January 24, 2011

For a scientist in religious life, Galileo's troubles look like a warning. The conflict between him and the Church continues to elicit high passions: some years ago, Pope Benedict was rather rudely "exvited" by La Sapienza University in Rome. This was in response to the discovery of old remarks by him that, in the eyes of the physics faculty, unfairly criticized Galileo.

Galileo seems to have become the patron saint of secular scientists in opposition to the Catholic Church. For me, however, he is a different person: an example for perseverance in faith.

Certainly, he was not perfect. He publicly made fun of the pope, who had been his friend and protector. The pope had argued, privately, that we would never know for sure whether the sun or the earth were at the centre of the cosmos. This was hardly unreasonable. Galileo, however, could not accept such scientific agnosticism. In his book, he quoted the pope in an unflattering context.

Galileo strongly believed that the sun stood still at the centre, and the earth was moving around it, and it could not be the other way around. He was certain that he had the proof. He did not, but overall, Galileo took the path a scientist should choose. His work was fruitful and resulted in an ever-better understanding of the world, and for scientists, this is what matters.

The new cosmology that Galileo defended was attacked by theologians (including Martin Luther) on the grounds that it went against the literal meaning of the Bible. The sun, not the earth, is commanded to stand still in the Book of Joshua.

Galileo, however, believed that the truth in Scripture is not the truth of the words in their most direct meaning, but a much greater truth that is discovered only by careful study. He could even quote St. Augustine in his support.

As a Scripture scholar, Galileo was way ahead of his time. It was not until 300 years after Galileo's death that Pope Pius XII formally encouraged Catholic theologians to study the Bible by using modern methods of interpretation.

Galileo truly integrated science and religion. His science inspired the understanding of his faith, and his faith encouraged him to pursue the understanding of nature, wherever it might lead him. Each of the two great books - Scripture and nature - needs to be read by its own rules, but together they speak of the same thing: the humble love of God for all humanity and all creation.


Church authorities felt defied by Galileo, and he was called before the inquisition. In fairness, I should point out that Galileo's trial was in the middle of the 30 Year War; a dreadful war triggered by religious dissent that took a toll not seen again until the wars of the 20th century. It was not a time when religious tolerance was an obvious choice.

When we hear of the inquisition, we think of chains and torture. Galileo's treatment was both less and more than chains and torture. He was much too well connected to be harmed physically.

But his whole life was on trial here. He had dedicated himself to the study of nature and made such wonderful progress, yet, the Church that was at the centre of his life had turned against him.

He was tried, condemned and sentenced to house arrest.

Galileo persevered, both in his faith and in his pursuit of science. He continued to work. Arguably, he did his best work after the trial. But the condemnation of his work by the Church must have been spiritually devastating. Yet, he remained a faithful Catholic, in spite of his mistreatment by Church authorities.

Maybe, just as he could see the deeper truth in Scripture, he knew that the Church is much more than the many mistakes of her leadership.

(This article was originally published on Brother Joachim's online blog where he writes about science and religion: brotherjoachim.blogspot.com.)