The story of Galileo and the Catholic Church is often used to suggest that the Christian church has historically been against the advancement of science. However, as J. Warner Wallace argues in his newest book Person of Interest
, there is more to the story:
"Galileo (an Italian astronomer who lived in the sixteenth and seventeenth century) was correct in his description of the solar system, but the Catholic Church at the time held to a geocentric
view of the sun and planets (with the earth at its center). Galileo was investigated as a heretic by the Roman Inquisition in 1615, which rejected heliocentrism as contradictory to the Holy Scripture. Galileo was convicted and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.
This historic episode...seemed to solidify-at least for me-a long-standing Christian tradition of science denial. It seemed to start early, and it appeared to continue today.
But the truth about Galileo and Pope Urban VIII (the man who opposed Galileo's theory) is much more nuanced than I was originally led to believe. The pope was a fan of Galileo many years earlier (when Urban was known as Cardinal Maffeo Barberini) and even defended Galileo on one occasion on an unrelated scientific proposal.
But by the time Galileo published his findings on the heliocentric planetary model, Barberini was Pope Urban VIII. He interviewed Galileo several times after ascending to the position and gave him permission to write about the Copernican heliocentric theory if
he treated it as a hypothesis
. But Galileo eventually published his treatise as more than that, and to make matters worse, he included a mocking conversation between characters representing an astronomer and the pope. Galileo's portrayal of the pope's character (named 'Simplico,' or 'Simpleton' in English) was...less than flattering. Urban VIII was not pleased, and Galileo found himself judged as much for his delivery
as his content
. By comparison, years earlier, Tycho Brache and Copernicus also proposed heliocentric systems of their own, but neither suffered the same fate as the obstinate and evocative Galileo.
Any apparent conflict between Roman Catholic leadership and Galileo, therefore, does littler to prove that Christianity was (or is) hostile to science. It proves only that these two men had a complex relationship and that the timing of history did not happen to favor Galileo's proposal."1
Wallace goes on to point out that Galileo himself never saw his Christian faith to be at odds with science:
"He saw no contradiction between his beliefs as a Catholic and his findings as a scientist. Galileo once quoted Cardinal Caesar Baronius, agreeing 'that the intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes.' Galileo believed the Bible had much to say about the nature of the real world, even tough it was not intended to provide an exhaustive description of the universe. He was therefore content to live out his life as both a Jesus follower and
a scientist: 'Whatever the course of our lives, we should receive them as the highest gift from the hand of God, in which equally reposed the power to do nothing whatever for us. Indeed, we should accept misfortune not only in thanks, but in infinite gratitude to Providence, which by such means detaches us from an excessive love for Earthly things and elevates our minds to the celestial and divine.'"2
So, it seems that if Wallace is right, the Galileo story fails to provide an example of the Christian faith denying science.
What do you think of Wallace's explanation? Sound off in the comments below!
You can learn more about Wallace's new book here.
Checkout our podcast with Wallace here.
Courage and Godspeed,
Footnote:Book Preview: Can a Scientist Believe in Miracles? by Ian Hutchinson
1. J. Warner Wallace, Person of Interest: Why Jesus Matters in a World that Rejects the Bible, p. 195; 197.
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