On a star-filled night in Venice in late autumn 1609, the Italian scientist Galileo Galilei first used a telescope of his own design to gaze at the heavens and made discoveries that literally changed how the world was viewed. As part of the International Year of Astronomy’s celebration of the event four centuries ago, the Vatican has honored the work — and the faith – of the great astronomer of Pisa and has released an updated edition of the documents surrounding his famous “trials” before the Holy Office.

For nearly four centuries, even after the apology of Pope John Paul II in 1992, anti-Catholic critics have perpetuated the myth of the Galileo affair. Catholics need to keep talking about Galileo, but not merely to set the record straight. At the heart of the myth is the relationship between faith and science, and nurturing that relationship is impossible if the misinformation about Galileo is allowed to persist.

As Cardinal Paul Poupard, the former head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, lamented in a recent interview, “This is a myth, but myths pervade history and are not easily eliminated.”

The Galileo myth began not in Venice in 1609, but many years before in Poland, where the devout Catholic priest and scientist Nicolaus Copernicus (d. 1543) labored to prove the ancient theory of heliocentrism — the idea that the sun and not the earth was the center of the universe.

Heliocentrism Discussed

Copernicus was not merely supported in his work by Catholic scientists, including the Jesuits in Rome; in 1543 he actually dedicated his masterwork on the theory, “On the Revolution of the Celestial Orbs,” to Pope Paul III. Indeed, Church officials raised no major objections as long as heliocentrism was presented as a hypothesis and not undisputed fact.

Copernicus, however, allowed the formal publication of the book only on his deathbed because he knew he would be assailed by Protestants and scientists alike. Martin Luther condemned heliocentrism as it seemed to contradict a literal interpretation of Scripture, such as Psalms 93 (“he has made the world firm, not to be moved”) and 104 (“You fixed the earth upon its foundation, not to be moved forever”).

But even more important, almost all scientists of the time considered the notion ridiculous. As far as they were concerned, both Aristotle in the fourth century B.C. and the great astronomer Claudius Ptolemy in the second century A.D. had settled the issue, and using the mechanics of the universe as they were then known, they could seemingly verify that the earth was the center of the universe.

How was it possible, then, that Galileo was dragged before the Inquisition if the Church was not opposed to progress? The answer rests in the personality of the astronomer from Pisa, Italy.

Prior to his first encounter with the telescope in 1609, Galileo had won renown as an outstanding scientist and the author of a series of laws on falling bodies. Drawn to new scientific advances, he was fascinated by the telescope, which had made its appearance in Holland. He wasted no time in building one for himself, improving its range and taking credit for the invention.

What Galileo Saw

What Galileo saw when he peered through the lenses was a shattering experience for a methodical mind raised in the Aristotelian universe. The moon was not a perfect sphere as he had been taught. It was rough and dotted with great valleys and jagged mountains. Jupiter had at least four of its own moons, and Venus had phases, meaning that it had to be circling the sun and not the earth.

Galileo’s announcement of his discoveries was met with initial doubt and then great excitement by the Jesuit scientists in Rome, although they were not yet ready to embrace the Copernican theory as fact. They preferred the hypothesis of another astronomer, Tycho Brahe, that the planets save for the earth orbited the sun. Galileo was nevertheless given a jubilant welcome to Rome in 1611 and was warmly received by Pope Paul V.

Galileo then returned to Florence to continue his research, but here his irascibility betrayed him, for he gave himself to the cause of convincing the world to embrace the Copernican theory.

The crusade on which he embarked proved a difficult one as scientists were thoroughly committed to the geocentric hypothesis, and Galileo lacked sufficient empirical proof of his contention (the theory was not proven for another century).

Undaunted, Galileo wrote tracts and pamphlets belittling his enemies as children or imbeciles with their heads in the clouds.

His intemperate manner soon caused new problems. He chose to disregard the warnings of his friends across Italy and moved the discussion out of the realm of science and into theology by attacking the criticism that the hypothesis contradicted a literal interpretation of Scripture.

In his famed “Letter to Castelli,” Galileo cited arguments by both Augustine and Thomas Aquinas that Scripture can rely on figurative language and does not intend to teach science, or, as the dictum attributed to the Church historian Cardinal Cesare Baronius suggested, the Holy Spirit intends “to teach us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.”

In this he anticipated later biblical theology (such as Pope Leo XIII’s 1893 encyclical Providentissimus Deus, and Pope Pius XII’s 1943 encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu). But theologians in 1616 were still dealing with the catastrophe of the Protestant Reformation and were little disposed to accept some interpretation of Scripture from the acerbic astronomer.

Still, no less a personage than Cardinal St. Robert Bellarmine declared that Galileo was perfectly free to maintain Copernicanism as a working hypothesis and added that if there were proof that the earth orbited the sun, “then we should have to proceed with great circumspection in explaining passages of Scripture which appear to teach the contrary.”

Unwilling to let the matter rest, Galileo forced the issue by going to Rome to batter his critics into submission. The exasperated Pope Paul V turned the matter over to the Holy Office.

