The case of Galileo is one of the most exploited events in the history of the Catholic Church. It has been used to attack papal infallibility, as well as paint the Church in a bad light for being "anti-science" and backwards. Most recently, it has even become a point to attack Traditionalists on sedevacantism, because if the pope got it wrong then and was still pope, couldn't the same hold true today? I wish to set the record clear on Galileo, and demonstrate how advances in modern science (far from being a problem for Christianity as atheists would like us to think) actually help prove God's existence.
The Case of Galileo Galilei
Galileo was born in Italy in 1564. He was an astronomer, physicist, engineer, philosopher, and mathematician who played a major role in the science of the 17th century. It was alleged that the Roman Inquisition had him condemned because he championed the heliocentric theory of Copernicus (i.e., the Earth revolved around the sun, as opposed to geocentrism, where the sun revolves around the Earth). Here are the facts you need to know:
- We are indebted to the Church for the Copernican revolution in science. Copernicus delivered lectures in Rome by command of Pope Leo X, held a professional chair and published his treatise on heliocentrism by command of (and by the aid of) Pope Paul III. His work went forward to the world, bearing the sanction of the Holy See.
- The ignorance of the populace took scandal at what appeared to contradict plain statements of the Bible. (e.g., Ecclesiastes 1:5, "The sun also riseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to its place where it ariseth."). Yet, Galileo was left in peace.
- The problem arose when Galileo tried to prove his theory from Scripture. He was warned in a letter approved by Pope Urban VIII which read, "You ought not to travel out of the limits of physics and mathematics; you should confine yourself to such reasoning as Ptolemy and Copernicus used. Theologians maintain that the interpretation of Scripture is their own personal care."
- Galileo promised to abide by the warning, even as Pope Urban VIII was elevating those who held the Copernican theory to high positions; Galileo himself received a pension. Unfortunately, he soon broke his promise.
- It was out of reverence for the Bible, and to prevent scandal to the weak, that the Inquisition came after Galileo at all. Interestingly, when the great scientist Johannes Kepler (a Protestant) wrote a book in 1596 to defend the Copernican theory and presented it to the Academical Senate of Tubingen, it was pronounced a "damnable heresy," and he was forced to take out the references to Scripture.
- The condemnation of the Inquisition did not give a definition as to the true sense of Scripture. It was a condemnation of Galileo's "special errors"--whatever they may have been. It pronounced no dogma or explained no true meaning to the Bible.
- The word "heresy" as used by the Inquisition, was not used in its specialized theological sense, but rather meant "any offense against the Church." This is proven by the declaration of the Pope stating, "The Copernican system is not condemned, nor is it to be considered heretical, only as rash." The works of Galileo were allowed to be published with the references to Scripture expunged.
The Popes Weigh In
That the Scripture does not contradict true science was made clear by Pope Leo XIII and Pope Pius XII. As they explain, the inspired writers explained things in terms commonly used at the time. We still say "the sun rises and sets," even though it is not scientifically accurate because it appears to be that way.
Pope Leo XIII in Providentissimus Deus (1893) teaches:
"...we have to contend against those who, making an evil use of physical science, minutely scrutinize the Sacred Book in order to detect the writers in a mistake, and to take occasion to vilify its contents. Attacks of this kind, bearing as they do on matters of sensible experience, are peculiarly dangerous to the masses, and also to the young who are beginning their literary studies; for the young, if they lose their reverence for the Holy Scripture on one or more points, are easily led to give up believing in it altogether...If dissension should arise between them [science and scripture], here is the rule also laid down by St. Augustine, for the theologian: 'Whatever they can really demonstrate to be true of physical nature, we must show to be capable of reconciliation with our Scriptures; and whatever they assert in their treatises which is contrary to these Scriptures of ours, that is to Catholic faith, we must either prove it as well as we can to be entirely false, or at all events we must, without the smallest hesitation, believe it to be so.' To understand how just is the rule here formulated we must remember, first, that the sacred writers, or to speak more accurately, the Holy Ghost 'Who spoke by them, did not intend to teach men these things (that is to say, the essential nature of the things of the visible universe), things in no way profitable unto salvation.' Hence they did not seek to penetrate the secrets of nature, but rather described and dealt with things in more or less figurative language, or in terms which were commonly used at the time, and which in many instances are in daily use at this day, even by the most eminent men of science. Ordinary speech primarily and properly describes what comes under the senses; and somewhat in the same way the sacred writers-as the Angelic Doctor also reminds us - 'went by what sensibly appeared,' or put down what God, speaking to men, signified, in the way men could understand and were accustomed to." (para # 18; Emphasis mine)
Again, Pope Pius XII reaffirmed his predecessor's teaching in Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943):
"The first and greatest care of Leo XIII was to set forth the teaching on the truth of the Sacred Books and to defend it from attack. Hence with grave words did he proclaim that there is no error whatsoever if the sacred writer, speaking of things of the physical order 'went by what sensibly appeared' as the Angelic Doctor says,speaking either 'in figurative language, or in terms which were commonly used at the time, and which in many instances are in daily use at this day, even among the most eminent men of science.' " (para. # 3)
Modern Science Offers New Proof of God
Far from being an "enemy of religion," true science and the True Church cannot be in conflict for God is the author of both theological and scientific knowledge. The greatest philosopher in the history of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas (rightfully called "The Angelic Doctor" [1225-1274]), admitted that the universe could have always existed. Philosophically, there was no way to prove that it was NOT eternal. He needed to appeal to Holy Scripture and Church teaching in support for a beginning of the universe.
Prior to the 1920s, scientists had always assumed the universe was stationary and eternal. In 1917, Einstein applied his new General Theory of Relativity to cosmology, and found that it would not permit an eternal, static model of the universe unless he fudged the equations in order to offset the gravitational effect of matter. This was the beginning of what would lead to the "Big Bang Theory," accepted by all scientists today. The standard model describes a universe which is not not eternal in the past, but which came into being a finite time ago. Not only all matter and energy, but even time and space themselves came into being at the initial cosmological singularity out of nothing or ex nihil. This is exactly the teaching of the Church!!
The Kalam Cosmological Argument (taken from a Mohammedan philosopher Al-Ghazali), is brilliant and has made discussions of God's existence come alive again in academia. (Let's remember that Aquinas used the pagan philosopher Aristotle's ideas that were judged sound by right reason. So too, we can do the same with an infidel). The argument states:
1. That which begins to exist has a cause.
2. The universe began to exist.
3. Therefore, the universe has a cause
We know the truth of (1) from our experience and science. An atheist would be forced to admit of miracles should he deny (1). We know the truth of (2) from science (Big Bang). We know the truth of (3) from the logical deduction of (1) and (2). Moreover, this cause must be:
- Outside of time and space, because they did not yet exist.
- Of enormous power to create out of nothing (ex nihil)
- A personal Being of infinite intellect because He created by means of an intelligent design
Summary and Conclusion
- The Galileo affair has nothing to do with a "papal error"
- True science and true faith cannot contradict each other, as God is the author of science and has revealed the truth about Himself to His One True Church
- Modern science has given new proofs of God's existence
To adjust an old phrase, by "learning how the heavens go," maybe we can strengthen our Faith and devotion so we know better "how to go to Heaven."