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Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

The Galileo Legend

by Thomas Lessl


The most familiar popular legend about the relationship between Christianity and science is the story of Galileo's persecution by the Catholic Church. Thomas Lessl uses this example to make his point that too much of what we read and mistake for true history, though it contains shreds of truth, has been embellished or rewritten to include meaningless, degrading information, especially in regards to the Catholic Church.

Larger Work

New Oxford Review



Publisher & Date

New Oxford Review, Inc., June 2000

Popular legends are strange mixtures with curious effects. Although their historical elements may be mingled with erroneous claims, they often convey a measure of truth. This is one of the reasons such tales continue to be repeated, even when it is widely known that they omit or invent things. If we reflect on their themes, we can usually discern what makes them so durable. Take, for instance, the story about how the boy George Washington, having chopped down one of his father's prized cherry trees, promptly owned up by saying, "I cannot tell a lie." This story is known to be an invention of Mason Weems, an early biographer of Washington, but it endures because it expresses something that we regard as true and important about our first President -- namely, that he was a man of great personal integrity. The facts relayed in the tale may not be worth much, but the story does seem to fairly represent Washington's character.

The opposite is true of another presidential legend, the one about how Abraham Lincoln worked as a rail-splitter in his youth. This story relates fact yet gives a misleading impression. Lincoln did do work of this kind as a young man, but we would be mistaken to presume that this indicates something about his character. Lincoln did not like manual labor, and his rail-splitting had nothing to do with his development as a person or as a leader -- especially not as a leader. Thus the story is not quite harmless. The rail-splitting story suggests that rustic simplicity makes for virtue, but this is sheer romanticism.

Other presidents were born in log cabins and endured the hardships of pioneer life: None of them was a Lincoln. I wouldn't say that tales of Lincoln's humble beginnings are a serious deception, but they do draw attention away from other attributes more worthy of our notice. If anything from Lincoln's youth marked him for greatness it was the passionate devotion to logical rigor and precise expression that he showed from an early age. These attributes, not the privations of frontier life, were what made him a great political architect.

Because it has factual basis, the Lincoln legend is far more seductive than the Washington story. In our milieu it is often assumed that "factual" simply means "true," and that "facts speak for themselves." But facts seldom do. Our convictions do not arise from facts alone but always from some whole, some picture that we compose from these smaller pieces of information. I introduce this interpretive problem because it is one of the mistakes at work in the well-known legend I wish to examine here. The most familiar popular legend about the relationship between Christianity and science is the story of Galileo's persecution by the Catholic Church. In skeletal form, it goes like this: In 1609 Galileo Galilei turned his telescope on the heavens and made some observations that supported a theory set forth earlier by the Polish astronomer Nicholas Copernicus, that the Earth is not the center of the cosmos. Church officials objected that this view was incompatible with Scripture and should not be taught. In 1633 after Galileo had published a book defending the Copernican theory, he was forced to renounce his belief in this model of the solar system. The scientist, blind and in declining health, spent his final years under house arrest.

Each thing recounted here is a fact, but (as with the Lincoln legend) that does not mean that the picture commonly put together from these pieces of information is meaningful. To interpret these events, we would first have to answer at least three questions: Have other relevant facts been omitted? Has false information or embellishment been added? Is the overall picture the mind composes out of these pieces plausible and coherent? When these three questions are answered, this familiar, indeed "canonical," version of the Galileo story shows itself to be highly unreliable.

The extent to which people are misled by what I shall call the Galileo Legend first dawned on me several years ago when I was teaching a doctoral seminar in the history of rhetoric. One day, as I was outlining some of the positive contributions made by medieval theology to the development of modern science, a student interrupted. If what I was saying were true, why then had "the Catholic Church killed all those scientists?" Stunned, I asked him please to name some of these scientist martyrs. Of course, he could not name any. To ease his embarrassment, I suggested that he might have been misled by popular misinterpretations of the fate of Giordano Bruno, an apostate Dominican who was condemned to death by the Roman Inquisition at the turn of the 17th century. Popularizers like to link Bruno with Galileo simply because Bruno happened to embrace the Copernican position. But Bruno, a philosopher, did not hold this position as a scientist, nor is there any evidence linking his Copernican beliefs to his condemnation -- which was for heresy. Although he occasionally taught geometry, he was famous across Europe as an itinerant preacher of hermeticism -- the pop new-age religion of the day -- and the heliocentric model was merely a prop for his pantheistic cosmology of infinite worlds. We may think that the Church officials who sent Bruno to the stake were misguided, or cruel, but we cannot deduce that they were enemies of science.

