Conflict for the Copernican Controversy

Italy, in the early decades of the seventeenth century was the centre of the Copernican controversy. Today the perception of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) is of a brilliant thinker unjustly persecuted and condemned by the church, the enemies of scientific progress. A champion of truth disgraced by those whose religious dogma is a hindrance to true knowledge of the world. But serious historians refuse to view the case as one of “science versus religion.” History is never so simplistic. It defies white-hat/black-hat renderings, as adherents of the conflict thesis try to make it out to be.

Galileo’s actions should be understood in relation to the volatile backdrop of the counter-reformation. By stridently defending the heliocentric model of the solar system with both observational and scriptural data, he embroiled himself in dispute with the Catholic Church. Catholicism had made itself the protectors of the Aristotelian philosophy and the Ptolemaic view of geocentricism,[1] and at the time was reacting against the innovations of Protestantism that were undermining the church’s traditional magisterial authority. Conceding Galileo’s new biblical interpretation was to undermine their strongest polemic that tradition was unchangeable, which would lend credibility to the Protestant movement.[2]

His major defense of the Copernican theory was initially received with sympathy within certain circles in the church, partly because Giovanni Ciampoli, who was a papal favorite, held him in high regard. Galileo lost support when Ciampoli fell from power in Rome, and this opened the door for Galileo’s condemnation.

Part of the problem was Galileo’s prickly personality, but the crux issue at stake was how the Bible should be interpreted. The official response was based on two considerations. First, by affirming the Bible should be interpreted according “to the proper meaning of the words.” In other words with a more literal approach, instead of an approach of “accommodation.”[3] Each method of interpretation had had a long history of use and was considered legitimate, but the debate now came to bear on certain passages that traditionally considered should be interpreted literally. Second, by affirming that the Bible should be interpreted “according to the common interpretation and understanding of the Holy Fathers and of learned theologians.” The argument here was that no one else of note in the past has adopted this new interpretation.[4] Thus it was dismissed as an innovation.

McGrath points out;

“Appreciation of this point is thought to have been hindered in the past on account of the failure of historians to engage with the theological (and more precisely, the hermeneutical) issues attending the debate. In part, this can be seen as reflecting the fact that many of the scholars interested in this particular controversy were scientists or historians of science, who were not familiar with the intricacies of the debates on biblical interpretation of this remarkably complex period.”[5]

The affair is one which historians and philosophers of science still debate regularly. There is now general agreement however that, though Galileo’s views were eventually vindicated, he was overstepping the line by insisting his model was the way reality really was. At the time he did not have the evidence to support that claim,[6] so the church wanted to moderate his idea as one interpretation that equally explained the phenomena.

Galileo may have been branded a heretic but his sentence was reduced to house arrest, which amounted to a comfortable retirement where he could entertain guests, carry on his scientific research and publish further works that solidified his place in the pages of history as the founder of modern physics. Not an altogether bad way for a 68 year old to spend the remaining ten years of his life.

This is no more than a brief summary of Galileo and his role in the Copernican controversy, but enough has been said to conclude that painting the affair as one battle in the war of “Science versus Religion” is inadequate. History is often a far more complicated and tangled web than is made out to be, and is not suited to oversimplifications such as those given by proponents of the conflict thesis – as Galileo might call them, Simplicio.[7]


[1] David C. Lindberg, Ronald L. Numbers, God & Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter Between Christianity and Science, University of California Press (April 29, 1986) p. 150

[2] Alister E. McGrath. Science and Religion, (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1999) p. 12

[3] As a nursemaid accommodates a small child by scooping him up to reach what is on the table, so the Bible accommodates with its language to speak so that every one can understand.

[4] In 1615 the Carmelite friar Paolo Antonio Foscarini published Lettra sopra l’opinione de’ Pittagorici e del Copernico (Letter on the opinion of the Pythagoreans and Copernicus) which argued that the heliocentric model of the solar system was not incompatible with the Bible. Galileo adopted a similar approach of “accommodation”

[5] Alister E. McGrath. Science and Religion, (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1999) p. 12

[6] (Craig, audio blog “Scientific Intolerance” 2008-02-25) William Lane Craig. “Scientific Intolerance” http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5887

The Ptolemaic system explained better certain features of the observational astronomy than did the Copernican-heliocentric model of the solar system.

[7] Meaning “Simple-minded.” Galileo put the words of Pope Urban VIII into the mouth of a character of that name, a thinly veiled criticism of a very powerful supporter. His famous work Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems was a attack on Aristotelian geocentricism and advocated the Heliocentric worldview.

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  1. […] article of this series I gave a history of the Conflict Thesis and described its origin. In the second I have shown how Galileo’s role in the Copernican controversy is not a good example of conflict […]

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