Monday, March 17, 2008

Galileo's Daughter, part IV

If Galileo's heresy trial for asserting the earth traveled around the sun can't be structured as a "religion versus science" narrative, what was it?

First, some bare bones background: In reaction to the spread of the Reformation, the Catholic church convened the Council of Trent in the mid 16th-century. This highly politicized gathering drew a line in a sand between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. The Council reaffirmed and strengthened the concept that the Church hierarchy, not individual conscience, would determine Catholic doctrine. While the council avoided confronting church corruption, it did try to correct some ills, for example, affirming that people who were not called by God to Holy orders should not be forced into convents or monasteries.

By 1616, a growing number of telescope-wielding scientists (some of them Catholic clergy or devout Catholic laymen like Galileo and Descartes) believed that Copernicus had the right model of the cosmos. To decide Catholic policy on the matter, the Catholic Church convened a panel of 11 high-ranking clergymen to determine if 1.The earth revolves around the sun or 2. the sun revolves around the earth. The panel decided that the sun revolves around the earth and censored several treatises that argued too strongly in the opposite direction. However, what the panel didn't do was significant: it didn't ban works that argued in favor of a sun-centered solar system, not even the works of Copernicus. Instead, it fuzzed the issue by requiring that such works present themselves as hypothetical. To state as fact that the earth revolved around the sun was heretical; to discuss or entertain the subject was not. Copernicus's work was revised to appear more hypothetical but not suppressed.

Before we are too quick to condemn the council for its decision, we have to remember that, at this time, there was no solid empirical proof for the revolving earth theory. Against scientists' "thought experiments," the movements of the planets and the sunspots stood the weight of Aristotelean tradition (1,000 years old), Scripture and the evidence of the senses. A similar contemporary case to Galileo might be that of Dr. John Lee. He insisted for years that the estrogen in hormone replacement therapy given to menopausal women was causing cancer, but could never prove it. It wasn't until double-blind studies were done by people with funding and the proper status in the scientific community that his theory was widely accepted as true.

Galileo, who was not targeted by the 1616 council despite his known advocacy of Copernicus, decided it would be prudent to lay low. But by 1628, as he was entering his late 60s, fearing his life was nearing its end and angered by Jesuits ridiculing his theory, he revisited the idea of a sun-centered solar system in a book called "Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems."

Galileo submitted the book to the church's censors in Rome, who approved it for publication. He hoped to have it printed in Rome, but an outbreak of the bubonic plague made traveling difficult. Therefore, Galileo decided to have the Dialogue printed in Florence, where he lived. This time he submitted the book to the Tuscan censors, who also gave it their official approval. High-ranking clergy, such as the archbishop of Sienna, also supported publication.

But when the printed book reentered Rome, enemies of Galileo attacked it as heretical. Suddenly, the conjecture that the earth might rotate about the sun, though implicitly allowed by the 1616 ruling and accepted in the Dialogue as non-heretical by two sets of censors, was declared by a tribunal of cardinals to be heretical. Galileo was condemned as "vehemently suspected of heresy." His Dialogue was banned (which fanned the popularity of the book) and he was placed under house arrest.

Why the switch? Did the pope and his cardinals suddenly "find God" in a deeper way?

Not at all. Our "religion versus science" story turns out to have been all about politics.

By 1630, the year the Dialogue was finally printed, Pope Urban VIII was in serious political trouble. The Thirty Years' War, which was supposed to defeat the Germans and show that God was on the side of Roman Catholicism, was going badly for Urban and his allies. Urban had been publicly accused by one of the Borgias of not doing his part for the war effort. He couldn't, as Sobel states on page 225, let another affront to Church go unanswered. Further, he was faced with an outbreak of the plague, another potential sign that he'd mismanaged his role as mediator between Catholics and God.

Galileo, an international superstar, provided just the high-profile scapecoat Urban needed to deflect attention from his failings and prove his zeal. Galileo took the fall and was humiliated through a forced public recanting of his views.


If the true reason Galileo was tried as a heretic was Pope Urban's political troubles rather than a religion's desire to suppress reason, why are we taught a different story?

One reason could be that although distorted, "religion versus science" is a simple story for children to grasp. Another might be modernism's tendency to "universalize" religion. A standard textbook of the mid-twentieth century might contain essays describing the "major religions of the world." These religions would be boiled down to whatever points scholars (primarily U.S and England-trained white Protestant men) decided were normative for that faith. The idea that all religions are internally pluralistic, with many contradictory strands and strains, wasn't emphasized. With this mindset, it would be easy to depict Roman Catholicism as a monolith in which everyone, in lockstep, favored "authority" over "reason." Galileo's Daughter, however, shows us that in this famous case politics and not religion suppressed free inquiry.

Why do you think this story was distorted? What are the implications?

And ...Sobel's book implies, the real issues within the Catholic church didn't lie in how it treated an intellectual debate about what bodies revolved around what. Where did the true problem exist?

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