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Galileo Galilei

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English: Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition,...

Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition, painting by Cristiano Banti via Wikipedia

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) was an Italian mathematician and astronomer who was tried and found guilty by the Catholic Inquisition for claiming that the sun – not the earth – was at the center of the solar system. This view had been previously proposed by Copernicus, and it runs counter to the Biblical story.

Forced to recant under threat of torture, Galileo was placed under house arrest where he spent the rest of his days, eventually becoming blind.

Historian of science David C. Lindberg disagrees with the contemporary myth, however, that this conflict was about religion stifling scientific progress. Lindberg says that Galileo’s struggle epitomizes the ongoing political tension between traditionalism and liberalism. And the historical evidence supports Lindberg’s claim.

What we usually don’t hear in the TV documentaries about Galileo is that some scientists opposed and even ridiculed Galileo’s claims, as did the conservative Dominican religious order. However, the more liberal Jesuits supported Galileo (until Galileo insulted and alienated them) along with a few liberal scientists.

So the situation was far more complicated and not so simple as some contemporary opponents of Catholicism (and organized religion in general) tend to see it.

Lindberg also points out that in the 21st century, Catholicism has embraced scientific inquiry while fundamentalist Protestants still adhere to a literal interpretation of the Bible. What Lindberg overlooks, however, is the ham handed way that some Catholics tend to embrace scientific truth claims, calling them “scientific truth” as if they were beyond question or, perhaps, further development. It’s almost as if some Catholics have made a leap of faith to the scientific paradigm that’s so prevalent and, sometimes, potentially dangerous when left unquestioned.¹

To this Neil adds:

I think great care must be used with the word “literal.”

For example, I think it is literally true that the original writings were 100% inspired by God – that is, the writings turned out exactly as He wanted them to.

But do I take every verse literally? No, because some sections are historical, some are poetry, some are parables, etc., and many contain figures of speech. The parables didn’t involved people who literally existed, but they involved principles that were literally true.

When Jesus said it is better to cut off our hands and/or gouge out our eyes rather than sin with them I hope He was using hyperbole :-).

In my experience those who are theologically liberal often take verses just as literally as those they accuse of being literalists. For example, they quote Jesus as saying, “Judge not, lest ye be judged” as a blanket statement against making any moral judgments. Yet that passage is talking about not judging hypocritically and there are plenty of other passages telling us how to judge problem (e.g., John 7:24). » See in context

¹ For example, while extremely vocal on some issues (e.g. homosexuality, contraception and abortion), some Catholics remain mute on other issues, turning a blind eye to vast tracts of wasted human potential and suffering (e.g. the experimental medication of some third world peoples and the excessive and unnecessary medication of some psych. patients). Just why this is so remains unclear. But it possibly involves ignorance and, in some instances, might fit with Michel Foucault‘s idea that morality usually has a political agenda.

Related Posts » Fundamentalism, Infallibility, Ptolemy, Saint

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12 thoughts on “Galileo Galilei

  1. I think you are being too literal with the word “literal.” I know there is some ignorance and fear out there, but most Protestants I know are fans of scientific inquiry. All truth is God’s truth.

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  2. Oh yes, I agree. The United Church is especially open to new ideas, as are the Anglicans and other groups. I was referring to fundamentalists who, historically speaking, are usually regarded as a branch of Protestantism. Fundamentalists generally say that they take scripture literally.

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  3. Hi ep,

    Thanks for the clarification. I know there are a subset who may take things too literally, but I think great care must be used with the word “literal.”

    For example, I think it is literally true that the original writings were 100% inspired by God – that is, the writings turned out exactly as He wanted them to.

    But do I take every verse literally? No, because some sections are historical, some are poetry, some are parables, etc., and many contain figures of speech. The parables didn’t involved people who literally existed, but they involved principles that were literally true.

    When Jesus said it is better to cut off our hands and/or gouge out our eyes rather than sin with them I hope He was using hyperbole :-).

