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Robert wrote:

Hi, guys —

I am attracted to the Catholic Church, though I am a Protestant, but have problems with the Roman Catholic Church's attitude to knowledge. e.g. Galileo.

Galileo was threatened with torture for saying correctly that the earth revolved around the sun.

  • Why should I assume this attitude has changed?

When an ignorant pope can threaten a clever old man, I fear the worst.

Please help me understand this issue.


  { Why should I assume the Church has changed its attitude toward science since the Galileo case? }

John replied:

Hi Robert,

It's wonderful to hear that you attracted to the Catholic Church. This is probably one of many questions you'll have on your journey. The answer is a long one but I'll give you a short synopsis.

First, we need to put historical events in perspective.

Torture was a very common form of punishment in Middle Ages. It was not just members of the Catholic Church that practiced it, but also the early Protestants. Moreover, it was common for civil authorities to torture criminals. Back then, one of the most common crimes was not paying your debts.

For example:

  • some Calvinists drowned the Anabaptists.
  • the Puritans tortured and executed people for Witchcraft in Salem.
  • the Church of England persecuted Catholics.

So this sort of thing was the societal norm. I'm not saying it was right, but the Church, while a divinely ordained institution, is also a human institution and its members are not free from sin.

With respect to Galileo, the Church did not actually oppose his original scientific finding.
One Cardinal, I forget who, but it may have been Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, made a remark
along the lines that:

the Church is in the business of telling us how to get to Heaven.
the scientists tell us how the Heavens work.

The problem arose when Galileo decided to look to Scripture to support his scientific theories.

Remember that the Church was still in turmoil over Luther and Calvin's rebellion. These men were lawyers by profession and not theologians. As a result, they interpreted a Semitic book through their own Aristotelian mind set. As a result, they blew it when they defined justification.

Against this background, the Church was not exactly happy to see scientists trying to be biblical exegetes.

If you wish to go deeper, consider buying a cheap copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church to learn everything we believe as Catholics.

Hope this helps,

John DiMascio

Eric replied:

Hi, Robert —

Let me make a few points about Galileo. First, the Church was not so much opposed to knowledge as she was opposed to going about things the way Galileo was going about them. Copernicus had advanced similar ideas without censure. What got Galileo in trouble is that he published a dialogue that viciously made fun of the Pope — a very career-limiting move.

The Church was concerned about how to reconcile Scriptures that seemed to imply that the sun revolved around the earth with the heliocentric scientific discoveries. She didn't reject heliocentrism but she wanted to proceed slowly and carefully so as not to disrupt the applecart.

Galileo however decided to force the issue and basically make an unnecessary stink, though I'm sure both sides behaved badly. Basically, the Church wanted a bit more time to evaluate this new idea and reconcile it with Scripture, but Galileo would have none of it.

Don't take this personally, but what I find odd about Protestants criticizing what the Pope did with Galileo is that he did so out of a zeal for preserving the integrity of the Scriptures. In short, Galileo appeared to be contradicting the Scriptures, and the Pope was concerned. You would think Bible-believing Protestants would sympathize with this.

That said, we don't have the Church being opposed to science so much as we have Her wanting to exercise caution with ground-breaking ideas. I am not going to argue that everything was done right in the Galileo case but, in general, this caution is not such a bad idea.

Today you will find few churches embracing science as readily as the Catholic Church. She's spent the most time of any church finding ways to reconcile Evolution with the Christian faith. There is a pontifical academy (basically an advisory body to the Pope) on scientific matters staffed by high ranking scientists. She has defended the balance of faith and reason. Heck, universities in the West originated when the Church erected them. She is, I think you will find, the most deeply intellectual of all of the churches. Let's not forget Gregor Mendel, Copernicus, and all the Catholic monks and clergy that have advanced science with the Church's blessing. I think among Christian churches you will find few, if any, churches so dedicated to dialogue with science.

What I would challenge you to do is find another conflict between the Church and science comparable to Galileo in recent times. If my explanation of the Galileo issue doesn't convince you, show me where, right now or in the last three hundred years, the Church has proven itself to be the sworn foe of science.

Yes, the Church will make rulings on ethical issues that involve science, but ethics is within her purview; these are not oppositions to science per se but to applications of science in specific ways. The Galileo case happened half a millennium ago, things have changed, the Vatican issued a public apology, let's move on.

Some good reading might be John Paul II's document on the relationship between faith and reason:

Hope this helps!

Eric Ewanco

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