“verdict against Galileo was rational and just…”

Galileo Galilei didn’t invent the telescope.  But he was convicted of heresy by the Catholic Church.  I’ve mentioned his trial before.  And Pope Benedict XVI’s argument that the “verdict against Gaileo was rational and just, and revisionism can be legitimized solely for motives of political opportunism.” [Adds As tierney comments below, I should have noted that Benedict is quoting the philosopher P Feyerabend]

Today Will Crawley noted the arguments of a Fr Ernan McMullin

On today’s Sunday Sequence, Fr Ernan McMullin, a professor of history and philosophy of science at the University of Notre Dame, argued that the Galileo Affair is widely misunderstood. This was not a clash between science and religion. Everyone involved in the case was a Christian. Galileo wrote many thousands of words on the theology of biblical interpretation as he sought to make sense of the telescopic observations he was making.

You can read a summary of Ernan McMullin’s argument here, in a paper published by the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion.

And Will gets taken to task in his comments zone.

As I’ve said before, “The Un-Enlightenment hasn’t gone away…”

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  • wild turkey

    Thanks for the postage bill PB.

    Now I have to post off to McMullin my copy of The Phenomenon of Man by Teilhard de Chardin.

    … and Notre Dame is known as the fighting Irish.

  • Pete Baker


    Just send the bill to Mick 😉

  • Of course they were all Christian, what difference would that make? Everyone the before the Spanish Inquisition was a Christian.

    The thing then and the thing today is: Do not rock the boat.

  • Sorry, long day (folk lore) I meant to say any poor devil dragged before the Inquisition etc.

  • Cynic

    So presumably the verdict against Jesus was just too?

  • tierney

    PB, your own previous citation makes it clear that the quote that you attribute to Pope Benedict XVI, actually came from Paul Feyerabend – someone it is hard to imagine being more different from Ratzinger. This doesn’t make either of them right, of course, But let’s be accurate, please? Feyerabend’s argument is that Galileo both breached the terms of the contract he had previously made with the church authorities, and in an age when the church has established the right to subject publications to theological scrutiny and censorship, They were perfectly within their legal rights, as well as going along with the scientific orthodoxy held by many – though not all. So if the Catholic church were to apologise, it would have to do so for the entire system of knowledge regulation in the early modern world – not the specifics of the Galileo trial, which was conducted accordinjg to entirely normal procedure. One might well think the Church should do this, but the issues are distinct. As it happens the Italian Inquisition were rather rigorous in following due procedure and the letter of the law – one of the reasons that Italy had very few witch trials in the 16th and 17th centuries, because the evidence was not considered compelling – unlike in many other parts of Europe, in both religious and secular courts..

  • Pete Baker

    I’ve added a reference to the quotation from Feyerabend in the original post.

    And I tend to agree with the argument that the Church was within its, self-described, legal rights at the time.

    But there wasn’t, as you claim, a “scientific orthodoxy”.

    As McMullin points out, it was an orthodoxy prescribed by a Biblical literalism.

  • tierney

    Fair enough, I was reprising Feyerabend’s argument, not my own. Precision is difficult, eh? Although if we don’t want to prescribe a ‘scientific’ orthodoxy, given there was no English-language concept of science at the time (aside from borrowings from the rather broader idea in French), then perhaps we simply shouldn’t be engaging in debates about how the Galileo trial relates to debates around ‘science’ and ‘religion’, or, indeed, ‘enlightenment’. There were, of course, very great and heated debates throughout this period, and indeed in previous centuries, about the wisdom and interpretation of Biblical literalism, so that by no means closed the case.

  • Tochais Síoraí

    I think this guy is on the edge of a descent into some King George like madness. He’s one step away from thinking he’s a small village in Bavaria. Or a Tree.

  • Pete Baker

    Again, I tend to agree.

    But my reference to the Un-Enlightenment is in regard to the present. Not the past.

