The Galileo Incident: Does it Prove that the Catholic Church is Not Infallible, or that it is Intrinsically Hostile to Science?

by Steven L. Kellmeyer, Alexander R. Pruss, Michael W. Martin, and Brad Kaiser

Additional comments from various correspondents will be in blue.

Steven L. Kellmeyer

The Church's enemies cite its condemnation of Galileo as definitive proof that its teaching is not infallible. Is this argument legitimate?

No. Look at: html

Was Galileo's belief in heliocentrism considered a heresy, therefore placing in the realm of faith and morals?

It wasn't considered a heresy as such, but it was condemned as bordering on heresy. The problem wasn't the heliocentrism - a lot of Catholics agreed with Galileo. The problem was that Galileo tried to use his conclusions in order to question the inerrancy of Scripture. He had every right to propose the theory, but he had no right to use that theory in an attempt to destroy the authority of Scripture. The heresy for which Galileo was condemned revolved around his forays into theology, not his science as such.

A further aside: Galileo taught a radical form of heliocentrism - the entire created universe revolved around the sun, in his cosmology. This is incorrect, of course. Further, even the limited heliocentrism which was eventually demonstrated by astrophysicists was not something which could be proved conclusively by science until the early 1800's.

Alexander R. Pruss

It was taken that heliocentrism contradicted Scripture. However, St Robert Bellarmine who was in charge of the Galileo case explicitly said that Galileo's theories were not proved--but were they proved, then the relevant passages of Scripture would have to be interpreted in a non-literal way. Hence, St Robert did not consider the possibility of a change of interpretation impossible. The only doctrinal issue in question was the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture. St Robert knew, however, that a non-literal interpretation saving this inerrancy was possible. But, without Galileo having proved his theory (and Galileo had NOT proved his theory--for instance, take his erroneous explanation for the tides in terms of the rotation of the earth sloshing the oceans around!), the literal interpretation was to be preferred. Certainly, geocentrism was not definitively taught. If it were, St Robert wouldn't have made his remark.

Note, too, that if general relativity is correct, then the question is moot. According to general relativity, there is no absolute reference frame. It is literally just as true to say that the earth goes around the sun as that the sun goes around the earth. It just depends on whether you use the reference frame of the sun or of the earth. For many (though not all) purposes, calculations and theories are simpler if you use the reference frame of the sun, and thus suppose that the earth goes around the sun. But this is only for convenience in calculation. And the Church had absolutely no problem with someone saying that it is more convenient for calculation to suppose that the earth goes around the sun. Indeed, the Church wanted Galileo to say precisely this, that this was a mere supposition for convenience of calculation (a "hypothesis" in the parlance of the time).

Galileo refused to say this--he thought it was a literal and absolute truth. General relativity says Galileo was wrong. (But it likewise says that it is wrong to say that the sun literally and absolutely goes around the earth).

It was he who once said, "Tis better to be thought the fool and remain silent, than speak and remove all doubt." I particularly enjoyed hearing [from an anti-Catholic] that Pope St. Pius V declared Galileo guilty of heresy. This is a tremendous accomplishemnt considering the man was long dead by the time Galileo's trial in 1632 occurred. I also love hearing how all the Scriptures which refer to the "sun standing still" and the earth's foundation as immobile are not meant to be taken literally BUT there six 24 hour days involved in the Creation. Oy Vey!

Ah, the irony! When the Holy Office condemns Galileo for preaching things contrary to a literal reading of Scripture, it's bad and shows how stupid the Church is. But when someone condemns the paleontologists, the cosmologists, the geologists and the countless numbers of researchers in various disciplines who have very strong evidence that the creation process took more than the literal 6 x 24 hours (and most certainly happened several orders of magnitude more than 6000 years ago), well then it's OK, isn't it? It's like the passage from Sienkiewicz's In Desert and Wilderness, where the main character tries to teach morality to Kali:

Stas: Kali, give me an example of a bad thing. Kali: If Ali takes Kali's cow, that's bad. Stas: Kali, give me an example of a good thing. Kail: If Kali takes Ali's cow, that's good.

How are they defending the inerrancy of Scripture by calling Galileo a heretic? Joshua 10:13 says nothing about whether the sun or the earth is the center of the universe. Nor does it address what stopped.

Joshua 10:13 says "the sun stood still and the moon stayed." On a literal level, it seems quite clear that it does address what stopped: the sun and the moon. Of course, the sacred writer had no desire to describe the scientific processes involved, and only wrote using phenomenal language, i.e., wrote about what appeared to be the case.

All we know is that there was daylight for an extra 24hrs so that Joshua and his men could win the battle, showing that God was with them.

No, it's not just that there was daylight. It's that the sun and the moon didn't seem to move much in the sky.

Since Galileo was falsely accused why are these actions not considered heresy and calumny on the part of the Pope and church?