Initial Adjudication

Galileo was not personally condemned, but he received from the hand of Cardinal Bellarmine a remonstrance that omitted the word “heresy” and insisted that he neither hold nor defend the theory. Curiously, an addendum never seen by Galileo was inserted into his file — perhaps by an excessively officious secretary in the Holy Office — that he should abstain altogether from teaching or defending the opinion and even from discussing it.

There the matter rested until 1623 when Galileo’s longtime friend and protector, Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, was elected pope and took the name Urban VIII. Encouraged by his friend’s election, Galileo felt free to publish his famous “Dialogue on the Two Great World Systems,” a subtle defense of Copernicanism.

This work did not violate the technical requirements of the 1616 injunction, but it did exceed the dubious memo added to the file. Galileo used the work to humiliate the followers of Aristotle and Ptolemy and partly based one of the main participants in the dialogue, the dimwitted figure of Simplicio who speaks in defense of the geocentric theory, on some of the friendly arguments offered by Pope Urban. Feeling betrayed by Galileo, the Pope allowed a new inquiry.

The increasingly frail 68-year-old scientist was brought back to Rome in 1632, and the session before two Holy Office representatives has passed into legend as the dark moment when the Church declared war on reason.

Galileo was not imprisoned in a dungeon of the Holy Office. He resided in a pleasant apartment and his meals were prepared by the chef from the Florentine embassy. The “trial” ended with Galileo commanded to abjure the theory and remain silent in keeping not with Cardinal Bellarmine’s request but the terms of the addendum.

He was then permitted to lead a comfortable life and continued to conduct significant scientific studies. He died in 1642 with the sacraments and a penitent’s prayer on his lips.

Today’s Propaganda

The Holy See has been accused of forcing Galileo to recant under pain of torture and proclaiming infallibly that the earth is the center of the universe.

This is pure propaganda. Galileo was at no time threatened with torture, and the pope issued no infallible statement. Rather, the Holy Office rendered an essentially canonical decision aimed at disciplining a Catholic they feared might be leading the faithful into confusion and who was lecturing the Church as to what should be believed.

The Church never declared the Copernican theory a heresy, nor was the decree deemed an irreformable one. In 1741, Pope Benedict XIV granted an imprimaturto the first edition of the complete works of Galileo. In 1757, a new edition of the Index of Forbidden Books allowed writings that supported the Copernican theory.

Unquestionably, while Galileo was given a relaxed imprisonment, it was nevertheless a form of incarceration, and that was unjust. But the key issue for Catholics in the Galileo affair is the relationship between Church leaders and science. That relationship proved dysfunctional in the case of Galileo.

To understand what went wrong, Pope John Paul II, in 1981, established a commission to reevaluate the Vatican’s dealings with Galileo. In 1992, the commission concluded that the incident was the result of “tragic mutual incomprehension” between the scientist and theologians who “failed to grasp the profound nonliteral meaning of the Scriptures when they described the physical structure of the universe. This led them unduly to transpose a question of factual observation into the realm of faith.”

Today, the Church can speak forcefully on the mutual relationship that must exist between faith and reason, and why Catholics are obligated by truth to work courageously to promote that bond. Refuting false notions about the past is one aspect of our mission.

As Pope John Paul wrote in 1988 in a memorable letter to the director of the Vatican Observatory:

“Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish. For the truth of the matter is that the Church and the scientific community will inevitably interact; their options do not include isolation.”

Pope John Paul ll on the Galileo Myth

Taken from  the English translation of Pope John Paul II’s address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which appeared in L’Osservatore Romano Nov. 4, 1992.

From the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment down to our own day, the Galileo case has been a sort of “myth,” in which the image fabricated out of the events was quite far removed from reality. In this perspective, the Galileo case was the symbol of the Church’s supposed rejection of scientific progress, or of “dogmatic” obscurantism opposed to the free search for truth.

This myth has played a considerable cultural role. It has helped to anchor a number of scientists of good faith in the idea that there was an incompatibility between the spirit of science and its rules of research on the one hand and the Christian faith on the other. A tragic mutual incomprehension has been interpreted as the reflection of a fundamental opposition between science and faith. The clarifications furnished by recent historical studies enable us to state that this sad misunderstanding now belongs to the past….

From the Galileo affair we can learn a lesson which remains valid in relation to similar situations which occur today and which may occur in the future….

In Galileo’s time, to depict the world as lacking an absolute physical reference point was, so to speak, inconceivable. And since the cosmos, as it was then known, was contained within the solar system alone, this reference point could only be situated in the earth or in the sun. Today, after Einstein and within the perspective of contemporary cosmology neither of these two reference points has the importance they once had. This observation, it goes without saying, is not directed against the validity of Galileo’s position in the debate; it is only meant to show that often, beyond two partial and contrasting perceptions, there exists a wider perception which includes them and goes beyond both of them….

There exist two realms of knowledge, one which has its source in Revelation and one which reason can discover by its own power. To the latter belong especially the experimental sciences and philosophy. The distinction between the two realms of knowledge ought not to be understood as opposition. The two realms are not altogether foreign to each other, they have points of contact. The methodologies proper to each make it possible to bring out different aspects of reality.