  • tierney

    Yes, obviously the reference is to the present. So my question is, what light does a trial that happened nearly four hundred years ago, and before the Enlightenment, tell us aboiut current debates? In the particulars of the Galileo case, probably virtually nothing. It can act, however, to draw attention to a wider and very current issue (across many issues), where the rights and power of the Catholic Church are still germane; what happens when a sectional interest or institution (albeit ones with universal pretentions) is allowed to claim jurisdiction over issues generally recognised to be of common interest to all, related to both its members and others according to its own internal rules? This is presumably what you really want to highlight – the danger that Enlightenment thinkers wanted society to escape from. Questions tackling the papcy about the Galileo case simply allows the institution to dodge the more important point, and ineed to shift the ground as Ratzinger did in earlier discussions to a perfectly legitimate one about providing a moral critique of science.

  • Pete Baker
  • tierney

    Not that I want to start expanding on a three-year-old thread, but I think that debate is rather different – though important and interesting. It’s not about jurisdiction or the ability and capacity to contribute to debate, the things I see as being key to the Enlightenment; although the assumption of many in the 18th century that open conversation would lead to wisdom has not always been borne out (not even on Slugger.. ;-)); but whether ‘science’ or anything else (In Benedict’s case, the Catholic religion), can bring about redemption and a restoration of Eden. In this Bacon and Benedict are entirely in it together. Their conclusions about redemption are both (of course) in a Christian framework and both ask an entirely irrelevant question (to my mind, and I guess PB’s too!) Ironically, Benedict’s point is in many ways spot on: science can be dangerous when linked to such redemptive stories / fairy tales. But unlike the equally dangerous potential in Catholic theology, there is nothing in the procedures that Bacon suggested that should lead to such a linkage – which is why, in part, he has proven influential and science so successful.

    But Benedict and Bacon are entirely free to hold their own viewpoints on the issues of the virtues of particular ways of thinking: the ‘Enlightenment’ question is what power they are thereby given to influence the lives of others.

  • Jud

    If anything the modern parallel is with the formation of an orthodoxy around ‘secular environmentalism’ and ‘post-normal’ science.

    At the moment open debate and scientific ‘value’ are judged first around how acceptable the message and messenger are to the end objectives of the current establishment, rather than the merit of the observation or evidence presented.

    We have scientific associations compiling lists of ‘climate deniers’ with the clear personal and financial implications that may accompany showing up on such a list.

    A new and regressive orthodoxy has emerged and we are some way from being back to genuinely ‘enlightenment’ driven science

  • Danny

    Can’t stand that Will Crawley fool. Disgusted that QUB freely associate themselves with him.

  • Damian O’Loan

    I think we can safely say that, until 1992, the Pope would have not only agreed with the rationality and justness of the sentence, but with the idea that Galileo must be wrong because he contradicted Catholic doctrine.

    This argument touches on the distinction between philosophy/science and theology, and the apparent irreconciliability of the two.

    Theology may make use of reason in so far as the predetermined end is the truth as proclaimed in the Bible. Philosophy/science have no such predetermination and can reach no absolute end. Each claims to reach a greater truth, but they are qualitatively different. That is not to invoke relativism, rather to present the positions.

    This is highly relevant today. Debates on stem cell research, euthanasia, abortion or homosexuality must, in religious terms, lead to the predetermined no offered by the Bible (I’ll defer to any Biblical scholars on this point). Philosophers and scientists are free to find other conclusions. Which is not to say they have no ethics, indeed the resurgence of such in the clinical domain is to be welcomed, trying as it must be for researchers.

    This comes back to the synthesis proposed by Aquinas and reluctantly accepted by the Catholic Church, that reason was use of a divine gift, valuable in that could lead to analogies casting light on the nature of God, but always subservient to faith.

    That was the position that allowed the Catholic Church to survive the Renaissance, and is that which Ratzinger appears to believe will allow it to survive this, in some ways comparable, age. This explains his focus on returning to the Bible as a universal answer – even to the current crisis in that Church.

    Catholic doctrine depends on the ‘wholeness and perfection’ of its truth, also emphasised by Benedict in at least one of his encyclicals. Yet this wholeness and perfection, as we see with Galileo, has been revised and updated due to pressure from empirical arguments. That Catholicism has survived such clear contradiction suggests that it will not die the death many have suggested. Unfortunately, in many ways.

