“Yet It Does Move!”
“THE Bible teaches how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go,” said the 16th-century Italian scientist and inventor Galileo Galilei. Beliefs like that one threw him into conflict with the Roman Catholic Church, which threatened him with torture and imprisonment. Some 350 years later, the church reviewed its treatment of Galileo. What took place in Galileo’s day has been called a “confrontation between empirical science and blind dogmatism.”
Today, searchers for truth can learn from Galileo’s experience. But why did such a confrontation ever occur? A look at the accepted scientific views of his time will provide the answer.
In the mid-16th century, the earth was thought to be the center of the universe. Planets were assumed to orbit in perfect circles. Although not proved by scientific methods, these ideas were accepted in faith as established fact. Indeed, science with its “mystic ideas” was inseparable from religion.
Into such a world Galileo was born to a respected family in Pisa in 1564. His father wanted him to study medicine, but the inquisitive boy became fascinated by mathematics. In time, as a professor of science, he discovered certain principles of inertia. When descriptions of early Dutch telescopes reached him, he greatly improved on the design and built his own superior instrument. He turned it toward the heavens and published what he learned in his first book, Sidereus Nuncius (The Starry Messenger), introducing four moons of Jupiter to his generation. In 1611 he was called to Rome, where he presented his findings to the Jesuit Collegio Romano (Roman College). They honored him by a conference in which they acknowledged his findings.
Teachings Opposed by the Church
Ominously, before Galileo left Rome, a powerful Jesuit, Cardinal Bellarmine, instigated an inquiry into Galileo’s teachings. Galileo believed that creation is governed by laws that men can learn through study. The Catholic Church opposed this view.
Even some astronomers objected to Galileo’s opinion. They believed that it was impossible for the telescope to enhance reality and that the invention was a hoax. One priest even suggested that the stars seen had been built into the lens! When Galileo discovered lunar mountains, confirming that the heavenly bodies were not perfect spheres, the priest Clavius countered that the moon was encased in crystal, so that, although one might see through to the mountains, it was still a perfect ball! “This,” said Galileo in response, “is a beautiful flight of the imagination.”
Galileo’s drive to read from the “Book of Nature,” as he called the study of creation, led him to the work of the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus. In 1543, Copernicus had published a book arguing that the earth revolved around the sun. Galileo verified this. However, this pitted Galileo against the scientific, political, and religious establishment of his day.
While the Catholic Church used Copernican astronomy for setting dates, such as Easter, Copernicus’ views had not been officially adopted. The church hierarchy backed Aristotle’s theory that the earth was the center of the universe. Galileo’s new ideas, however, challenged their reputation and power.
Although independent scientists across Europe worked to confirm the Copernican system, they were content to discuss it within the academic world. On that basis the Catholic Church let them alone. Galileo wrote not in Latin but in the Italian of the common man and thus popularized his discoveries. The clergy felt that he was challenging not only them but God’s Word.
Not a Science Manual
Of course, discovering the facts about the universe is not truly a challenge to God’s Word. Students of that Word realize that the Bible is not a science manual, though it is accurate when it touches on scientific matters. It was written for the spiritual development of believers, not to teach them physics or some other natural science. (2 Timothy 3:16, 17) Galileo agreed. He suggested that there are two types of language: the precise terms of science and the everyday words of the inspired writers. He wrote: “It is needful in the Scriptures . . . to accommodate these to the understanding of ordinary people, to say many things which appear different (as to the meaning of the words) from absolute truth.”
There are examples of this in various Bible texts. One is Job 38:6, where the Bible speaks of the earth as having “pedestals” and a “cornerstone.” Some misused this as evidence that the earth is fixed. Such expressions are not meant as a scientific description of the earth but, rather, poetically compare the creation of the earth to the erection of a building, with Jehovah as the Master Builder.
As biographer L. Geymonat points out in his book Galileo Galilei: “Narrow-minded theologians who wanted to limit science on the basis of biblical reasoning would do nothing but cast discredit upon the Bible itself.” For selfish reasons stubborn men did exactly that. A letter was sent to the Holy Office calling for an investigation of Galileo.
On February 19, 1616, Catholic theologians were presented with two propositions: (1) “the sun is the center of the universe” and (2) “the earth is not the center of the universe.” On February 24 they ruled these ideas foolish and heretical. Galileo was ordered not to hold to or teach such theories.
Galileo was silenced. Not only was the Catholic Church against him but his friends had been powerless to help. He simply devoted himself to research. Had it not been for a change of pope in 1623, we may not have heard of him again. Word reached Galileo that the pope would not object to a new book. He even had an audience with the pope. After this apparent indication of open-mindedness by the pope, Galileo went to work.
Although Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems was first published under Catholic license in 1632, papal enthusiasm soon vanished. At 70 years of age, Galileo was summoned to appear before the Inquisition a second time. The charge of suspicion of heresy required that the church authorization to publish the book be explained first, and it was asserted that Galileo fraudulently concealed the earlier ban on teaching Copernicanism. Since Dialogue compared astronomical systems, including that of Copernicus, it was asserted that it violated the ban.
Galileo responded that his book was critical of Copernicus. It was a weak defense, for in the book a most convincing case had been made for Copernicus. Furthermore, the pope’s words were put in the mouth of the most dull-witted character in the book, Simplicio, thus offending Pope Urban VIII.
Galileo Convicted of Heresy
Galileo was found guilty. Already ill and having been threatened with torture unless he recanted, he did. On his knees he swore: “I do abjure . . . the said errors and heresies . . . I shall never again speak . . . such things as might bring me under similar suspicion.” Interestingly, legend has it that upon rising, he struck the earth and mumbled, “Eppur si muove! [And yet it does move!]”
The sentence was imprisonment and penances until his death, which occurred nine years later. A letter he wrote in 1634 said: “It is not any opinion of mine that started the war, but my being in the bad graces of the Jesuits.”
In 1822 the ban on his works was lifted. But not until 1979 did Pope John Paul II reopen the question and admit that Galileo had been “made to suffer much . . . by the men and the organisations of the Church.” In the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, Mario D’Addio, a noted member of the special commission set up by Pope John Paul II to review Galileo’s 1633 conviction, said: “The so-called heresy of Galileo does not seem to have any foundation, neither theologically nor under canon law.” According to D’Addio, the Inquisition court overstepped its authority—Galileo’s theories did not violate any article of faith. The Vatican newspaper admitted that the conviction of Galileo for heresy was baseless.
What do we learn from Galileo’s experience? A Christian should realize that the Bible is not a science textbook. When a conflict appears to exist between the Bible and science, he need not try to reconcile every “discrepancy.” After all, Christian faith is based on “the word about Christ,” not on scientific authority. (Romans 10:17) Besides, science is continually changing. A theory that appears to contradict the Bible and that is popular today may tomorrow be discovered to be in error and be rejected.
Yet, when pointing to the case of Galileo to demonstrate religious suppression of science, scientists would do well to remember that Galileo’s discovery was not accepted by the research establishment of his day. Contrary to contemporary thought, the Bible was not out of harmony with that truth. God’s Word needed no revision. It was the Catholic Church’s misinterpretation of the Bible that caused the problem.
Everyone should be moved by the exquisite harmony and natural law in the universe to a greater appreciation of the Creator, Jehovah God. Galileo asked: “Is the Work less noble than the Word?” The apostle answers: “[God’s] invisible qualities are clearly seen from the world’s creation onward, because they are perceived by the things made.”—Romans 1:20.