galileo case symbolized the Church’s supposed rejection of scientific progress, or of dogmatic obscurantism opposed to the search for truth.” It was this myth, poisonous to the fruits of both science and religion, that the pope saw an urgent need to discredit.

The affair itself took place at the height of the Catholic “Counter-Reformation” after the Council of Trent, which met from 1545 to 1563. The council, one of the most important in the Church’s history, aimed to correct the Church’s course after the storms of the Protestant Reformation, which still raged in Galileo’s day. Rome directed its energies at reforming the Church while vigorously combating Protestant heresy and winning adherents in new and wayward lands. At the same time, many Catholic intellectuals were pursuing new paths of learning in philosophy and “natural philosophy” — what we today call science. Philosophers and scientists flourished throughout Catholic Europe, particularly in Italy and France. In fact, some churchmen sought in the intellectual ferment a philosophical foundation for Catholic theology and authority surer than the old scholastic philosophies of the late Middle Ages. Nonetheless, all of this intellectual activity occurred under the oversight of a Church wary of heresy and threats to its authority from whatever side they might come.

In this tense context, Galileo began his meteoric rise as an astronomer and mathematician. The discoveries he made with his telescope in the early 1600s made him a celebrity among the educated classes throughout Italy, including in Rome. The Church had not yet officially remarked upon the theory of Copernicus — that the earth and all the planets revolved around the sun — first published in 1543 in the Polish astronomer’s De Revolutionibus. The trouble began and intensified in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries when Biblical exegetes rose to denounce heliocentrism as contrary to passages of the Old Testament that indicated that the earth stood still while the sun circled about it. The inquiries and accusations came to a head in 1616, when the Holy Office declared Copernicus’ ideas “contrary to Scripture” and “false and absurd in philosophy.” Galileo, though privately instructed not to teach or advocate those doctrines, received no further censure until after he published the Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems in 1633, which seemed plainly to advocate Copernicanism. With the approval of Pope Urban viii, he was tried, convicted, placed under house arrest, and forced to abjure his Copernican writings.


Such are the very basic outlines of the Galileo Affair. Much of the discussion of it, being either partisan or apologetic, has only increased the “distrust between science and religion” that John Paul ii wanted to dispel. The problem remains: Why did the Church act as it did? What made heliocentrism and Galileo’s writings something the Church felt compelled to address at the highest level? Those are the questions to which the best essays in this collection seek answers.

As a whole, The Church and Galileo rightly looks to the historical context of the age for its explanations, suggesting that the trial of Galileo had far more to do with the Counter-Reformation priorities and needs of the Church than with a specific argument against heliocentrism itself. The core of the problem lay in the interpretation of Scripture. In his defense, Galileo and his allies — who included at least two Catholic theologians — claimed that those passages of the Bible that assumed a geocentric universe could be read figuratively. The Hebrew Scriptures, after all, were directed at an ancient tribe of mostly simple people. Why would God have confused them by revealing that the sun they all saw move did not really move? Such physical truths, Galileo insisted, God left to man to discover on his own. Furthermore, it seemed unwise for the Church to commit itself to a position on the physical nature of things that could later be proven wrong. Besides, he went on, astronomy was marginal to the message of both testaments, which concerned the salvation of man and the working of God. “Scripture,” he is reported to have quipped, “teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.”

Little of this was original to Galileo; many of his arguments about Scriptural exegesis he supported legitimately with quotations from St. Augustine. But, although the Church Fathers did not debate the respective motions of the sun and earth, they all, including St. Augustine, accepted the Biblical accounts of them literally. And this was the wrong time to question the traditional interpretation of Scripture. As Ernan McMullin points out in one of his own contributions, the Council of Trent had explicitly directed the clergy to interpret the Bible only “in the sense [i.e., literally, figuratively, or allegorically] in which it has been held, and is held, by Holy Mother Church, to whom it belongs to judge the true sense and interpretation of the Sacred Scripture . . . in accordance with the unanimous agreement of the Fathers.” This was the Catholic answer to Luther’s and Calvin’s declaration of their capacity, and the capacity in principle of all Christians, to interpret Scripture as the Holy Spirit moved them. In addition, since the Reformation the influence of reformers both Catholic and Protestant had pushed all Scriptural exegetes in a more literalist direction.