I am aware of only one scientist who was sentenced to death by public authorities prior to the 20th century -- when the Nazi and Soviet governments greatly enlarged this number. That was the great chemist Antoine Lavoisier, who was sent to the guillotine during the French Revolution. Although the specific charges raised against him by the Terror were political rather than scientific, the anti-scientific tendencies of the regime that condemned him are a fact of history -- curiously, a little-known fact. The science textbooks our children read make free with accusations against the Catholic Church over her treatment of Galileo, but we would be hard pressed to find any that pay similar attention to the French Revolutionists' closing of the Academy of Science and their decapitation of France's greatest scientist

It has long seemed to me that science popularizers and educators write selectively -- playing up every hint of historical conflict between science and Christianity but omitting to mention the most egregious offenses against scientific freedom committed by secular ideologies. I recently decided to explore this suspicion in a more systematic fashion. In just a few hours spent perusing such literature in local libraries, I was able to accumulate 44 different accounts of the Galileo episode, many of which also mistakenly assign the status of scientist to Bruno. Among these books and articles I found only one reference to Lavoisier's fate, and one brief note on the mistreatment of scientists by secularist governments in the 20th century. What I found lots of, in the numerous discussions of the Galileo episode, were the features of folklore -- erroneous embellishments, the omission of crucial details, and tendentious overgeneralizations intended to portray Christianity and science as natural enemies.

One frequent embellishment to the story is the claim that certain clergy refused to look through Galileo's telescope because they thought it bewitched. Actually, these refusers were not churchmen but two of Galileo's scientific rivals, the scholastic natural philosophers Cesare Cremonini and Guilio Libri, who held the then-dominant view that telescopic observations were a superfluous amendment to the complete adequacy -- so they thought -- of Aristotle's physical system. In point of fact, the two priests who did look through Galileo's telescope, Frs. Clavius and Grienberger, were converted by the experience to Galileo's Copernican position. (This is a fact mentioned only in scholarly histories.)

Another apocryphal embellishment is the claim that Galileo, after his forced recantation of the view that the earth moves around the sun, muttered, "Nevertheless, it does move." This addition may truthfully impress upon readers the strength of Galileo's scientific convictions, but it also gives an impression of defiance that was not characteristic of his attitude toward the Catholic Church. Galileo, who remained loyal to the Church to the very end of his life-- and was even carried to daily Mass when he became too feeble to walk--clearly understood that he had been the victim of an academic feud and that the Church had been drawn in on the side of his enemies only through beguilement

Probably more critical than such embellishments are the facts that are consistently left out of the Galileo Legend. The most important omitted fact is the role that academic politics played in the affair. Historians have known for some time that the sequence of events that eventually led to the Church's actions against Galileo was set in motion by secular academics, not by priests, and this changes the whole complexion of the affair. Galileo's academic enemies had much more to lose than did the Church if the Copernican worldview turned out to be right, and this makes them the more plausible villains of this story. Galileo's personal correspondence indicates that he shared this view.

Also important, and also regularly omitted, is the context of the dispute. The judgment against Copernicanism came at a time when the Church was greatly preoccupied with the challenges of the Protestant Reformation. Related to this is the notable fact -- almost never mentioned in recitations of the Legend -- that Copernicus's De Revolutionibus Orbium had been in print for nearly 70 years before the Church placed any restrictions on its teachings. The Church's first formal response to the Copernican hypothesis seems to have been triggered by Galileo's Letter to Castelli, an apology for Copernicanism, which advocated a figurative reading of Scripture in order to resolve the theory's apparent conflicts with the Bible. Although Galileo's approach to biblical interpretation was completely in keeping with the Catholic tradition, it had another more troubling implication. Galileo was asserting, in effect, that where scientific findings conflicted with the literal sense of the Scriptures, scientists should have the right to determine independently what the Bible means. For a scientist to assert this was tantamount to sanctioning the private interpretation of the Bible, a Protestant practice expressly forbidden by the Council of Trent Galileo had unwittingly embroiled the Copernican question in a much larger and more complex controversy.

It is no accident that such complicating factors as this are never discussed in popular scientific accounts. Clearly those who retell the Galileo Legend have strong ideological interests, which make the maligning of Christianity attractive. A big part of this seems to be the belief shared by such storytellers that the scientific way of life would operate best in a world untroubled by religious belief. In fact one of the main themes of the Galileo Legend seems to be the idea that Christianity is an anti-scientific monster, now safely caged, that sought to devour science at the moment of its birth. Consider the story as presented in perhaps the most popular treatment of science ever published, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time:

Galileo, perhaps more than any other single person, was responsible for the birth of modern science. His renowned conflict with the Catholic Church was central to his philosophy, for Galileo was one of the first to argue that man could hope to understand how the world works, and, moreover, that we could do this by observing the real world.

Since the writer of this passage is often compared in the popular press with Einstein and Newton, his readers (approximately nine million to date) are likely to assume that he is simply telling it like it is. But they would be wrong. Hawking's abilities as a mathematician and physicist do not make him a historian; nor do they protect him from succumbing to a romantic legend that seems to support his preconceptions.

