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Galileo, Galileo: Magnifico
Science and, as importantly, scientific method, are huge blessings for humanity.

Imagine life today without all that science has brought us, particularly in the 20th century. It’s almost inconceivable. Without it, we’d be back in the stone age.

But some people think that putting the words “scientists say” or “science teaches” in front of anything immediately confers the legitimacy of truth on whatever is being proposed. Most media channels and news outlets today are arch-proponents of this. That they are often wrong brings good science into disrepute.

The truth is that scientific ‘discoveries’ simply build upon or even eclipse what was hitherto held correct. Science is as gradual a revelation of the material truths of our universe as it is a renunciation of what was previously thought true

A simple example: Newton, the father of modern physics, described a theory of gravity that held ‘true’ for nearly three hundred years. Along came Albert Einstein whose theory of general relativity superseded Newton’s. If Einstein is right, Newton was wrong. Perhaps, one day, Einstein’s theory, too, will be superseded (that’s why it’s still a theory).

Somehow and at some point, it became a ‘truth’ of our Western culture that science and Christianity are antithetical to each other, that what science offers must be either in contradiction to or renders irrelevant what Jesus Christ proposed 2000 years ago, namely, that He is the way, the truth and the life.

Each media-propounded scientific ‘revelation’ seems designed to further distance reason from faith, science from Jesus. This is strangely self-interested, propagandistic nonsense.

Pope Benedict, when he was still Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, expressed beautifully in 1995 the reality of the intersection of science and the Christian faith in “In the Beginning” when writing about Darwin’s theory of evolution:

“We cannot say: creation or evolution inasmuch as these two things respond to different realities ... The story of the dust of the earth and the breath of God does not explain how humans come to be but, rather, what they are ... The theory of evolution seeks to understand and describe biological developments but it cannot explain where human persons come from, nor their inner origin ... We are faced with two complementary – rather than mutually exclusive - realities”.

Science and Christian faith, says Benedict, simply reveal different aspects of the truth of the universe in which we live. They are two compatible but distinct realities which do not exclude each other.

It’s not for me to judge why any scientist would seek deliberately to exclude the divine from the revelation of scientific “truth” or, conversely, why any Christian would seek to deny the relevance of scientific revelation to our faith.

But, science and faith can together powerfully help to reveal the truth - which will set us free (John 8:32) - of who God is, namely, that He is love (1 John 4:8): together they witness that He created the universe for us to enjoy in freedom what He has made.

I would contend that it certainly suits the interests of the powers of spiritual darkness that these truths about who we are and our place in God’s universe do not come into the light.

Thus, when God says “Let there be light” in Genesis 1:3, His enlightenment of our universe is both physical and spiritual and it is a light that the darkness, despite its best efforts to muddle science and truth, reason and faith, could not overcome (John 1:5).

But let’s get to Galileo because most people who want to rubbish the contribution of the Catholic Church to science over the centuries will typically cite Galileo as the worst example of the way that the Church treats science and scientists.

Galileo, born in 1564, was the pre-eminent scientist of his day at the height of the Italian Renaissance. He was a deeply religious man - he considered the priesthood as a young man and kept company with cardinals and Popes in later life.

Since the 2nd century, the Ptolemaic geocentric view of the universe had prevailed: the earth was at the centre of everything and the stars, the planets and the sun all revolved around it. In the first half of the 16th century, Nicolaus Copernicus, a doctor in canon law by the way, had theorised (yes, yet another scientific theory proposed by an ordained Roman Catholic) that the universe was heliocentric; the planets, the stars and, most importantly, the earth revolved around the sun.

Galileo neither came up with heliocentric theory nor did he invent the telescope (that was Hans Lippershey in 1608) but he did build his own. He observed that Jupiter had four moons, which proved that not everything revolved around the earth. Mars and Venus varied in apparent size: they, too, revolved around the sun, not the earth. The tides suggested that the earth was not a fixed centre-point of everything but, rather, that it rotated on its own axis – Copernicus was right!

The Roman Inquisition concluded, wrongly, in 1615 that heliocentrism was “foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture.” What is probably not so well known is that Galileo himself said “The motion of the earth could never be against scripture if this proposition were correctly proved”.

This was a world wholly alien to us in the 21st century. Christendom and politics were one and the same thing: Christian practice and the faith underpinning it, were another. In fact, Galileo’s biggest error was not the propagation of Copernican theory, which many of his religious contemporaries were content to accept, but rather to have criticised Pope Urban VIII in his publication “Dialogue Concerning The Two Chief World Systems” thereby alienating both the Pope and the Jesuits who had supported him until then.

Galileo was tried by the Inquisition and found guilty of heresy. His punishment? He was placed under house arrest at the age of 70 in his extensive villa in Florence where he lived out the remaining seven years of his life, tended by his favourite daughter, a nun. With the Church’s agreement, she undertook to accept his sentence on his behalf: the reading of seven psalms once a week for three years!

It’s fair to say that aspects of the Inquisition were not the greatest moments of the Catholic Church’s 2000-year history; but neither is it correct to postulate the simplistic notion that here was an illuminated and sophisticated scientist being persecuted by a medieval, outdated and barbaric institution.

The facts are that Galileo was not treated harshly and that he remained a devout Catholic after his trial; but also that the Catholic Church made a big mistake in not seeing this particular writing on the wall. Neither fact should be the basis of any argument for incompatibility between science and faith. Since then, Pope John Paul II, in 1992, has apologised for the way the Church treated Galileo and his views which were proven correct. Until Newton came along...

The Galileo affair highlights an obvious reality: all those involved were human beings; all human beings, theologians and scientists included, are capable of error, and sometimes serious ones. Science and theology, which is another way of saying, Reason and Faith, as different aspects of compatible realities, can – indeed, should – together illuminate our understanding of the universe around us.

God gave us both: why should they not be in harmony and show the Way to the Truth that leads to Life for us all.


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