I always enjoy the stuff Dave Withun puts up on his blog Pious Fabrications and particularly the almost daily videos he puts on Youtube. They are well put together and thought provoking, and it’s good to hear a point of view a long way from my own. I’m generally happy just to read or listen and sometimes make the odd comment, but I really can’t let his video on the Trial of Galileo past without question.

It isn’t that I think he is wrong as such. It is certainly factually correct in as far as it goes. He says that the trial of Galileo by the Pope in 1632 is often depicted in an overblown and rather caricaturish way. Well that is true enough. It is also often depicted as an encounter between an all mighty Catholic church oppressing a poor defenceless scientist who just wanted to get on with his work. Again, this is a great over-simplification. By the time it was arresting Galileo, the Catholic Church was already well into the decline in its prestige and influence which has continued to this day. The Protestant reformation was well underway and the scientific revolution was taking off.

The Pope was only in a position to take any action at all against Galileo because he happened to be the actual head of state of a big chunk of Italy.

Galileo was far from powerless. He was a great celebrity throughout Europe and was well aware of it. He had by the time of his trial, at the age of 68, managed to pull off a long and successful career.  He had had no trouble getting his work past Church censors published and talked about. He had good reason to be full of himself. An ego the size of a planet can be excused in somebody who has done so much to explain the workings of the planets. David describes him as a jerk. I don’t think that is really appropriate language, but I’ll concede that it might, just might, be justifiable.

But the thing about science is that it isn’t really about whether someone’s personality is appealing or not. The sole judgement is whether or not what you do contributes to our understanding of the universe. If it does, you have made a contribution. It really doesn’t matter whether or not you are a jerk about it.
In this, if in nothing else, science is much the same as the Catholic Church. What matters is not the behaviour of the members of the Church, but whether their doctrine is in fact true or not. Even if the Pope himself behaves badly, it doesn’t really discredit the doctrine.

This is just as well given the track record. Over the years particular popes have been accused of simony, nepotism, kidnap, mutilation, sodomy – we don’t regard this as a crime any more but I think it is fair to say that the Catholic Church was not in the forefront of this particular bit of social progress – rape, murder and piracy.

Now it is true that Urban the Second was one of the more liberal popes.  He was previously very friendly to Galileo, prior to the putting him on trial and threatening him with torture thing.  Most friendships would find that hard to ignore.   And by the standards of Catholic misbehaviour, simply demanding editorial input into a scientific publication is pretty minor.

But that doesn’t mean that the trial was a trivial matter. It clearly was an attempt by the Church to control science. It doesn’t hugely matter that the model of the Universe the Church was defending was derived not from scripture but from the pre-Christian Greeks. The Bible is pretty vague on cosmology, so you can easily reconcile Christianity with scientific advances.

The trial wasn’t an exercise in fundamentalism, it was an exercise in corporatism. The Church wanted to control what was happening, because that is how big organisations operate. And like all big organisations it wasn’t always tremendously consistent. You can find some people acting one way, like the censor who allowed Galileo’s work to be published. And you can find people acting in the opposite way, like the cardinal who sacked the censor when he found out that he had.  Galileo knew what he was up against. He had been able to work around restrictions in the past, much like a maverick manager in a big company nowadays. By the time of his trial Galileo was old, and maybe wasn’t up to date with the latest politics. He probably didn’t realise that he was putting himself in danger by entering the Pope’s direct jurisdiction.

But whatever, the huge PR disaster the Church brought on itself was well deserved, even if it is sometimes over-egged. It may not have been the tyrannical event it is sometimes portrayed as. And it may not have been a battle to defend a specifically Christian world view. But what right did the Church have to try Galileo in the first place? That it ever did so is shameful.

Galileo was found guilty and forced to recant. Although he was not actually tortured, he was shown the instruments that could have been used. He was not executed, but he was imprisoned. No apology has ever been made for his treatment, but I would infer that the men involved realised the huge self inflicted blow they had just given to their cause’s credibility. The fact that the Catholic Church later accepted evolution so quickly and without any fuss shows how it should be done, and speaks in trumpets that whatever they might say the lesson has been well learned.

A religion is nothing if it is not a living tradition, and the trial of Galileo is part of the Catholic tradition. It can’t be written out. How modern Catholics handle that legacy is up to them. Like any other misjudgement, it can become a valuable source of wisdom. I don’t think David, who like me is not a Catholic, is helping them much by offering an excuse.

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