GALILEO AND THE BIBLE
The Alleged Contradiction
In the seventeenth century the mathematician-scientist, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) defended the heliocentric hypothesis, according to which the sun was at the center of the universe, and that the earth and the other planets moved around it. This hypothesis was regarded as revolutionary because it contradicted the long-standing geocentric theory of Aristotle, who stated that the earth was at the center of the universe, and that all heavenly bodies, including the sun, moved around it. The geocentric theory was at that time the prevailing theory accepted by many scientists, philosophers and the common folk simply because its teaching could be confirmed by common observation. Even the theologians were comfortable with the geocentric theory because many passages in Holy Scripture are in agreement with it. For example, the following biblical passages make sense under a geocentric model of the universe:
“Then Josue spoke to the Lord, in the day that he delivered the Amorrhite in the sight of the children of Israel, and he said before them: Move not, O sun, toward Gabaon, nor thou, O moon, toward the valley of Ajalon. And the sun and the moon stood still, till the people revenged themselves of their enemies. (Jos 10:12-13)
“One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth standeth for ever. The sun riseth, and goeth down, and returneth to his place: and there rising again, maketh his round by the south, and turneth again to the north: the spirit goeth forward surveying all places round about, and returneth to his circuits.” (Eccles 1:4-6)
“Who hast founded the earth upon its own bases: it shall not be moved for ever and ever.” (Ps 103:5)
The problem is this: Although the Holy Scripture, as well as the opinion of many contemporary scientists and philosophers, seemed to favor the geocentric model of the universe, the facts observed by Galileo through his telescope said otherwise. He discovered that the moons of Jupiter moved around it rather than around the earth; and that the phases of Venus and Mercury showed that they also orbit the sun instead of the earth. In other words, the universe as seen through his telescope seemed to be moving around the sun. It did not take long, after further investigations by Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) and Isaac Newton (1643-1727), that the whole world accepted the heliocentric theory, thus replacing the geocentric model that led the perception and belief of the entire world since at least the time of the Patriarchs.
The question now is this: Did Galileo’s findings contradict Holy Scripture? Some of the theologians of his time thought so, which is why they accused him of heresy. But Galileo himself did not think that his findings contradicted Holy Scripture, and he argued for a clear distinction between the realm of faith and the realm of science. Actually he seemed to understand the relationship between the findings of science and the revelations of Holy Scriptures better than the theologians of his time. See, for instance, the many excellent remarks he made in his Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina (1615).
Resolution of the Alleged Contradiction
The Holy Scriptures always tell the truth. In the Galileo case the discrepancy lies in the fact that the Holy Scriptures was describing the world as it appears to the naked eye, not as seen through a telescope. The intent of the Holy Spirit was to reveal the truths of faith to the common people, not to teach the science of astronomy to simple people for whom such knowledge was unprofitable or irrelevant. That the contemporaries of Galileo were shocked by his findings was understandable, but it did give the Church a great lesson in Biblical interpretation. The case of Galileo reminds us that Holy Scripture has a different purpose than science. To use a remark quoted by Galileo, “The intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how the heaven goes.” Letter, #375-376.
Critics of the Catholic Church have used the Galileo case as an illustration of the alleged "anti-science" attitude of the Church, or an instance disproving the infallibility of the Pope. These allegations are discussed in another page of this website. Click the button below to access the page.
A painting by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)
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