International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

The Church and Galileo

edited by Ernan McMullin

Introductory Essay by Michael Ruse

The Galileo affair is probably the best-known, certainly the most notorious, episode in the history of science. Charged with heresy, a hundred years after Copernicus had first announced the heliocentric theory of the universe, the aged Galileo Galilei – one of the most brilliant scientists of all time – was made to abjure this theory and was sentenced to house imprisonment for the rest of his life. Moreover, in the nearly four hundred years since it all happened, matters have taken on a life of their own. Critics of religion argue non-stop that what happened to Galileo is but the tip of the iceberg, and that it is a lens into the total hostility of Catholicism toward any significant scientific advance. Supporters of religion argue that it was an anomaly, that the Catholic Church, taken overall, has a strong claim to being science-friendly, and that the Galileo affair was chiefly a function of the Counter-Reformation, when the Church was trying to be even more biblically-based than the Protestants.

It has not helped that in the centuries after Galileo the Church has, at best, but grudgingly allowed that it made a mistake. It was therefore very welcome when the late Pope John Paul II in 1979 created a new commission to re-evaluate the whole sorry episode. Unfortunately, partly because the members were old and often sick and partly because no appropriate experts were included, the report (released in 1992) left much to be desired. Hence, Ernan McMullin – Catholic priest and historian and philosopher of science – organized a conference to yet again go over the Galileo troubles, looking at the science, at the philosophical and theological background, at the personalities, at what happened, and how things have been judged since. The Church and Galileo is the result, and it is the essential foundation for any understanding of what happened back in the sixteenth century.

The book is divided into three parts. The first, The Storm Gathers, deals with the background. We see how the Church was initially suspicious of the Copernican hypothesis and how this grew into full-blown condemnation, partly as heliocentrism was explored and understood and the implications grasped, and partly as tensions came from without as the Protestants exploded in number and influence. Then second part, The Storm Breaks, deals with the whole controversy. We go from the initial moves, with the Church banning Copernicanism (1616), through the election of a new pope, Urban VIII (1623), a friend of Galileo and hence thought to be favorable to the scientist’s work, on to the publication of the Dialogue on Two Chief World-Systems (1632) and the pope’s subsequent anger and sense of betrayal, to the trial (1633) and sentence. The final part, The Aftermath, deals with the science of Italy in the years after Galileo, the Church’s later somewhat ham-fisted attempts to come to terms with the affair, and the sorry story of the commission created by John Paul II.

There will never be such a thing as the definitive work on the Galileo affair. New information is still coming out, and new interpretations come along with each generation, reflecting present concerns as much as anything from the past. However, for all time to come, this collection will surely be one of the most significant and important sources for those who would understand the Galileo affair, in particular, and how science and religion can come into conflict in general.