Hawking greatly overstates Galileo's responsibility for the rise of modern science. While Galileo contributed some refinements to scientific method, enlarged the mathematical emphasis of science, and made important discoveries, science of the kind he practiced was not "born" with him. What we call "modern science" is a compilation of ideas, techniques, philosophical assumptions, and information accumulated over many centuries and drawn from a multitude of cultures. Contrary to what Hawking suggests, essential contributions to the growth of science were made in medieval Europe when the Catholic Church was virtually the sole patron of learning. Perhaps the most notable of these contributions is the development of the experimental method, something frequently credited to Galileo in popular legend. In fact, the basics of experimental design were laid out in the 13th century by the saintly Bishop of Lincoln, Robert Grosseteste. By the time Galileo came along, four centuries later, such investigative techniques, now greatly refined, had found their way into universities all over Europe.

By suggesting that science started with Galileo, Hawking sets his readers up for his second sweeping claim that science (now mythically personified in Galileo) was opposed by the Church because of science's novel claim that "man could hope to understand how the world works" by "observing the real world." Anyone who knows the relationship between Catholicism and science in the centuries leading up to Galileo knows that this statement is fundamentally wrong. Science based on observation had been the norm in Catholic universities since the Aristotelian revival of the 13th century, and religious objections to science -- which were much more infrequent than popularly imagined today -- occurred only where science's boundaries overlapped with those of theology.

This was true in Galileo's case as well. The Church was generally favorable to his work, and in 1611, when Galileo published The Starry Messenger, the book, which reports the discoveries he made with his telescope; the Vatican college in Rome honored him with a full day of festivities. Throughout his career, Galileo was befriended by numerous religious intellectuals. The fact that one of these was Maffeo Barberini, under whose papacy Galileo would later be prosecuted, merely indicates that the Church's action against Copernicanism was more complex than Hawking imagines.

Neither Hawking nor any of the writers I surveyed mentions how easy it had been for Galileo to obtain the Church's permission to publish his Dialogue Concerning the Two World Systems, the book that got him into so much trouble. The Church's generally positive attitude toward Galileo and his work has led scholars to conclude that the officials who decided to silence him probably acted under the influence of the extraordinary political pressures I mentioned earlier. It is equally likely that they had also been beguiled by the persuasive manipulation of Galileo's academic enemies. In the end, only seven of the 10 Cardinals who tried him were willing to sign the sentence against him. After the trial it was a churchman, the Pope's nephew Francesco Barberini, who provided a safe haven for the elderly astronomer in the residence of the Archbishop of Siena.

Even without such specific information as this about the circumstances of the Church's actions against Galileo, we would have reason to doubt Hawking's generalizations. A singular historical incident could hardly demonstrate claims so global as his. Moreover, to suggest that the Catholic Church of the 17th century opposed science on the basis of its opposition to one book written by one scientist about one theory is simply unreasonable. This would be like characterizing the American government of the 20th century as repressive simply because of the bad behavior of Joseph McCarthy. Single historical incidents seldom support a general rule.

Hawking is only one of a multitude of science writers who recite such tales -- nor is he the only eminent scientist among them. As a group they have succumbed not only to the delusions of the Galileo Legend but to the even more pervasive myth of the "DarkAges," the erroneous belief that the scientific revolution was brought about by a handful of defiant geniuses who led civilization out of the valley of darkness into which it had descended -- with the coming of Christianity -- a thousand years earlier. The absurdity of what the "Dark Ages" myth supposes never seems to dawn on the scientists who recite it: If medieval thought had been dominated by religious convictions that pointedly denied the very idea of science, why did the scientific revolution occur in the West? On the basis of what Hawking seems to assume, Europe would be the last place on earth in which to expect science to blossom.

This conundrum is easily resolved once we realize that this popular conception of the Middle Ages is simply a fiction. The events of the 17th century that are collectively called the "scientific revolution" were really products of a much longer period of "scientific evolution," an intellectual movement that was, born in the very heart of medieval Europe. The science of Galileo and Newton was only possible because the scientific thinking of Aristotle had been so warmly received into Christian Europe centuries before. The discovery of Aristotle's work-- and that of a number of other classical thinkers -- made available to Christians the most sophisticated scientific thinking that had been developed up to that point in history. But rather than suppressing this information, as the popular legends would suggest, medieval scholars immediately went to work building upon it They did so because they recognized that Greek science was especially congenial to a biblical understanding of the world. It is not difficult to see why. As the Church Fathers had taught many centuries before, the view of nature that is given in Revelation suggests that nature might be "read" as a kind of companion volume to Scripture -- a book of God's Works to go along with the book of God's Word. The sudden availability of Greek science greatly enlarged the medievals' ability to begin this undertaking, and they set to work with great ardor.

