Thursday, September 17, 2009

on the feast of St. Robert Bellarmine

For today's feast of St. Robert Bellarmine - something to think about.

It is not an easy topic, but it is worth our careful study. And let us ever be on guard against pride! St. Robert Bellarmine, pray for us.

--Dr. Thursday

Conflicts cast long shadows. The shadows are indeed very long when the conflicts take place at a sensitive juncture. Adolescents are wont to harbor lifelong grudges against their elders who failed to show them proper understanding. Such an adolescent was science as it first sensed its future strength through the genius of Galileo. This is not to suggest that even a full understanding on the part of the Church would have been enough to help Galileo control his hubris which equaled his genius.

On a cursory look it may be said, and unfortunately this has been done all too often, that the Church of Urban VIII and Bellarmine understood Galileo's science much better than Galileo did. Both those churchmen, and many others after them, took exception to the realism with which Galileo asserted the heliocentric ordering of planets. According to them the heliocentric theory, or any physical theory for that matter, was nothing more than a convenient ordering of data with no intrinsic bearing on reality.

Such a view, a rather agnostic one, about the relation of physical theory to the physical universe was already two thousand years old by the time Galileo was taken to task by his ecclesiastical judges. They were fully aware of the venerable ancestry of that view which received its first memorable formulation in Plato's Timaeus, where science, or rather scientific theory, is spoken of as a technique to "save the phenomena." In particular, the technique was understood to be a mathematical or geometrical formula which accounted for the succession of celestial events, such as the periods and relative positions of planets, with no pretension as to the cause or physical nature of those movements and bodies. The same ecclesiastics were also aware of the renewed popularity which that view of science enjoyed during the century preceding Galileo. The heliocentrists - Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo - were a distinct minority inasmuch as they asserted a one-to-one correspondence between a particular geometrical ordering of data and physical reality.

A little-noted consequence of the opposite or purely formalist majority view was that its proponents had to speak of the true knowledge of the structure of the universe as being the sole privilege of the Creator. Galileo did not misrepresent the convictions of Urban VIII, who granted him several private audiences around 1623, when half a dozen years later he put that agnostic view about the cosmos into the mouth of Simplicius, the representative of the Pope's views on physical science in Galileo's ill-fated Dialogue.

It was rather ironical that a purely formalistic and quasi-agnostic view about physical science (and by implication a quasi-agnostic view about the cosmos) should have been voiced by leading churchmen. Eager to please the fashionable philosophical skepticism inherited from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, they failed to realize that the dogma of the Word become Flesh committed them to a thoroughgoing and universal realism. No less should they have been committed to that realism by the age-old Christian conviction that the entire visible realm or cosmos is a clear and compelling basis for the recognition of the Creator. To make the irony complete, it was Galileo and not Bellarmine who quoted Jerome and Augustine to the effect that biblical references to the sun's motion and to the earth's immobility may be a mere registering of appearances. Almost a hundred years after Luther, leading Catholic churchmen felt that they should battle him on grounds - biblical literalism - chosen by him. With such a strategy, theirs could only be momentary victories, at times Pyrrhic, but hardly the winning of the entire campaign.

[SLJ "Science for Catholics" in Catholic Essays, 1-3]

Under the impact of Luther's invocation of the Bible as the ultimate arbiter in matters of faith, Catholic theologians moved away from the freedom with which they greeted, while Luther was still alive, the presentation of the Copernican system to a gathering of cardinals in Rome in 1533. Copernicus had no fear of dedicating his book to Pope Paul III himself. Two generations later, defenders of Catholic faith, Jesuits in an ever larger number, were wont to take the view that nothing is more effective than to vanquish the opponent with his own weapons, that is, on his own chosen battlefield. It was still to be realized that such a strategy may win spectacular battles but never the war. Practically nobody remembers that Luther called Copernicus a fool and categorically endorsed, as did Calvin, the literal meaning of Joshua's miracle. Everybody remembers the debacle of that Catholic strategy which did not permit the taking of a sufficiently detached view of the proper merit of that passage in the Book of Joshua and other relevant passages of the Bible.

To Bellarmine's credit he saw something of the dangers of that strategy and, partly because of this, displayed an equitable and dignified attitude toward Galileo. The latter had already made the case further complicated when in a major essay, widely circulated in manuscript copies, he tried to play the biblical theologian. He did so partly by quoting Jerome and Augustine to the effect that a literal sense of biblical passages about the earth's immobility was not necessarily the only possible interpretation. Unknown to the readers of that essay he had received plenty of help in that excursion of his into theology from his best student, Benedetto Castelli a monk of Monte Cassino and the foremost expert in Italy on hydraulic engineering. Theologians, then as now, were a professional group which like any other such group does not like to be instructed by an outsider, who is by definition a "layman" with respect to that group. This is also true of the group known as scientists, a group all too ready to philosophize and theologize and all too resentful when taken to task on that score.

A relatively unimportant part of the Galileo story is Galileo's success in obtaining imprimatur from the Roman Inquisition which included the Pope's own theologian, a Dominican. The story is a series of inattentions and shadow boxing. Once the book was printed, one shadow at least quickly became a menacing reality. Any modestly informed reader could easily see that Galileo was for all practical purposes mocking the very pope whom he needed as his most powerful protector, and who might have sided with Galileo but for the latter's hubris.

The rest is anticlimactic. With a pope so desirous of the applause of intellectuals and deeply hurt in his pride, the wheels of the legal process against Galileo could not be stopped, not even slowed down. In vain did Galileo argue that he was never shown a document (the codicil added unbeknownst to Bellarmine to the dossier in 1616) forbidding him to write on heliocentrism. By 1632 Bellarmine had been dead for eleven years and the codicil was as genuine in form at least as the rest of the dossier. It was impossible to ask Urban VIII, member of the commission of 1616, whether the commission was responsible in any sense for that codicil. A court whose sympathies Galileo had lost by his reckless tactic against the pope could but let the logic of law, not always an enlightened logic, take its course.

[SLJ "The Case for Galileo's Rehabilitation" Ibid 29-31, 34-35]

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