    In my experience those who are theologically liberal often take verses just as literally as those they accuse of being literalists. For example, they quote Jesus as saying, “Judge not, lest ye be judged” as a blanket statement against making any moral judgments. Yet that passage is talking about not judging hypocritically and there are plenty of other passages telling us how to judge problem (e.g., John 7:24).

    Hope that helps clarify what I meant!

    Peace,
    Neil

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  4. Neil, you make some excellent points. In case you haven’t come across this book, Smart says some interesting things about the so-called “reflexive effect” in religion. Worth taking a look if you can find it in the library:

    “The Science of Religion & the Sociology of Knowledge: Some Methodological Questions” by Ninian Smart (1973).

    And I agree that there’s a tendency among denominations to take aspects of the Bible literally when probably these teachings should be prayerfully (and intelligently) applied to daily life.

    Peace with you as well.

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  5. The important point to remember is that the entire Galileo affiar had nothing to do with Catholic doctrine. The Catholic Church has never had any astronomical doctrine. Geocentrism was the widely held scientific opinion at the time and it fit neatly into the hteology of the time. That did not mean there could be no other theory. The Pope never in an ex cathedra manner ruled that geocentrism was an article of the Faith. And the judgements of ecclessiastical tribunals do not determine Catholic doctrine, even if these courts were commissioned by the Pope.

    The Church actually allowed Galileo to hold and teach heliocentrism as a theory. The trouble began when Galielo began to claim it was a proven fact (which it wasn’t at the that time), and insulted anyone who disagreed with him. Then he began to claim that he had the correct interpretation of Scripture. Heliocentirsm was, of course, correct, but Galileo had no business claiming he had the personal authority to interpret scripture. It was when he moved the issue onto theological grounds that he really got into trouble.

    I would recommend the articles on Karl Keating’s Catholic.Com and on EWTN for more information.

    God bless!

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  6. Manny, you touch on some good points that many readers might not be aware of. Thanks for adding even more depth to this thread.

    Allow me, however, to pursue it a bit further. The first issue is about infallibility. It seems that, broadly speaking, there are two main camps on this. One, like you say, stresses the ex cathedra criterion, while others seem to extend the idea of infallibility to just about anything a Pope has ever said about faith and morals in the entire history of the RCC. Do you know of any firm statement, say, in the Code of Canon Law, that would definitively settle this? If so, could you please enlighten me and any others who might be interested.

    The second point is about the heliocentric model. I’d prefer to say that it was more ‘appropriate to the time’ than ‘correct.’ Let’s not forget that it’s just a model.

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  7. The infallibility of the Pope certainly cannot be applied to all of the Pope’s non-ex cathedra statements. Papal infallbly was defined in the First Vatican Council in 1870, in the document Pastor Aeternus, the First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ. It was already widely believed, however, dating back to the early Church.

    Here is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says:

    890 The mission of the Magisterium is linked to the definitive nature of the covenant established by God with his people in Christ. It is this Magisterium’s task to preserve God’s people from deviations and defections and to guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error. Thus, the pastoral duty of the Magisterium is aimed at seeing to it that the People of God abides in the truth that liberates. To fulfill this service, Christ endowed the Church’s shepherds with the charism of infallibility in matters of faith and morals. The exercise of this charism takes several forms:

    891 “The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful – who confirms his brethren in the faith he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals…. The infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter’s successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium,” above all in an Ecumenical Council.418 When the Church through its supreme Magisterium proposes a doctrine “for belief as being divinely revealed,”419 and as the teaching of Christ, the definitions “must be adhered to with the obedience of faith.”420 This infallibility extends as far as the deposit of divine Revelation itself.421

    Note that the doctrine is expressed as a negative. The POpe cannot officially define and promulgate erroneous doctrine. It does not mean that the Pope will teach every truth or know all truth. And it does not mean that the Pope will be sinless.

    Karl Keating’s Catholic Answers (www.catholic.com) explains this last point in this way:

    What infallibility does do is prevent a pope from solemnly and formally teaching as “truth” something that is, in fact, error. It does not help him know what is true, nor does it “inspire” him to teach what is true. He has to learn the truth the way we all do—through study—though, to be sure, he has certain advantages because of his position.

