Galileo and the History of the Catholic Church
In the history of the Catholic Church, no episode is so contested by so many viewpoints as the condemnation of Galileo. The Galileo case, for many, proves the Church abhors science, refuses to abandon outdated teachings, and is clearly not infallible. For staunch Catholics the episode is often a source of embarrassment and frustration. Either way it is undeniable that Galileo’s life sparked a definite change in scientific thought all across Europe and symbolised the struggle between science and the Catholic Church.
In 1543 Nicholas Copernicus, a Polish Canon, published “On the Revolution of the Celestial Orbs”. The popular view is that Copernicus discovered that the earth revolves around the sun. The notion is as old as the ancient Greeks however. This work was entrusted by Copernicus to Osiander, a staunch Protestant who though the book would most likely be condemned and, as a result, the book would be condemned. Osiander therefore wrote a preface to the book, in which heliocentrism was presented only as a theory which would account for the movements of the planets more simply than geocentrism did, one that was not meant to be a definitive description of the heavens--something Copernicus did not intend. The preface was unsigned, and everyone took it to be the author’s. That Copernicus believed the helioocentric theory to be a true description of reality went largely unnoticed. In addition to the preface, this was partly because he still made reassuring use of Ptolemy's cycles and epicycles; he also borrowed from Aristotle the notion that the planets must move in circles because that is the only perfect form of motion.
At the time, the geocentric theory , endorsed by Aristotle and given mathematical plausibility by Ptolemy, was the prevailing model. It was given additional credibility by certain passages of Scripture, which seemed to affirm the mobility of sun and the fixity of the earth. Most early church officials took it for granted; they really weren’t interested in scientific explanations of the cosmos.
Prior to Galileo’s time, the Greek and medieval mind, science was a kind of formalism, a means of coordinating data, which had no bearing on the ultimate reality of things. The point was to give order to complicated data, and all that mattered was the hypothesis that was simplest to understand and most convenient. Astronomy and mathematics were regarded as the playthings of intellectuals. They were accounted as having neither philosophical nor theological relevance. There was genuine puzzlement among Churchmen that they had to get involved in a quarrel over planetary orbits.
Aristotle had refuted heliocentricity , and by Galileo's time nearly every major thinker subscribed to a geocentric view. Copernicus had delayed the publication of his book for years because he feared not the censure of the Church, but the mockery of academics. It was the hide-bound Aristotelians in...