Sunday Afternoon: Galileo, Part 1

What really happened?

Galileo has been brought up so many times in conversations I’ve had with people about religion and science that I figured it was long past time that I looked into exactly what happened. What I’ve found is that the Catholic Church was definitely in the wrong, but that it was politics (not bad science) that drove events. Like so many times in the past (and so many times yet to be), agendas blinded people.

I found a very accessible account of this in John Gribbin’s Science: A History 1543-2001 (1). I also looked at H.W. Crocker’s book entitled Triumph (2) on this issue, though that book is admittedly and squarely from the Catholic point of view. Most of the information I present here and next week can be found in those books.

There are a few things to address before we talk about Galileo himself. First, the Church’s situation. In the late 1500’s and early 1600’s, Europe was in the midst of The Renaissance, a cultural movement that among other things popularized learning from classical sources. In addition, Martin Luther nailed his Theses to the Church doors in 1517, thus starting the Protestant Reformation. So the Church was embattled, and frankly still learning to deal with the criticism at the end of the 16th century.

Second is the Copernican model. Why was it so controversial? At that time, the prevailing view was that the Earth was the center of creation. The sun and the rest of the heavens spun around the Earth, which was somehow anchored and immovable. This was called the “Ptolemaic” system. It wasn’t only the religious holding this Ptolemaic system dear; it was a generally held belief.

Copernicus described a universe in which the Sun was at the center. It explained and simplified the observed movement of the planets, but caused a whole lot of other questions. If this is true, then why don’t the oceans slosh around? Why isn’t there always wind? Why doesn’t everything fall into the sun? Copernicus didn’t have answers to all these questions, but still, the sun-centric model seemed to fit the observable facts, despite the new questions it raised. His book describing this model was called De Revolutionibus and was published in 1543, the same year he died. (Note: Nicolas Copernicus was trained in canon law, and he dedicated the book to Pope Paul III. Crocker states that he was “once considered for nomination to a bishopric” and was a “diocesan administrator”. A dedicated Catholic.)

Gribbin notes two interesting things about De Revolutionibus. First, there was a Preface added (that Copernicus was in no position to refute, having died) by a Lutheran named Osiander that said that what follows is not a description of the real universe, but rather a mathematical model that allows easier calculation of planetary positions. In fact, the European protestant movement “roundly condemned” the book. Why the condemnation? Because the Bible clearly states that Joshua commanded the Sun to stand still, not the Earth. (Joshua 10:12-14).

The second interesting thing is that the Vatican had nothing to say about it at the time. The book, says Gribbin, “was accepted essentially without a murmur from the Catholic Church”. The Vatican continued to ignore it until the early 1600’s.

Next in the story is a fellow named Giodano Bruno. He was a follower of Hermetism, which is a sort of Egyptian religion that uses ancient texts for inspiration. To the ancient Egyptians, the Sun was a god, and for that reason Bruno championed the Copernican model which put that God in the center of the universe. He was picked up by the Inquisition in 1591, then was tried and executed for Arianism and practice of occult magic. We don’t even know if science was brought up in the trial because, as Gribbin tells us, “the records of the trial have been lost”. Because Bruno was a champion of the Copernican system, the science got tied up in there by historians and people of the time, which affected how Galileo was perceived shortly after.

And that brings us to Galileo himself. We’ll talk about him next week.


1Science: A History 1543 – 2001 by John Gribbin, 2002, ISBN 9780713995039.

2Triumph: The Power and Glory of the Catholic Church, A 2000 Year History by H. W. Crocker III, 2001, ISBN 0761529241.

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