David Bentley Hart
When he appealed to the church fathers, to Augustine in particular, in defense of his claim that the scriptures ought not to be regarded as a resource for scientific descriptions of reality, he was entirely in the right. The ancient and mediaeval church had always acknowledged that the Bible ought to be read allegorically in many instances, according to the spiritual doctrines of the church, and that the principal truths of scripture are not confined to its literal level, which often reflects only the minds of its human authors. Origen, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine—all denied that, for instance, the creation story in Genesis was an actual historical record of how the world was made (Augustine did write what he called a 'literal' interpretation of Genesis, but it was not literal in any sense a modern fundamentalist would recognize). And figures as distant from one another in time as Augustine and Aquinas cautioned against exposing scripture to ridicule by mistaking the Bible for a scientific treatise. In the seventeenth century however, in response to Protestant critique, the Catholic Church had become considerably more diffident in the latitude with which it interpreted the Bible, and views that a century or two earlier could have been expressed without exciting even very much institutional notice began to look to some eyes profoundly dangerous.
That said, in the years leading up to his trial, Galileo had enjoyed the amity and support of a number of important men within the church. He was respected—even revered—by some of the most brilliant Jesuit astronomers of his time, who confirmed many of his observations, such as the uneven quality of the moon's surface, the existence of sunspots, and the phases of Venus; this last observation, in fact, convinced many of them to abandon the Ptolemaic system for the Tychonic. Even when Galileo had more or less confessed himself a Copernican in 1613, he was not repudiated by his friends or censured by the church, and he even acquired new allies. Tommaso Campanella (1568-1616), the tirelessly controversial Dominican, wrote in his defense in 1616 and 1622; and the Carmelite Paolo Antonio Foscarini (c.1562-1616) argued that Galileo was correct to deny the irreconcilability of Copernican cosmology and scripture; and both men championed the church fathers' approach to scripture over the novel and rigid literalism of some of their contemporaries. Even after his trial, Galileo was taken in for half a year by the archbishop of Siena before retiring for good to his villa. Of Galileo's friends, none was of greater consequence than Cardinal Maffeo Barberini (1568-1644), who became Pope Urban VIII. Barberini was a malt of enormous culture, whose admiration of Galileo was so great that it even prompted him to compose verse in Galileo's honor, and who, as pope, lavished upon Galileo the sort of attentions-private papal audiences, public accolades, costly gifts,a pension for Galileo's son—that most men could scarcely have hoped for. In fact, he gave Galileo every support within reason, and did not so much as rebuke him for his Copernican sympathies when they first became obvious. This is not really surprising, as Copernicus's book was many decades old by that time; and, while it had both its detractors and admirers among the church hierarchy, it had never caused any great scandal. Indeed, the book's dedicatee—Pope Paul III-quite liked it. Even in Galileo's day, Kepler was championed and protected by the Jesuits. With Urban and Galileo, however, a particularly combustible combination of volatile personalities was introduced into the affair.
Galileo, it must be said, squandered good wilt with remarkable abandon. He was, not to put too fine a point on it, selfish, irascible, supercilious, and mildly vindictive. He could not abide rivals, resented the discoveries of others, refused to share credit with astronomers who had made observations of the same celestial phenomena as he had, and belittled those whose theories differed from his own (his attitude toward Kepler, for instance, was frightful). Incensed that the Jesuit astronomer Horatio Grassi had presumed, in 1618, to describe the movement of comets beyond the lunar sphere without mentioning Galileo—who had, as it happens, done absolutely nothing to merit such mention—Galileo chose to deny that such comets were anything but optical illusions, and for good measure even attacked Tycho's observations of comets. He provoked public controversy where none was necessary once on the rumor that his theories had been deprecated in the course of someone else's private dinner conversation. And his uncompromising demand for an absolute vindication of his theories precipitated the ecclesial consultation of 1616 that—when it turned out that Galileo was unable to provide a single convincing proof of Copernicanism—resulted in an injunction (of great gentleness, actually) admonishing Galileo against teaching the Copernican system. As for Galileo's decisive trial in 1633, it was, as Arthur Koestler has noted, 'not in the nature of a fatal collision between opposite philosophies of existence...but rather a clash of individual temperaments aggravated by unlucky coincidences.' Urban VIII himself had encouraged Galileo to write his Dialogue concerning the Two Chief World Systems, the Ptolemaic and Copernican (1632), enjoining only that it include a statement to the effect that Copernican theory was just a hypothesis and that no scientist could pretend to know perfectly how God had disposed the worlds. Galileo did include such a statement in the dialogue, at its conclusion in fact, but decided to place it on the lips of a ponderously obtuse character whom he tellingly named Simplicio, a doctrinaire Aristotelian placed in the dialogue so as to provide a foil for the wise Copernican Salviati and a comical contrast to Sagredo, the clever scientific novice; and, to heap one insult upon another, Simplicio attributes the formula to an 'eminent and erudite personage, before whom one must needs fall silent.' This was, to all appearances, an unwarranted and tasteless affront to a cultured and generous friend, and Urban—an Italian gentleman of his age, a prince of the church, and a man of enormous personal pride-took umbrage.
More importantly, though, and too often forgotten, Urban was entirely right on one very crucial issue: the Copernican model uses tn fact only a hypothesis, and a defective one at that, and Galileo did not have either sufficient evidence to support it or a mathematical model that worked particularly well. Though Galileo was far and away the greatest physicist of his age (and indeed of human history to that point), he was not an astronomer in the fullest sense—he was more a brilliant stargazer—and seems to have been little interested in the laborious observations and recondite calculations of those who were. Hence, he seems not to have cared how impossibly complicated and unconvincing Copernicus's model of the heavens was. It is not even certain that by 1632 clearly recalled how the Copernican system worked. He did not avail himself (though he was perfectly and resentfully aware) of Kepler's elliptical planetary orbits, which were encumbered by none of the inconsistencies and internal corrections and physical impossibilities of the Ptolemaic and Copernican systems. Instead, he insisted along with Copernicus upon the circular movement of the planets, with all the mathematical convolutions this entailed. He had no better explanation than Copernicus for the absence of any observable stellar parallax, even when the stars were viewed through a telescope. And his most cherished proof of terrestrial rotation—the motion of the tides—was manifestly ludicrous and entirely inconsistent with the observable tidal sequences (he dismissed Kepler's entirely correct lunar explanation of the tides as a silly conjecture concerning occult forces). Galileo elected, that is, to propound a theory whose truth he had not demonstrated, while needlessly mocking a powerful man who had treated him with honor and indulgence. And the irony is, strange to say, that it was the church that was demanding proof, and Galileo who was demanding blind assent—to a model that was wrong. None of which exculpates the Catholic hierarchy of its foolish decision or its authoritarian meddling. But it is rather ridiculous to treat Urban VIII as a man driven by religious fanaticism-there is good reason to doubt that he even believed in God with any particular conviction—or Galileo as the blameless defender of scientific empiricism. And Christians certainly are under no obligation to grant, on account of this ridiculous squabble, that the church or their faith was somehow a constant impediment to early modern science, when the historical evidence indicates exactly the opposite. Measured against centuries of ecclesial patronage of the sciences, and considering that in Galileo's day (and long after) many of the world s greatest and most original scientists (often in fields that had not even previously existed) were to be found among the Jesuits, one episode of asinine conflict among proud and intemperate men does not exactly constitute a pattern of Christian intellectual malfeasance.