The absence of such a sympathetic religious framework in classical antiquity may account for science's much shorter life span during this period. Despite the monumental contributions of Aristotle and others, science never enjoyed the kind of general acceptance in ancient times that it did in Christian Europe. Perhaps this was due to paganism's tendency to regard nature as a divinity. If nature were a goddess, she might be capricious, and thus not amenable to scientific study. Worse yet, the manipulation and probing of nature might constitute hubris, an impious reaching after secrets not meant for mere mortals.

Medieval Christianity, by contrast, created a general framework of assumptions conducive to much greater optimism about the prospects of scientific investigation. The natural world that is revealed in Scripture shows itself to be both orderly and good. Moreover, human beings are revealed to be creatures not only created in God's image -- and thus capable, as Francis Bacon would later say, "of the vision of the world" -- but also commanded by God to be stewards of nature. For Christians, science came to be regarded not only as possible -- because God had created the human intellect to comprehend the universe -- but also as a duty commanded by charity.

If the things I have said are true -- and they are easily verified -- why would Stephen Hawking and other thinkers of similar caliber propagate such falsehoods? Clearly, it is not from intellectual deficiency. There must be another explanation. In fact, I believe there are two. The first is simply that the Galileo Legend carries the authority of tradition and of the scientists who tell it. When scientists report "the history of science" in textbooks and popular literature, they are often repeating the stories they picked up from textbooks during their own student years. In this way the tales are passed down from one generation to the next--very much in the fashion of an oral tradition. Hawking probably believes what he has written because he has taken on faith similar tales told by earlier writers of scientific repute. Having been repeated many times, and always with great conviction, the Galileo Legend now has the authority of tradition.

If scientists lack expertise in the history of science, one might ask why they would want to discuss it at all. This question leads to my second explanation of the Galileo Legend: Historical beliefs play an important role in justifying the authority that societies confer upon institutions. Science is not just an activity of investigation; it is also an institution. Complex organizational structures have been erected to support scientific work, and scientists, as the proprietors of these social structures, have a vested interest in sustaining them. The Galileo Legend works to that end.

If we look closely at the beginnings of the Galileo Legend we can see how its anti-Christian elements support these institutional interests. The circulation of this legend seems to have begun during the latter half of the 19th century, when scientists were struggling to professionalize their disciplines. In previous eras science had been a solitary endeavor undertaken mostly by persons of independent means. In the English-speaking world, these had been gentlemen amateurs mostly -- noblemen or clergy with the means to set up their own laboratories. But this arrangement had become outmoded by the middle of the 19th century. Scientific work had grown so complex and expensive by this time that a whole new kind of institutional structure was needed to sustain it, and this created a movement to push the Church out of the universities so that they could be remade in science's image.

Dramatic change needs dramatic justification, and the Galileo Legend provided this. By fostering the notion that the very idea of Christianity is opposed to science, it put a powerful rationalization in the hands of scientific leaders who wanted to wrest control of higher education from Christianity. Influential early versions of the Galileo myth are found in books from this period by Andrew Dickson White and John Draper, two of the most prominent activists in the movement to secularize higher education. It is not surprising that, backed by such influential interests, a false version of the Galileo episode should have become the defining symbol of science's relationship to religion.

An unbiased reading of scientific history shows that Galileo's mistreatment by his ecclesiastical bosses was an anomaly, a momentary break in an otherwise harmonious relationship. In fact, deeper investigations into the relationship between Christianity and science have led some scholars to think that Christian belief may have been the leaven that made the rise of modern science possible. Modern science, after all, emerged in a most unlikely place, in an adolescent European culture that was only a few hundred years removed from barbarism. Nothing so revolutionary had ever developed in the great civilizations of the Middle East and Far East, despite their antiquity, wealth, and sophistication. The reason for this should be quite clear. The founding assumptions of modern science -- its belief in a universe that is highly ordered and in a human mind that was created to reach beyond its finitude to grasp the mystery of this order -- are premises that are secure only where monotheism has taken root.

In exposing the Galileo Legend as legend, I do not mean to suggest that the real story of Galileo's career ought to be discounted. The Galileo episode can teach Christians the wisdom of exercising caution in the face of scientific hypotheses that superficially might seem to challenge Revelation. But removed from the larger context of history, this story promotes the misleading belief that Christian faith harbors a general disposition to suppress rational inquiry. The consequences of such distortion, though hard to measure, are undoubtedly real. The Galileo Legend sustains the widespread belief that the voice of the Church should never be raised in criticism of scientific claims, and it promotes the equally perverse assumption that religious resistance to potential abuses of scientific knowledge is simply a mask for obscurantism.

Thomas Lessl is a professor of rhetoric at the University of Georgia.

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