Making Friends With Galileo

As a recent reversal by the Catholic church suggests, faith and science need not be enemies.

Last fall, Pope John Paul proclaimed that the Roman Catholic Church erred in condemning Galileo for arguing against the accepted view of the Earth as the center of the universe. The pontiff noted that the verdict of the 1633 trial became a symbol of the church’s “supposed rejection of scientific progress.”

What implications does this admission have for the church today? How can Galileo serve as a current model for understanding the scientific and biblical views of nature?

First we need to put the record straight. Galileo’s primary enemies who engineered his downfall were the Aristotelian natural philosophers (scientists) in the academic establishment. Beginning with his student years in 1581 at the University of Pisa, he continually challenged his professors. On point after point, he demonstrated how their inherited science was in error.

Galileo promoted an entirely new way of doing science based on experiment and mathematical analysis. He was not content to argue in Latin in the faculty lounge, but attacked the professors in lectures and pamphlets. Galileo’s major lifelong battle was to free the new science from the authority of philosophy.

After 20 years of defeat on academic turf, Galileo’s bitter enemies formed a league to muzzle him on theological grounds. In 1614 they enlisted a fiery young priest to condemn as heresy his promotion of the Copernican theory of a moving Earth. Galileo then showed himself a competent theologian in his presentation to the Holy Office. He made two major points: astronomical theories could not be matters of faith; the new cosmology was in harmony with the Bible, which speaks ...

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