On this date back in 1616, February 26, the Catholic Church made its infamous effort to undo Joshua 10:12 and make the sun move in the sky. Or at least it ordered Galileo to shut up about the fact that it made far more sense to regard the Earth as in motion around a stationary sun. Confirming once again Robert Conquest’s 3rd Law of Politics: “The simplest way to explain the behavior of any bureaucratic organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.” Because to this day almost nothing seems to confirm the beliefs of anti-Catholics that the Church is repressive and obscurantist than this episode.
In my view the charge is not entirely fair. Even when it comes to science, the Catholic Church has very often taken very sensible views, in the spirit of Cesare Cardinal Baronio whose comment about the controversy was “The Bible teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.” But this episode with Galileo is the one that sticks in the popular mind.
And for what? After silencing Galileo the Church went on to ban all books advocating the Copernican system as “altogether contrary to Holy Scripture”. Galileo himself was unrepentant and despite formally accepting the 1616 decree went on to publish his devastating Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems which earned him a trial for heresy in 1633. And a conviction, and house arrest for the rest of his life.
The sun, you’ll notice, didn’t escape from the stationary position relative to our solar system to which Galileo had assigned it. (It is splitting hairs to argue today, as some do, that the Church was sort of right because the sun does move relative to other stars. The problem was declaring astronomy a branch of theology.)
A mere 122 years later, in 1758, the Church dropped the ban on heliocentric books without actually reversing the verdict against Galileo or allowing uncensored version of Copernicus’ key work De Revolutionibus orbium coelestium or Galileo’s Dialogue. Not until 1820 did the Church go “Ooops” for real and lift the ban on the two books, and a mere 15 years later a revised Index of Forbidden Books no longer listed them.
Eventually Pope John Paul II said it was a mistake to go after Galileo. But I am not sure the conviction for heresy was ever overturned. I mean, you don’t want to rush into things, right? Or rather, having rushed in, you don’t want to rush out just because the building is on fire or anything.
As I say, the Church has often done better on science than in this episode. But if you were in fact part of a cabal of its enemies secretly controlling its conduct, and desirous of discrediting it badly in a way that would last centuries, you’d do just about exactly what they did.
P.S. Conquest’s other two laws are “Everyone is conservative about what he knows best” and “Any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing.” The extent to which these also apply to the Roman Catholic Church is a matter for another day.
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