What 21st Century Christians Can Learn From The 17th Century Controversy
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.
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."
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.
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?
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
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
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."
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.
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.
you want to talk with someone in person, please feel free to call: 917-439-2305
The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.