Calumny is by definition the making of a false accusation while knowing that it is false. The Holy Office made a false accusation against Galileo. But it didn't KNOW that the accusation was false, so it didn't commit calumny. It would only be calumny if it KNEW that the accusation was false. The scientific data in Galileo's time was sufficiently ambiguous that the Holy Office couldn't have known for sure that the accusation was false.

Heresy is an obstinate belief in a doctrine contrary to Scripture and Christian Tradition. What belief did the Church have which was contrary to Scripture and Christian Tradition? Geocentrism is not contrary to Scripture and Christian Tradition---probably most of the figures of the Old and New Testaments believed it. So it can't be a heresy.

Geocentrism is in a sense false, but only in a sense, because according to General Relativity, it is equally true as any other theory as to what rotates about what (Leibniz already made this observation some 300 years ago). But it isn't a heresy, because it isn't condemned by either Scripture or Christian Tradition.

The only doctrine of faith involved was the infallibility of Scripture. No formal pronouncement by a Pope was made as to whether the passages should be read literally or not. Ask yourself, with an open heart: If I didn't know anything about the work of Fr. Nicolaus Copernicus and Mr. Galileo Galilei and their successors, would I take these passages literally or not? I think the natural answer is that one would take them literally. The main reason why we don't is because we're convinced by the scientific evidence that Fr. Copernicus' heliocentrism is closer to the truth than geocentrism.

Fr. Copernicus was much more tactful and respectful in his De Revolutionibus than Galileo was.

If it was the Holy Office or the Office for the Doctrine of the Faith who came up with this, then why should we look to them as to a pillar and foundation of truth?

We shouldn't. We look to the Church, and not to the Holy Office, as the pillar and foundation of truth. The Holy Office is only a fallible guide, though most of the time it only says what the Church as a whole has already formally taught.

Michael W. Martin

Perhaps a little history is in order. From Julian A. Smith's notes:

In the Catholic Encyclopedia, we see a quote from Galileo's Protestant biographer, von Gebler, who tells us in his work "Galileo Galilei":

From George Sim Johnston:

Brad Kaiser

The rcd's so-called teaching authority took a major hit when they insisted upon censoring Galileo and Copernicus for daring to say the earth was not the center of the universe.

(1) To the best of my knowledge, Copernicus, who incidentally was a Catholic priest, was never personally censured for anything. His books might have been.

(2) The "rcd's" [sic] teaching authority took no "hit" of any kind from the Galileo incident.

The Holy Office, a Roman congregation (i.e., Vatican bureaucracy) for which Catholics claim no charism of infallibility whatsoever, judged on 24 Feb, 1616, that Galileo was "vehemently suspected of heresy" for his statements that "the sun is the center of the galaxy" [sic] and "the earth is not the center." Now, the reason the Holy Office cared at all was because they were concerned about the inerrancy of Scripture.

(3) I want to say that one more time, just to make sure everyone sees it: the reason the Vatican cared what Galileo thought was because they were concerned to defend the inerrancy of Scripture. (The particular Scripture verse in question is Joshua 10:13, for those who are interested.)

(4) [An aside: Galileo's science on this was really quite bad. He was proposing that the earth & planets revolved around the sun in circular orbits. The conventional astronomical theory of the time used an earth-centered system with "Ptolemaic epicycles," and actually explained the astronomical data much better than Galileo's circular orbits could, though he couldn't be convinced of that. It wasn't until Kepler introduced the idea of elliptical orbits, and Newton explained them mathematically, that the sun-centered or "heliocentric" view could better explain the data than the traditional model.]

(5) No conviction of an individual for heresy is protected by the charism of infallibility in any case, but even if it were, Galileo would not be a problem: no Pope ever said he was guilty of heresy; neither did an Ecumenical council. Pope Paul V told Cardinal Bellarmine to warn Galileo not to teach his ideas as fact, but only as hypothesis. (This will sound familiar to some in a different context!).

(6) Pope Urban VIII, far from condemning Galileo as a heretic, said in 1624 that, "the Holy Church had never, and would never condemn [heliocentrism] as heretical, but only as rash, though there was no danger that anyone would ever demonstrate it to be necessarily true."

(7) (Before you laugh too hard at the Pope's words, remember that, according to Einstein, it is equally "correct" -- though not necessarily equally simple from a computational point of view -- to pick the sun, or the earth, or anything else as the origin of your coordinate system. As a friend of mine who works for NASA pointed out, under some conditions they compute trajectories for satellites by using the satellite as the coordinate origin, and "pretending" that the earth, and the sun, and everything else, revolves around the satellite!)

(8) The executive summary on the Galileo question:

The Church made a mistake.

We thought we were acting in a good cause.

The particular body making the mistake is not one for which we claim any divine protection from error, nor is the whole area of judging individuals guilty of heresy such an area, thus there are no grounds at all for believing that the Galileo case made a "major hit", or any other kind of hit, on the teaching authority of the Catholic Church. At worst it is a case of Church officials acting imprudently, and perhaps uncharitably.

Of related interest: Early Protestant Hostility Towards Science.

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Compiled by Dave Armstrong on 1 August 1999 from "e-mail archives."