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Galileo: What 21st Century Christians Can Learn From The 17th Century Controversy

Live from the Church of Santa Croce, Florence, Italy

During a recent trip through northern Italy, I happened to be reading a wonderful book that deals, among other things, with one of the seminal events in the long and complicated relationship between science and religion. Galileo's Daughter tells the story of the relationship between one of the great scientific minds in western history and his daughter, Maria Celeste, a nun. From the confines of her cloister, Maria carried on a life long correspondence with her father, whom she greatly loved and admired. Their correspondence was especially important to Galileo during those difficult years when he was placed on trial and convicted of near heresy by the church which they both served. 

Maria's life was spent exploring the mysteries of the soul, through prayer and contemplation; Galileo's the mysteries of the physical world, though mathematics and his telescopes which had opened up an entirely new window upon the wonders of God's creation. Neither Galileo nor his daughter saw a conflict between science and religion. As the scientist once put it so succinctly, "Holy Scripture and Nature are both emanations from the divine word: the former dictated by the Holy Spirit, the latter the observant executrix of God's commands."

The hierarchy in Rome, chiefly in the person of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, did not see it that way. Indeed, Galileo's heresy trial is regarded by many as representing a revealing moment in history, for it demonstrates that Christianity is, by its very nature, resistant to change, repressive of new ideas, hostile to the advance of human knowledge, and hopelessly committed to a view of the world which makes it the chief enemy of both human reason and scientific understanding. Reading Dava Sobel's wonderful book goes a long way toward establishing a very different view, illuminating the way in which science and religion have often worked together toward a common goal: the increase of wisdom and understanding. 

My interest in this topic was cemented when I visited the Church of Santa Croce in Florence. Here, along with a monument to the great artist of the Italian Renaissance, Michelangelo, is an equally impressive monument to Galileo. How is it, I wondered, that Galileo lies in such a place of honor and even veneration in one of the principal Roman Catholic Churches in Italy, when he was condemned by that same church, his books banned, his writing censored, and the last years of his life spend under house arrest? 

Part of the answer to that question can be found in cities like Florence, Venice, and Rome, where Galileo had many friends and supporters. In Florence, Galileo had the backing of powerful members of the ruling Medici family who provided the financial support that allowed him to continue his research and writing even after it became clear how controversial some of his ideas actually were. In Rome, Galileo was an honored member of the Lyncean Academy, the world's first international scientific society. Even Galileo's most controversial works were favorably reviewed by members of the society, most of whom happened to be faithful Catholics. In Venice, one of the world's maritime centers, Galileo's telescopes were recognized as vital to navigation. He was, in many ways, a hero and role model to many, including some within the highest ranks of the Catholic Church.

Following his condemnation and sentencing in 1633 by the Holy Office of the Inquisition,  Archbishop Piccolomini of Siena persuaded the Pope to allow Galileo to be remanded to his care. As Sobel writes, "Archbishop Piccolomini, capping a lone line of scholars from a distinguished family that produced two popes, had himself studied mathematics and been Galileo's admirer for many years. Now, in the aftermath of the trial, Piccolomini assumed custody of Galileo ... (in) the archiepiscopal palace, immediately adjacent to the magnificent domed cathedral of Siena. ... The fact that Galileo was able to rise from the ashes of his condemnation by the Inquisition ... is due in large measure to Piccolomini's kindness. A French visitor to Siena in 1633, the poet Saint-Amant, reported finding the archbishop and Galileo together among the rich tapestries and furnishings that filled the guest apartment at the palace engaging each other in discussion of a mathematical theory, which lay partially written on pages spread all around them." 

It was there, in the Archbishop's palace, technically under house arrest, that Galileo was able to continue his research and complete some of this finest work. Thus, rather than seeing Galileo as a lonely prophet of science crying in a wilderness of superstition, it is far more accurate to see him as the focal point of a battle going on both within the church and within society at large. Some of the same Catholic families that commissioned the outstanding art and architecture of that age, also contributed to Galileo's research, insuring that his works would be published and distributed even after he was condemned by the Inquisition. 

Thus it was that from the moment of Galileo' death in 1642 that plans were initiated to insure that his body eventually take its rightful place of honor, alongside Michelangelo in the Church of Santa Croce. One of the principal lessons of this entire story is that the Church has always been, and to this day continues to be, an institution that sometimes functions as a bastion of tradition, while at other times is responsible for inspiring some of the most creative aspects of human culture: the art and the science, the scholarship and the learning. As one who hopes that the Church will more often play the latter rather than the former role, I believe it is entirely fitting that Galileo is today honored and revered in the Church of Santa Croce, while those responsible for his trial and conviction were long ago forgotten. 

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For further reading on the relationship between religion and science

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and Executive Director of
  CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).  
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here.
God and Science (Hypertext Edition, 2005).
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion:
Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).

Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.  

For more information about Charles Henderson.