    Jeff Mirus (“Papal Infallibility”, http://www.ewtn.com/library/ANSWERS/MIRINFAL.HTM) notes the following conditions for an ex cathedra statement:

    When the Pope (1) intends to teach (2) by virtue of his supreme authority (3) on a matter of faith and morals (4) to the whole Church, he is preserved by the Holy Spirit from error. His teaching act is therefore called “infallible” and the teaching which he articulates is termed “irreformable”.

    Finally, the statement from Vatican I (Sess. IV, Const. de Ecclesiâ Christi, c. iv):

    “We teach and define that it is a dogma Divinely revealed that the Roman pontiff when he speaks ex cathedra, that is when in discharge of the office of pastor and doctor of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, by the Divine assistance promised to him in Blessed Peter, is possessed of that infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed that his Church should be endowed in defining doctrine regarding faith or morals, and that therefore such definitions of the Roman pontiff are of themselves and not from the consent of the Church irreformable.”

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  8. Thanks Manny, you’ve put a lot of work into this and I appreciate it. I remember another blog discussion that you might find interesting. I”ll just quote a bit here to give the flavor of it…

    “Many folks are unaware that the Catholic Church distinguishes between various levels of infallibility… Some are infallible statements that pertain to dogma (ie things revealed by God) some teachings are “secondary objects of infallibility” (things that are infallible but are not themselves dogmas but connected to them).”

    Article source:

    http://socrates58.blogspot.com/2005/11/where-can-one-find-list-of-infallible.html

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  9. Thanks too! If I may, I would like to suggest four very rich resources for Catholic thought and official doctrine. These are:

    1. New Advent (www.newadvent.org). This site carries the venerable Catholic Encyclopedia. This work was published in the erleir part of the 20th century, but is still very relevant.

    2. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, which can be found on the Vatican website (www.vatican.va). The English transaltion of the Catechism is at: http://www.vatican.va/archive/catechism/ccc_toc.htm.

    3. Eternal Word Television Network (www.ewtn.com) has an excellent searchable document library. It’s at: http://www.ewtn.com/vlibrary/search.asp.

    4. Karl Keatings Catholic Answers (www.catholic.com). There are many documents there on common topics of interest.

    These resources will also lead you to other orthodox Catholic resources. Happy reading!!!

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  10. Manny, I was aware of most of the links as I converted to Catholicism in 2001 and have a considerable interest in theology and contemporary theological issues. I imagine that readers of this thread will also find the links helpful and interesting.

    Although I knew about EWTN I wasn’t aware of the excellent search engine there, so thanks!

    One issue that I’m interested in is the ordination of women. I understand the Church’s position but many feel that its explanation of that position is weak.

    Do you know if the following statement would be considered infallible?

    “For these reasons, in execution of a mandate received from the Holy Father and echoing the declaration which he himself made in his letter of 30 November 1975,[6] the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith judges it necessary to recall that the Church, in fidelity to the example of the Lord, does not consider herself authorized to admit women to priestly ordination.”

    Source: http://www.ewtn.com/library/CURIA/CDFINSIG.HTM

    Thanks again. I really respect your willingness to say what you believe in. And please know that I’m not seeking a defense of the RCC’s position re the ordination of women but rather to find out if it would be deemed infallible.

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  11. I’m not sure if the SCDF declaration would be considered infallible, but many feel that Pope John Paul II made an infallible declaration on the matter in the 1990s (not sure of the date). I have read some articles arguing that his declaration on the matter fulfilled the requirements for such a statement (although he seemed to be a little elss explicit than other Popes who have made infallible, “ex cathedra” statements).

    I must admit that my study on this point is lacking. I’ll try to dig up more on it. The EWTN site has some articles on JP2’s declaration, including an analysis.

    God bless!

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  12. Thanks again Manny. Last night I answered a volunteer question on these very topics at http://www.allexperts.com and directed the questioner to this thread. Hopefully that person will see your most recent comment and perhaps join in here.

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