The Curious Case of Galileo Galilei (in which he does not go to jail)

Author
Karl Johnson

September 15, 2009
Last week, the Niels Stensen  Foundation, a Jesuit study center  in Florence, Italy, convened a conference entitled “The Galileo Affair”  to show how recent research “might  alleviate the ‘tension and conflict’ still  clouding the relationship between the  Church and science.” Indeed, four  hundred years after the Florentine  astronomer’s extraordinary discoveries, we are still assaulted with the  message that science and religion are  at war. Try telling that, however, to  Brother Guy Consolmagno.
Consolmagno is a Jesuit astronomer employed by the Vatican  Observatory, where he serves as the  curator of an extensive meteorite collection—several specimens of which  he has discovered himself. The Vatican  began employing astronomers in the  nineteenth century, Consolmagno  says, “to show the world that the  Catholic Church supports science.”
 
Of course, Vatican support for  science is partly public relations.  According to the conventional wisdom still taught in schools and  repeated by many public intellectuals, Galileo bravely spoke truth (science) to power (the Church), and  paid dearly for it, spending his dying  days in prison. Except that it’s not  true. Ronald L. Numbers’  Galileo  Goes to Jail: And Other Myths About  Science and Religion, just out from  Harvard University Press, is only the  most recent attempt to set the historical record straight on “Myths,”  including its Number Eight: That Galileo Was Imprisoned and Tortured  for Advocating Copernicanism.  Apparently Carl Sagan’s quip that  Galileo was “in a Catholic dungeon  threatened with torture” has all the  academic rigor of the Indigo Girls  song that begins “Galileo’s head was  on the block.”
 
Consider: Galileo’s  Dialogue  Concerning the Two Chief World  Systems, the source of controversy, previously had been read and approved by  the Church’s censors; and Pope Urban  VIII, who presided over the trial, was  Galileo’s friend and admirer. Consider  also: prior to the trial, Galileo stayed  in the Tuscan embassy; during the  trial, he was put up in a six-room apartment, complete with servant;  following the trial, his “house arrest”  consisted of being entertained at the  palaces of the grand duke of Tuscany  and the Archbishop of Siena. Galileo, apparently, was no ordinary heretic.
 
According to an article by historian David Marshall Miller published last year in the journal History  of Science, recent studies of the Galileo  Affair have “exploded this ‘myth’ that  Galileo’s condemnation was a conflict  between science and faith, novelty and  authority, or rationality and irrationality.” The Affair, Miller says, was actually occasioned by the Thirty Years  War. Indeed, Galileo’s troubles began  somewhat suddenly in 1633—just  after the Holy Roman Empire suffered  setbacks in the war. To make a long  story very short: Pope Urban VIII,  who had been elected with support of  French Cardinals, was suspected and  accused of sympathizing with France,  which opposed the Empire in the war.  In essence, Spaniards and others were wondering, “Is the Pope Catholic?”  The apparent contradiction between  Galileo’s widely publicized imprisonment and his actual treatment suggests  that his trial and “house arrest” were largely symbolic gestures—the Pope’s  concession to his political critics, and  a way for him to demonstrate his  Catholic credentials.
 
History, like science, teaches us  that appearances can be deceiving.  Indeed, what appear to be conflicts  between science and religion are  almost always conflicts over political  power and cultural authority. The sin  of the Church in the Galileo Affair  was not opposing science or free  inquiry, but using Galileo as a pawn in what was primarily a political tussle. Perhaps the Stensen Foundation  conference will finally put the myth of  warfare between science and religion  where it belongs—buried alongside  the idea that the sun revolves around  the earth. Unfortunately, that is not  likely. Because the promulgators of  the warfare metaphor seem less interested in evidence than in using history  for their political and ideological purposes, I suspect the myth of conflict we  will have with us always.
 
In the meantime, Consolmagno  delights in doing science. “The amazing thing about meteorites,” he says, “is  that you don’t have to go to outer space  in order to experience them. Outer space has come to us?” Consolmagno  is only one among many people who  believe—without conflict—that what  is true of meteorites is also true of God  himself. In any case, Consolmagno, no  less than Galileo, is living proof that  “Catholic Astronomer” is not an oxymoron.
 

 Karl E. Johnson, Center for Christian Studies, Ithaca, NY 

See all articles by Karl Johnson