Traditional Scriptural exegesis, then, had always taken the passages in the Bible dealing with the sun’s motion and the earth’s stability literally. Although there was a precedent among the Church Fathers for reinterpreting Scriptural passages if the discoveries of man demanded it, this was something the Church would do only warily after Trent. That Galileo — an astronomer and not a theologian — presumed to tell the Church how and when to reinterpret Scripture was an affront not just to theologians, but also to a Church in the midst of a struggle with Protestant Europe over its doctrinal, theological, and interpretive authority. Moreover, as several of the essays collected here remind us, Galileo did not have any direct evidence for the Copernican theory. It would be another half-century at least before the physical evidence of heliocentrism became definitive. McMullin shows that all of the churchmen involved in the 1616 ban on Copernicanism believed that Copernicus’s theory was contrary to common sense and would never be proved. In that context, they were disinclined to allow research on a theory that they found “false and absurd in philosophy” and “contrary to [the] Scripture” which the Church alone had the right to interpret.


Thus — in barest outline — do many of the essays in The Church and Galileo account for the Church’s actions. As the considered, basic perspective of a group of secular academics, this is a valuable contribution to the conversation that John Paul ii had hoped to initiate. I have limned important details, of course. Each author offers his own particular set of suggestions, and they disagree, but on one thing they concur — all of the essayists featured in The Church and Galileo found the final report of the late pope’s Galileo Commission to be disappointing. The commission recognized Galileo’s contributions to science and to Scriptural exegesis and admitted that his condemnation was a mistake, but it attributed that mistake to unnamed theologians and did not comment on several key details of the affair, including Galileo’s trial itself. Still, despite these disappointments, important points of agreement emerge between the parties to the discussion. Both contributors to this volume and the Church explain the Galileo Affair as a product of the context of its times. That secular academics and the Church should agree on this interpretation is promising, both for “dispel[ling] the mistrust between science and religion” and for answering what is essentially a historical problem.

That they can meet on this common ground is important for another reason as well — one that goes to the heart of the Galileo debate itself. By accepting a historical approach to its past, the Church makes a significant accommodation. It declares that one can explain why and how men — even churchmen — acted the way they did in purely human terms. In other words, academic history elucidates the past without mentioning God: Men in every time period act within the context of that period and from the spectrum of conflicting human motivations. Of course, the Church would not consent to such a notion if it seemed inherently to compromise Providential history. In other words, the history of mankind, in its view, can consist of both the complex back-and-forth of limited men in their particular lifetimes and the constant working of an eternal God. Naturally, the Providential viewpoint must be the deeper one for the Church, but its willingness to unite both peacefully is important.

The chance to establish this dual perspective on truth lies at the center of the Galileo Commission’s undertaking and the discussion in this volume. The real issue of the Galileo Affair was whether the Catholic Church could accommodate a new type of knowledge to its understanding of divine revelation without compromising faith. John Paul ii regretted that the rise of modern mechanistic science seemed inevitably to challenge the authority of the Church. But this is so only if Catholic theology requires that physics and the natural world work a certain way — with the sun revolving around the earth, for instance, instead of the other way around. The Galileo Commission based itself on the premise that the Church can accept the dual perspective, that its truth can include what science tells us but does not depend on it. Just as the Church can agree with secular academics to explain men’s actions historically, so the two sides can agree to explain the world’s movements scientifically, without compromising or marginalizing the Church’s faith. Nothing in “the secular disciplines” opposes them to religion; no scientific explanation can deny belief in divine intervention or miracles. For science may explain how the physical world works, but it tells us nothing about what it means. This realization ought to open people up to a more integrated approach to human knowledge and truth. This was a discussion the late pope sought, most completely in his 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio. And it is to this unfinished conversation, ultimately, that The Church and Galileo makes a significant contribution.

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