  • joeCanuck

    I’m fairly sure that “due process” was done for everyone hauled before the Inquisition and so all those tortures and burnings etc were perfectly legal. Same with Germany in the 1930s – 1940s. I’m sure there were laws passed or legal edicts issued to ensure that the law was followed. So all those Jews, gypsies, dissenters etc got what they deserved.

  • Do you mean the kind of ‘due process’ where the ‘witch’ was, after whatever persuasion, was held under water. If she lived she was guilty. If she died. Yippee – she was innocent…In the year of our lord xxxx

  • tierney

    There are a lot of myths about witch trials, and this is one of them. These kinds of tests were relatively rarely applied, usually when the normal judicial procedures had broken down for some reason. In fact, there are cases where members of lynch mobs applying such ‘tests’ were themselves later tried. There was a lot of variation across Europe – in some places torture was very ‘liberally’ used, in other places, very rarely indeed. In England, the acquittal rate was actually around 50% in witch trials – as it was in other felonies. By modern standards, legal systems were cavalier with evidence, violent, and unreliable. But they were not much like the popular myths that persist about the time.

    There is a difference in this kind of discussion, I think, with the analogy with 1930s Germany. It was pretty clear in the 20th century that the standards being applied in Germany were an aberration in the international context of western Europe (the colonies are a different matter), and that Nazi practices were very different from those of Weimar Germany. This isn’t the case in the Galileo trial. That doesn’t make the Galileo trial ‘right’, and it’s not as if everybody thought so at the time (although in the 1630s all the regimes of Europe, and nearly all of the churches, including Protestant ones, practiced censorship and disciplined members through the use of courts). But it seems rather more pertinent today to see contrition in regard to the 1930s, than for the conduct of trials from the 17th century: unless governments are about to start apologising for witch trials (witchcraft was not actually a criminal offence for any length of time in English or Irish law before 1563), dodgy convictions of horse thieves, press ganging people into the navy, etc. etc. Of course, it IS illegal in many countries to publish material disseminating what are commonly held to be lies about the 1930s and 1940s, and people in the17th century may have felt pretty much the same way about things that mattered to them – however reprehensible or ridculous such beliefs appear today.

  • Tierney

    I wont go into the depths of the subject here, I regret it is too close to ‘whataboutery’.

    I will say that as far as I know the only person charged with witchcraft in Ireland was a lady called Alice Kettle, she escaped, some said to England, unfortunately her maid did not get away.

    I used the ‘witchcraft’ trials, not to change the subject, far from it. I wanted to highlight the unchanging nature of power and the need/desire to enforce it.

  • tierney

    Pippakin, I’m not sure what this discussion has to do with ‘whataboutery’. I just wanted to correct a hoary old myth about witch trials. Irish witch trials were indeed few and far between (and they were also rare in most of Mediterranean Europe, as the offence fell under the authority of the Inquisition here, and they didn’t take it very seriously; in Germany, by contrast, Inquisitors were leading and controversial figures in promoting witch-beliefs). Alice Kettle or Keyteler – if we can believe a story told much later – was charged with heresy in the 14th century (there was no offence of witchcraft on the statute book then). I believe the last Irish accusation that came before a court was in Islandmagee in 1711, and the defendants got a year’s imprisonment.

    Nevertheless, it seems to me that power has really changed quite a lot since the 17th century!

  • tierney

    If I understand the meaning of ‘whataboutery’ it is to take the subject into territory unintended by the blogger. This post was about Galileo and his er, problems.

    And you think power has changed? I dont, only the punishments.

  • tierney


    Okay, that’s new on me. I take it to mean pointless (and usually sectarian) mudslinging, where the ills of them ‘uns are matched and trumped by the ills of us uns. Though I think the discussions has more relvance than you give credit for, because much of the discussions about galileo rests on whether you apologise or debate the speciifc points of an ancient trial as if it has contemporary resonance, or if you take it as simply representative of general legal practice at the time – which surely changes its significance.

