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Historical Notes: Galileo insulted the Pope, not the Church

GALILEO GALILEI, in the early 1600s, was a man driven both by personal ambition and by an impassioned desire to show that Copernican astronomy - the arrangement of the heavens that put the Sun rather than the Earth at the centre - was correct and didn't conflict with religious faith. He had no premonition that he would become, for future generations, the symbol of such conflict.

Galileo was one of the first to scrutinise the heavens through a telescope, finding wonders "never seen from the beginning of the world" and evidence supporting Sun-centred astronomy. The powerful Grand Duke Cosimo II de' Medici became his patron. However, many astronomers in the universities preferred to accept the word of ancients like Aristotle rather than bother with telescopes, and Galileo's way of doing science, examining nature to learn about it, seemed to them foolishness at best, scientific heresy at worst. Galileo's arrogance, his inability to suffer these fools lightly, and his talent for demolishing them with scathing arguments, made enemies.

Galileo was highly regarded by many among the Catholic hierarchy who wielded far more power than these academics, and whom he took greater care not to offend. It was here that the case must be made that Copernicanism didn't threaten religious faith. Galileo wanted to make that case not merely as a political move but out of strong personal conviction. He didn't oppose the idea that the Church should exercise authority in scientific matters. He wanted it to do so, to throw its weight on the side of the truth emerging from his science, a truth he believed did not conflict with Scripture. For a time it seemed Galileo's campaign would succeed. Eminent churchmen discussed his discoveries intelligently and seemed to find his arguments compelling. However, when urged to support Copernicanism officially, they dragged their feet.

It was one thing to espouse new theories among intellectual Catholics, and quite another to dub them as truth, announcing a change in the centre of the universe to Galileo's enemies and to unsophisticated believers who thought Scripture dictated an unmoving, central Earth. How to insist that the Bible could be seen to support either cosmic arrangement, that it might even, as Galileo claimed, better support the Sun-centred scheme? How to explain that what most people thought was a literal interpretation of Scripture was actually an ancient metaphorical interpretation incorporating Aristotle's ideas into Christian doctrine . . . and that the Church had never had an official policy on cosmological matters?

Finally, Galileo was admonished to cease campaigning until he had proof. Galileo didn't force the Church off the fence, but in an astounding coup he made it seem he had. In the guise of an "impartial" book - which a new Pope, Urban VIII (a friend of Galileo's), had encouraged - he wrote a best-seller demolishing the old Earth-centred astronomy. When it was too late to do anything but accept the situation gracefully or overreact, the Pope decided he could not brook such a usurpation of authority.

This was no abstract contest between science and religion, but something far more personal and political. Galileo had stolen the Pope's prerogative - an unforgivable insult. Neither science nor religion received more than lip-service at Galileo's trial. He was sentenced to house arrest for life and forced to renounce Copernicanism publicly.

In spite of his calamitous clash with the Church, Galileo wouldn't have been pleased to learn that he would become, for many, a symbol of enmity between religion and science. Those who suggest he is would have felt the brunt of his riducule and ire, for he never recognised such enmity, insisting "that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect does not intend us to forego their use".

Kitty Ferguson is the author of 'Measuring the Universe' (Headline, pounds 14.99)