St. Robert Bellarmine, Galileo and Heliocentricity
Today’s saint, Robert Bellarmine, was a brilliant Jesuit theologian (1542-1621) who was assigned to lecture on controversial topics at the Roman Collage and was eventually appointed to the Holy Office (what we now call the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith). By about 1605, he was the principal theological advisor to the Holy See.
In this capacity, the problem of heliocentricity was put before him, both by Paolo Antonio Foscarini and Galileo Galilei, two proponents of Nicholas Copernicus’ earlier theory of the revolution of the earth around a stationary sun. This theory, which was ultimately proven correct, contradicted the ordinary perceptions of people on earth, and it was considered by most theologians to be contrary at least to the literal sense of Scripture, and to Scripture as generally interpreted by the Fathers.
Bellarmine actually took a balanced position on the subject. He tried to dissuade the Holy Office from condemning the Copernican theory, and he advised Foscarini and Galileo to propound heliocentricity as a hypothesis which was very useful to astronomical calculations, but not as a certain view of reality. The general consensus was that one should not challenge the common interpretation of Scripture unless the evidence for an alternative view was conclusive.
In a letter to Foscarini, Bellarmine wrote:
I say that if there were a true demonstration that the sun is at the center of the world and the earth in the third heaven, and that the sun does not circle the earth but the earth circles the sun, then one would have to proceed with great care in explaining the Scriptures that appear contrary, and say rather that we do not understand them than that what is demonstrated is false. But I will not believe that there is such a demonstration, until it is shown me.
Nor is it the same to demonstrate that by assuming the sun to be at the center and the earth in heaven one can save the appearances [e.g., explain certain calculations, etc.], and to demonstrate that in truth the sun is at the center and the earth in heaven; for I believe the first demonstration may be available, but I have very great doubts about the second, and in case of doubt one must not abandon the Holy Scripture as interpreted by the Holy Fathers.
This was a perfectly reasonable position, which permitted scientific investigation to continue without condemnation by the Church. In fact, it was not until 1633—twelve years after Bellarmine’s death—that Galileo got into significant trouble with the Holy Office and the Inquisition for pressing his case less cautiously than Bellarmine advised.
Sadly, while Galileo could be brusque and even rash in his claims, the biggest problem was that there were not more theologians of Bellarmine’s quality. If the other Roman theologians had had St. Robert Bellarmine’s intelligence, fairness and patience, a great deal of trouble could have been avoided.
But this is nothing new. Over the centuries, on nearly all sides of every question, the need for theological intelligence, fairness, patience—and, yes, sanctity—has been amply demonstrated to both the Church and the world!
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