    I don’t think we’d have had the nice public conversation that just unfolded above in the 17th century. Is power getting lazy? When as the last time you were dragged before a court for swearing, getting off with someone, or not going to church on Easter – all perfectly normal occurences in the 17th century?

  • tierney

    Pete Baker is probably having apoplexy by now.

    I think the RCC like any other organisation had a need to maintain its power, any challenge to that power was not only dealt with ruthlessly, it was also ridiculed and if possible demonised. The Church/es have never been interested in debating the validity of debate. In recent years they have been forced to, at least recognise the differences between people, whereas previously they would have just stamped it out.

    To the extent that maintaining power is as important now as ever, nothing has changed, but yes you are right, in the past we could not have had this ‘conversation’

  • Pete Baker

    Not quite yet, pip.

    But I would say that tierney’s line that “much of the discussions about galileo rests on whether you apologise or debate the speciifc points of an ancient trial as if it has contemporary resonance, or if you take it as simply representative of general legal practice at the time” misses the point.

    That point is that the Catholic Church held power at the time over such discussions – and Benedict seeks to resume, at least some of, that influence.

    And that the Church hierarchy in Galileo’s time sought to impose a literalist intrepretation of the Bible in opposition to what the empirical evidence, and rational argument, demonstrated was the reality of nature.

  • alanmaskey


    Koestler’s expose of the egocentric Galileo is well worth a read. Galileo was not a team player. He was more interested in helping develop weapons of mass destruction than in furthering science. Why did he go to the Pope (and insult him in his own backyard)) when he had wealthy patrons opposed to the Pope? Why did he fabricate his data and pretend toot have proofs he did not have? Why could he not keep his c–k in his pants? So many questions, so few answers.

    Galileo serves a reactionary agenda. Nothing new there and that is why anti Catholics cannot shut up about him.

    Though Koestler was a suicide and a rapist, on Galileo, he got it right.

  • abucs

    I think to be balanced we have to be thankful for the great part Catholics and the Catholic Church played in discovering a clearer picture of our Solar System.

    What was needed was a strong body to record and teach past findings, to educate current scientists and to bring the great scientists together and let them all hash out their part-truths and resolve the important questions. Whether this be preserving and teaching the writings of Aristarchus, the conversion of Churches across Europe to planetary observatories, the discussion within Universities of Astronomy, the experimental methods and findings of the Jesuits or the taking of findings and theories around the globe by missionaries – the Church provided that vital body.

    The Inquisition got caught with their pants down regarding Galileo, no doubt, but then of course Galileo likewise got caught several times as well in rejecting theories about planetary motions which turned out to be truths. Of course Galileo himself received a Jesuit education and largely following the Polish monk Copernicus in his theories.

    Sure, Galileo was quite dismissive of other scientists (even Heliocentric ones) but his observations of the phases of Venus helped knock out the Ptolmaic view of the Solar System and show at least one planet crosses the plane of the Sun.

    He was a part of a culture which discovered many findings which helped to establish the Heliocentric model. The Church, despite the infamous trial, in no way slowed scientific progress but on the contrary, it was largely responsible for developing and nourishing it in the West.

  • tierney

    I understand PBs point perfectly well. I just disagree with the relevance specifically discussing the trial of Galileo, rather than the entire system of controlling knowledge exercised by the Church in the early modern centuries. And I agree with you both that many in the Church hierarchy would probably want that control back. But the control the Church might want to influence today – actually through encoyuraging voters to elect legislators who would pass laws supporting Catholic positions, which is no different from any other interest group – is based on a moral agenda. We might disagree with this, but it is not the same as trying to wish away or suppress empirical evidence or rational thought. The Catholic Church is not disputing what science can do, but what we might do with it. This is a big difference.

    I would be very happy if the Church and the unEnlightenment went away. But things are not the same as they were,

  • joeCanuck

    Well, Benedict has just announced the creation of a new Vatican office to fight secularism and to re-evangelize the West. I have no doubt that it will be hugely successful and soon we will be able to go forward to the past.