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Most of us are familiar with the story of Galileo Galilei, the great astronomer and polymath, famous for advancing the idea expressed by Copernicus that the earth and other planets rotate around the sun (heliocentrism).
The story goes that Galileo found proof of heliocentrism in his astronomical observations but was censured, threatened, and arrested by the Church because his ideas ran afoul of religious doctrine. He was thus a great hero for the cause of science.
But the truth is more complicated.
Few people know that Galileo was sponsored and celebrated as a great scholar by the Church and that Pope Urban VIII was one of his fans. For example, when Galileo announced that he had observed mountains on the moon the Church declared a three-day holiday to celebrate this advance in our understanding of nature. His discovery of the phases of Venus and the moons of Jupiter were similarly celebrated. He was favored and supported by many officials in the Church. The attitude of many in the Church toward science was stated at the time by Cardinal Bernadetto, that is, if science shows that something is true that seems to contradict scripture then it is our understanding of the scripture that is at fault, not the science. But this attitude was not shared by all.
Galileo’s later scrape with the Church was in the end more a matter of politics and personality than of science or religious doctrine. Much of the trouble came from the fact that Galileo was, not to put too fine a point on it, such a jerk. He had on many occasions gratuitously insulted and provoked the Jesuits, an activist and scholarly wing of the Church that was especially sensitive to efforts to re-interpret scripture, which they saw as akin to Protestantism. On one occasion Galileo got into a dispute with a Jesuit priest over who had first discovered sunspots. (As it turned out neither of them was first.)
Part of the problem when Galileo first began to advance his ideas about heliocentrism is that he did not yet have the goods. He did not have enough data to prove his case. There were problems with the idea that he had failed to resolve, and not even all his fellow scholars were convinced.
Galileo had not always been correct in his scientific ideas. His theory on the tides was proved to be wildly off. His theory, that the tides are caused by the rotational motion of the earth around the sun and its own axis, predicted that there would be one high tide a day at Venice, and, then as now, there are two. Incredibly, in the face of this contrary data, Galileo continued to insist that his theory was correct, which did not engender confidence in his judgment. (The correct theory is that tides are caused by gravitational attraction of the sun and moon. This concept of the force of gravity had not been realized in Galileo’s time. )
One example of Galileo’s problems is that if heliocentrism were true, as other scholars of the time pointed out, we should be able to observe an annual parallax of the stars. That is, the stars should shift position in the sky as the earth moved around the sun. The parallax was there, but it was too small for instruments of the day to see. Astronomers at the time mistakenly thought that they could gauge the size of stars, and, knowing the size, the stars had to be close enough for a parallax to be easily visible. It was not until decades later that they realized that the stars were too far away for the size to be visible, but this realization had to await the development of better instruments.
To be sure, clergy did advance religious objections to the idea of heliocentrism, but they did it along with the scientific arguments against heliocentrism put forth by their colleagues.
In contrast to Galileo’s stubbornness, the Church was being reasonable enough. On the question of heliocentrism, it was going along with the scientific consensus of the day. They told Galileo he was wrong and to shut up about it, and he did so for many years.
Pope Urban VIII, no longer Pope, had earlier urged Galileo to write a treatise on the issue and to lay out the arguments for and against heliocentrism in a fair and even-handed way. So, Galileo wrote his famous Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. But it was seen as anything but fair and even-handed, making the opponents of heliocentrism out to be fools, which might be supposed to be the case in hindsight. Remember, though, that Galileo did not have the goods at the time, and his book glossed over scientific objections to his ideas. The book was seen as an attack on Pope Paul V and other clergy. Galileo had alienated his own supporters in the Church and given the Jesuits the upper hand. Galileo’s arrest was inevitable. The Church condemned him because his ideas were scientifically incorrect (“foolish and absurd in philosophy”) and formally heretical.
In the fullness of time, Galileo was proven correct, but this had to await more observations and data as provided by improved telescopes and other instruments. As the science matured the attitude of the Church changed and, as before, it went along with the scientific consensus, that is, that heliocentrism is true.