Thursday, March 26, 2009

Let's Look At The Other Side of This ...

So, we have Calgary's Bishop Henry expounding upon the Roman Catholic Inquisition's treatment of Galileo.

I'm going to start with Henry's conclusion and then work backwards from there, because this piece of sophistry is offensive in the extreme.

Alfred North Whitehead, a noted historian of science, concluded: “that the worst that happened to men of science was that Galileo suffered an honourable detention and a mild reproof, before dying peacefully in his bed.” The traditional picture of Galileo as a martyr to intellectual freedom and a victim of the church’s opposition to science is little more than a caricature.


Henry's conclusion here is that the Church was being oh-so-kind-and-just towards Galileo. But let's think about this for a moment. It doesn't matter how you slice this one, the Church fundamentally imprisoned the man - even if it was in his own home. A cage, no matter how guilded it may be remains a cage nonetheless. We should not lose sight of this.

The historical record is not quite that simple.

Galileo took his observation to the Jesuits who were among the leading astronomers of the day and they agreed with him that his sightings had strengthened the case for heliocentrism. The Jesuits told him that the church was divided, but the question was still open, and they did not think that Galileo had clinched the case.

When Galileo was reported to the Inquisition, Cardinal Bellarmine met with him. This was not a normal Inquisitorial procedure, but Galileo came to Rome in 1616 as a celebrity with great fanfare, where he stayed at the Medici Villa, met with the pope more than once, and attended receptions given by various bishops and cardinals.

Bellarmine wrote: “While experience tells us plainly that the earth is standing still if there were a real proof that the sun is in the centre of the universe ... and that the sun does not go round the earth but the earth around the sun, then we should proceed with great circumspection in explaining certain passages of scripture which appear to teach the contrary, and rather admit that we did not understand them than declare an opinion to be false which is proved to be true. But this is not a thing to be done in haste, and as for myself, I shall not believe that there are such proofs until they are shown to me.”


Let me summarize this briefly - essentially, Cardinal Bellarmine told Galileo to shut up because he wasn't willing to consider Galileo's proposal. Regardless of what instruments of inquiry the Inquisition used, the end conclusion is the same, the Church took specific steps to quash an idea because it offended their ideas, in particular with respect to scripture.

Henry then claims the following to justify why the Church imprisoned Galileo:

Galileo was confident now that he could openly preach heliocentrism and in 1632 he published his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. This created a threefold problematic.

First, his so-called demonstration of the truth of heliocentrism was faulty. One of Galileo’s main arguments was that the rapid motion of the earth around the sun was responsible for the ocean tides. Galileo also assumed that planets move in circular paths, even though Kepler had shown that the planetary orbits are elliptical. Galileo contended that Kepler was wrong.


Okay...let's consider this in terms of scientific inquiry in general. Last I checked, investigation of the natural world in which we live tends to lead down lots of 'dead ends' and comes up with the odd gem of insight. This is why science gets published in journals and is often severely critiqued by peers. Flaws in theories happen all the time. Successful theories - no matter how you look at them - adapt and change as new evidence refines them. Yes, Galileo and Kepler disagreed on the orbital behaviours of planets. Given the era, that's a matter of interpreting the available evidence. By no means is this adequate reason for the Church's heavy handedness towards Galileo.

Secondly, Galileo embarrassed the pope by constructing his dialogue between two figures, one representing himself and the other representing the pope, who was given the name “Simplicio.” Of course, the foolish claims by Simplicio were refuted by the character speaking for Galileo.


Considering that dialog was a common way of expressing and arguing for a new idea at the time, I don't see any particular surprises in this. If the church interpreted "Simplicio" as being the Pope, well, all I can say there is that's a well-placed needle - especially given Galileo's treatment by the Inquisition a few years prior.

It's pretty hard to see this as anything other than someone smarting from being slapped around intellectually. Embarrassment of the Pope is hardly reason for imprisonment, is it?

Thirdly, Galileo’s writings were not confined to scientific issues; he argued that the Bible was largely allegorical and required constant reinterpretation to excavate its true meaning. The Jesuits had warned him not to venture into this territory as Scriptural interpretation was the church’s area but he ignored the advice and was once again reported to the Inquisition.

In 1633 Galileo returned to Rome, where again he was treated with respect. However, during the investigation, someone found Bellarmine’s notes in the file. Furthermore, Galileo had not told anyone about his previous agreement. Now Galileo was viewed as having deceived the church as well as having failed to live up to his agreements. Incredibly, for some strange reason, Galileo maintained that his Dialogue did not constitute a defence of heliocentrism.


Again, let's consider this further. The Church has decided in its finite wisdom that Galileo was arguing about more than just the science of astronomy (or astrology as it was understood at the time - astronomy arose from astrology). Apparently, he is making statements about how scripture should be interpreted. Big deal. The Church might consider this to be heresy or worse, but really, what he has done is present a challenge to church dogma. Whether it is the dogma of heliocentrism, or the dogma that the Catechism is the only valid guide to interpreting scripture, it doesn't really matter.

Galileo was still imprisoned for expressing ideas that the Church found offensive. In short, the Church acted with a very heavy hand to squelch thought and discourse.

Galileo was never charged with heresy, and never placed in a dungeon or tortured in any way. Technically he was under house arrest in his villa in Florence but enjoyed considerable freedom. The church also permitted him to continue his scientific work on matters unrelated to heliocentrism. He died of natural causes in 1642.


Why, how magnanamous of the Church. They only imprisoned him in his own home for the rest of his life for daring to challenge the Church's assumptions and dogma.

Sorry, Bishop. No matter how I look at it, this is another case where the Church blew it and is now trying desperately to justify its actions. Like the Church's current dogmas about human sexuality, the Galileo case is about controlling people and controlling what they think and believe.

... and we won't pay too much attention to the fact that it took the Church until 1992 to even express regret. A mere 350 years after Galileo died in Church custody. I'll remind myself of the Church's generosity in justice every time I hear another story about the Church excommunicating people for doing the right thing.

The Galileo story is really one that tells us how the Church ceased to be a source of enlightenment and wisdom, and became a political power out to squelch any dissent that would weaken their control over humanity.

1 comment:

Niles said...

For some odd reason, when political figures are kept under house arrest around the world, no matter how well they're living inside the house, this is considered a bad thing -- now. Something about freedom of travel and democratic dissemination of ideas.

But compared to the Inquisition's usual tactics...(including conspiracy with secular authority to hideously torture alleged heretics --which is still defended to this day by Mother Church as a necessity, although they didn't dirty their hands, honest, they were just nearby and took dictation from the tortured after asking Questions)...why, what happened to Galileo was the apex of blessed mercy.

Just ask Giordano Bruno and the Templars.