GALILEO REVISITED: The Galileo Affair in Context
by Dom Paschal Scotti
Ignatius Press, San Francisco
Paperback: 276 pages
Reviewed by Michael E. Daniel
Those who wish to argue that Christianity, Roman Catholicism in particular, is opposed to science invariably cite the condemnation of Galileo. In the popular mind, one need look no further than this example, arguing that it proves that science – which is characterised by open inquiry – is opposed to “blind faith”.
Many people in the community base their understanding of the affair on Bertolt Brecht’s heavily biased play, The Life of Galileo, in which he uses this historical event to advocate his anti-Catholic and Communist agenda, portraying Galileo as a proto-Marxist!
In this study, Dom Paschal Scotti, a monk of Portsmouth Abbey, Rhode Island, and history teacher in the Abbey School, re-examines the case, which, almost four hundred years after the condemnation in 1633, remains controversial.
Ironically, the condemnation was regarded as controversial at the time. Protestant Europe essentially regarded it with contempt; hence, Galileo’s final work was published in the Netherlands, which, being a Protestant state, was outside the jurisdiction of the Inquisition.
Furthermore, Catholic states outside Italy generally regarded the decision of the Inquisition as an abuse of power and unjust, and did not enforce the prohibition.
As the title suggests, central to his study is the premise that Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) must be understood in his historical context. Hence, a significant portion of this work explores in detail the socio-historical background, with chapter one being devoted almost completely to it.
The second chapter explores Galileo’s rise from relative obscurity. Seminal in his rise to prominence is his use of the telescope. Although he did not invent it, his modifications – particularly his increase in the magnitude – enabled him to see objects in the sky more clearly than his predecessors had been able to see.
What is often ignored is Galileo’s motivation for exploring the heavens: his interest in astrology. Ironically, Galileo first became a person of interest to the Inquisition on the basis of a suspicion that he taught astral determinism.
Scotti discusses in detail in chapter three the complex relationship between the Church and astrology. In the medieval and early modern period, it was widely believed that the movement of the heavens could give guidance as to future events. However, beliefs about astrology were balanced against a Christian understanding of free will; hence, those who denied human agency on the basis of astrological predictions were censured.
In the case of Galileo, Scotti notes that the Inquisition decided there was insufficient evidence that he advocated astral determinism, and did not pursue the allegation. However, this factor, together with his growing reputation, meant that his subsequent career was being monitored.
In Chapter three, Scotti explores the career of Nicholas Copernicus, the first modern thinker to advocate heliocentrism – that is, the belief that the earth and other planets orbit the sun – as opposed to the prevailing belief, geocentrism – that the sun and other planets orbit the earth.
In line with other commentators, Scotti notes that the Church was initially not particularly concerned with Copernicus’ writings. However, this attitude changed particularly because of Galileo’s advocacy of heliocentrism on the basis of his discoveries, which seemed to cast doubts on the veracity of certain passages in the Bible, particularly the story of the Battle of Aijalon in the Book of Joshua, in which the sun was supposed to have stood still. Some 16th-century commentators, such as Zuñiga, argued that the Bible did not per se endorse geocentrism, but instead, could be interpreted as supporting heliocentrism.
Scotti argues that, although the Church could have taken a more lenient approach to debates within the scholarly community in matters such as cosmology in the medieval period, in the midst of the Reformation, the Church took a more stringent line. Ideas that seemed to contradict what scripture taught were taboo for the Church, which was on the defensive, having lost half of Catholic Europe to Protestantism by the end of the 16th century.
Towards the end of his work, Scotti contrasts the Church’s approach to heliocentrism and Galileo in the early 17th century to its approach in the Medieval period to theologians such as Aquinas who incorporated Aristotelian thinking into their theological works, which represented a seismic shift in theological methodology.
Whereas in the Medieval period the Church allowed scholars to debate and analyse various proposals and ideas, in the early 17th century it was interventionist, acting too quickly before allowing for sufficient scholarly analysis and debate.
Thus, in 1616, the Holy Office, charged with defending the Church’s teachings, condemned Copernicus’ works. Furthermore, it forbade scholars such as Galileo from teaching or advocating heliocentrism. He was, however, allowed to explore it as a mathematical hypothesis, provided he did not advocate it as a physical truth.
Scotti also reminds readers that, at the time of Galileo’s death, most scientists and scholars did not accept heliocentrism. For example, he draws attention to the fact that, while science ultimately vindicated him, Galileo was widely viewed as a crank by his contemporaries.
It was only in the 18th century that scientific endeavour was gradually able to verify his findings, and produce definitive proofs for heliocentrism. According to this interpretation of Galileo’s scholarship, he advocated hypotheses as facts that he was unable to verify.
Furthermore, Galileo’s temperament and acerbic interactions with other people alienated him from other scholars. This was particularly true of his relations with the Jesuits. Scotti argues that he alienated the very group within the Church that could have used its considerable influence to support him.
Given the considerable strictures imposed on scholars and him in particular in exploring heliocentrism, Galileo also made certain assertions that can only be judged as imprudent. For example, he made observations about the interpretation of the Bible. Being a layman, and not a trained theologian, such comments did not help his cause.
Furthermore, contrary to the Holy Office’s Decree of 1616, in the Dialogue he advocated heliocentrism. He mistakenly believed that, with the election of a Florentine as Pope (Urban VIII), the situation would be more favourable for him to publish his ideas.
Despite Galileo’s imprudent course of action, Scotti argues that ultimately the Church must accept blame for the Galileo affair. Although theologians had approved the Dialogue for publication, Scotti asserts that, in the final analysis, the condemnation was largely due to Barberini’s vindictiveness against Galileo, who personalised Galileo insulting his beliefs in the Dialogue. In Galileo’s advocacy of heliocentrism in the Dialogue, Galileo had the stupid character advocate Barberini’s ideas, which his protagonist then decisively rebutted.
Scotti’s analysis of the Galileo affair is extremely well researched. The author brings to this analysis his considerable understanding of Western history and culture, as well as previous analyses of Galileo, including recent ones. Given the fact that the Galileo affair serves as a cogent warning, a balanced analysis that places Galileo in his socio-historical context is a welcome addition to the public debate. Otherwise, there is the danger that biased recounts of the story, such as Brecht’s Life of Galileo, will continue as the received interpretation. This work is highly recommended.
Michael E. Daniel is a Melbourne-based writer.