09 March 2015

The myth of Galileo, Copernicanism, and the Catholic Church

The following was posted on Quora in response to the question What are some common misconceptions about the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages?:

One of the worst misconceptions about the Middle Ages is that the Church deliberately tried to limit knowledge and keep people stupid and uneducated. The most common example taken to illustrate this — which was in the Renaissance, but still applied to the Middle Ages — was that of Galileo’s conflict with the Church over heliocentrism.

In reality, the Church actively supported the dissemination of knowledge. The liberal arts were actively supported by the Church throughout the Middle Ages, even celebrated in church architecture. The major universities of the Middle Ages like the Sorbonne, Oxford, Cambridge, and Heidelberg, were generally supported strongly by the Church and used to teach both the sciences and theology as well as the liberal arts in general. The major scientific thinkers of the age were generally priests and/or monks — like Roger Bacon — and the Church strongly supported the copying and dissemination of learned texts to further those ends. Once Greek philosophical texts like Aristotle became generally available in the West starting with the fall of Constantinople — having been lost in the chaos of the fall of the Western Roman Empire — it was the Church that made sure they were copied and passed around.

Which leads us to Galileo. The irony of the modern commonly held perception is that the Church was reluctant to approve Copernicus not so much because they held it to be in conflict with the Bible, but the stronger reason was that they held it to be in conflict with Aristotle and Ptolemy. While they were still mistaken for doing so, the Church leaders were utterly convinced the ancient Greek philosophers must have been right — from their perspective Europe was just recovering from a long night (the word “Renaissance” itself means “rebirth”) and rediscovering the ancient learning that had given the world the glory of Rome. Anything contradicting that was suspect, because how could a modern person, a product of all that decay, possibly be more right than the Romans and Greeks were?

Furthermore, the Church’s initial objection to Galileo was not that he was not right, but that they were concerned about the wider social impact his writings may have and whether Copernicanism was proven without a doubt. They wanted him to publish his works amongst the learned community at the time to let the debate take place in a smaller circle while the Church decided how to adapt to this new learning. Hence the Church, led by Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, suggested various compromise positions, like stating the Copernican model was mathematically accurate and useful for predictions while still notionally sticking to Aristotle and Ptolemy. Tycho Brahe was one vocal proponent of this compromise, proposing a hybrid model with the other planets orbiting the Sun, while the Sun and Moon orbited the Earth. Other leading Church figures like Paolo Antonio Foscarini published attempts to reconcile Copernican ideas with Biblical passages that previously had been used to buttress Aristotle and Ptolemy.

Cardinal Bellarmine made this clear by writing, “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” — in other words, he did not reject the new ideas out of hand, but wanted to find a way to let the Church adapt to the new knowledge and re-interpret Scripture to match. Again, this was still wrong, but also quite understandable and very different from the idea that the Church wanted Copernicanism banned. The Church also wanted to be absolutely sure that Copernicanism was indeed proven beyond a shadow of a doubt before going public with it and asked various scientists and philosophers for their opinions — in other words, peer review, a hallmark of the scientific method.

Instead, Galileo went public and went out of his way to insult his opponents. In a modern context, it would be like a scientist refusing to publish his works in a peer-reviewed journal and instead put his ideas on Facebook while insulting his colleagues in the process. Even then, he had powerful protectors in the Church, including Pope Paul V, who had been a personal friend; it was only when Galileo insulted the Pope that he lost that protection and was tried for what were really political, not religious reasons (the religious ones were just a convenient excuse). Had Galileo been less bullheaded and gone through the peer review that the Church wanted, things would have gone very differently.

This was picked up by Protestant propagandists, who were only too happy to portray the Catholic Church as being beholden to “superstition” (a word they frequently used to deride Catholic teachings). That meme still goes on today in various guises, but it is still a distortion of what really happened.

I should point out that I’m not Roman Catholic, but Anglican, so it’s not like I take much pleasure in defending Rome. :P