Robert Mixa responds to the recent article in The New York Times about Galileo, which showcases the often misunderstood relationship between the Church and Science.
The New York Times
has recently issued an article
that is another addition to the supposed legitimization of the secular narrative in placing itself in opposition to the Church’s stance that faith and reason are codependent. Can you guess whom the article is about? Galileo. Talk about obsession! Every secularist invokes the condemnation of Galileo in order to assure themselves, and the world, that faith and reason cannot coexist, inspiring Paola Galluzzi, the director of the Galileo Museum, to say, “He’s [Galileo] a secular saint, and relics are an important symbol of his fight for freedom of thought.” Just as Galileo was confined to house arrest, secularism fears that faith imprisons the mind and is inherently averse to science. However, this is not true.
In her article, Rachel Donadio assumes that the Church is tied to a biblical view of the universe. That is true. But what she does not understand is that the biblical view of the universe is theological, not scientific. Fundamental to the biblical view of the universe is that it is creatio ex nilhilo (i.e. created from nothing). This means that the universe and the collection of its beings are continually being created and sustained in existence by the pure act of being, God. Does this sound like the Church doctrinally stands by geocentricism? No. Now the Church misinterprets the Bible when it takes it as an authoritative scientific voice, explaining the structure of empirical realities. There is no denying that some theologians of the past have done this, but they are not the sole representatives of the Catholic theological tradition.
What particularly annoyed me in the article was Donadio’s subtle attack on Robert Bellarmine who “had Galileo arrested for preaching Copernicanism.” First of all, Bellarmine died in 1621, nine years before Galileo’s arrest. So if by her referral to Galileo’s arrest, she means his house arrest, Bellarmine would have had nothing to do with it. It is known that Bellarimine questioned Galileo. He warned Galileo to treat heliocentrism as hypothetical rather than necessarily factual. In contrast to a secularist reading, I wouldn’t categorize Bellarmine’s warning as absolutist but in line with the basic spirit of the scientific method: to base the degree of one’s assent to a hypothesis by considering whether there is sufficient reason to believe it. Now given that Bellarmine did not think that Galileo provided sufficient reason for his hypothesis, he was in line with that spirit.
It is always easier to judge the Church for its apparent mishandling of Galileo given our advantage of retrospection. But Donadio has no room for that. She claims that, “Even today…the church has never quite managed to acknowledge that his [Galileo’s] heliocentric theory is correct.” In 1992, John Paul II said that the theologians of Galileo’s day erred in taking the Bible as containing scientific truths. Given that statement, what more does Donadio want? John Paul II’s statement seems to be a pretty explicit statement that we (the Church) are not tied to the condemnation of Galileo. Therefore, if the secularists use Galileo’s condemnation as proof of the inherent tension between faith and reason, they’ve got it all wrong. The Church does not condemn science but embraces its findings. It is only when science arrogantly moves beyond its domain that the Church gives strong caution.
Robert Mixa is a Research Assistant at Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.