Debunking Galileo’s Science v. Faith Controversy

Debunking Galileo’s Science v. Faith Controversy: Conflicting Interpretations

The dispute between Galileo Galilei and the Roman Catholic Church in the early seventeenth century is often mistakenly framed as a case of science versus faith. The truth is that the dispute was the result of conflicting scriptural interpretations and scientific methodologies rather than a standoff between science and religion. The two main reasons the Catholic Church was opposed to Galileo and his theory of the Earth’s motion were, first, that the introduction of a new interpretation of the Bible threatened the authority of the Church and, second, that Galileo lacked a factual, demonstrable proof of his theory.

When Galileo originally approached the Church with his plans for scientific study, he said he wanted only to discuss the hypothetical nature of Copernican astronomy. Despite his stated intentions, Galileo went further and pursued evidence for the motion of the earth and the immobility of the sun. This was problematic for the Church because not only was Galileo acting contrary to his original intentions, but he was also asserting that the sun was immobile, introducing uncertainty with regards to a biblical passage in Joshua, which states:

On the day the Lord gave the Amorites over to Israel, Joshua said to the Lord in the presence of Israel: “Sun, stand still over Gibeon, and you, moon, over the Valley of Aijalon.” So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, till the nation avenged itself on its enemies, as it is written in the Book of Jashar. The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day.

Galileo was in dialogue with various priests and religious figures in Rome, and the conflict started to bloom in the years 1615 and 1616, when Galileo became aware that authoritative religious figures were discussing the compatibility of his research with Scripture. Before the Church took any steps or voiced its thoughts on the issue, Galileo began to fear that the Church would declare his research inconsistent with the Bible and punish him for it. Therefore, afraid that he was running out of time, he began to act in ways that would attract attention to his cause. This behavior caused the Church to scrutinize him and his findings more closely. In the latter part of the 1610s, it became clear to the Church that Galileo did not have a proper demonstration to validate his findings, and it thus took action against him to keep him from spreading his apparently unproven theory. Galileo was eventually ordered to trial in Rome before the Papal Inquisition in 1633. The cardinals of the Inquisition concluded that he was “vehemently suspected of heresy,” a verdict slightly less serious than being guilty of heresy, which would have indicated willful perseverance in a false doctrine.(ii) Galileo was subsequently put under house arrest and was made to publicly rescind his views on the motion of the earth and immobility of the sun.

Though the events alone do not offer much insight into the scientific debates at hand, this dispute contains lessons on the broader conceptions of Scripture and scientific truth. It shows that Church leaders believed faith and science contained noncontradictory truths, the result of which made the two disciplines compatible. The Church leaders held that a statement could not be true in one sphere if it is false in the other. Furthermore, this dispute suggests to us that when we encounter individual scientific and spiritual truths that seem to be contradictory, rather than immediately assuming the two are incompatible, we should follow the church’s example and further analyze our interpretations and address any misunderstandings we might have about the two individually.

Despite the end result of unresolved dispute, both the Church and Galileo approached every stage of the conflict with an understanding that both science and faith contained indisputable truths. At no point in their dispute did the Church frame the issue as Galileo choosing science over faith or the Church choosing faith over science; the Church and Galileo were assured of the authority of both the Bible and of science. The question was which one of them would be primary in influencing the public’s way of thinking about the Church’s authority. Galileo’s theories about the motion of the earth emerged as the Protestant Reformation was getting underway, so his new theories and way of interpreting the Bible seemed to the Catholic Church to be just another attempt to undermine the Church’s influence and position in society.

Galileo’s initial discussions with Church affiliates about his research were affable. He visited Rome on several occasions between 1610 and 1615 to discuss his telescopic observations with Jesuit professors and members of the Church hierarchy. In 1615, when the discussion of the biblical legitimacy of Copernican astronomy was well under way, a Carmelite priest in Naples, Paolo Foscarini, published an essay in which he argued that the Bible could be interpreted consistently with Copernican astronomy.(iii) This essay prompted a significant and resonant response from Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino, an educated Jesuit and member of the Papal Inquisition in Rome. The cardinal was well known for his skill in biblical interpretations and also for his proficiency in dealing with challenges to the authority of the Church.

Bellarmino sent a copy of his response to Galileo as well. His knowledge of scientific methodology and protocol was evident in his response, as he drew a distinction between speaking “hypothetically” and “absolutely.” This distinction served as prudent advice for Foscarini and Galileo, that they be explicit about what type of scientific claims they aimed to make. For, to speak “hypothetically” in astronomy was to imply the possession of a consistent mathematical description for the observed phenomena. To speak “absolutely,” on the other hand, meant to clarify the movements of the universe.(iv) Mathematical astronomy only aimed to provide a model, while physical astronomy aimed to give a factual account of the nature of the universe. The approach that Foscarini or Galileo chose to take out of these two would have great implications for the validity and religious effects of their claims.

The next key aspect of Bellarmino’s letter was his reference to the Council of Trent, which decreed “that with respect to ‘matters of faith and morals’ no one is permitted to interpret the Bible contrary to ‘that sense which Holy Mother Church, to whom it belongs to judge their true sense and meaning, has held and does hold.’”(v) By citing this Council, Bellarmino emphasized the true sensitivities regarding Galileo and Foscarini’s ideas: their potential to undermine the authority of Church leaders. It is telling that Bellarmino used this official, hierarchical statement to attempt to silence Galileo and Foscarini, rather than the Bible itself. Bellarmino found that there was no direct contradiction between the Scriptures and Galileo but rather that the source of the conflict lay in Galileo’s attitude toward the authority of the Church leaders. The Catholic Church had been hesitant to endorse Galileo’s findings because the findings had yet to reach the Church’s standards of evidence; the dispute was between standards of evidence and the implications they had for the public’s perception of the Church’s authority.

Lastly, Bellarmino, despite his cautions, admitted that a demonstration of the earth’s motion may be possible.

If there were a true demonstration that the Sun is in the center of the universe…then one would have to proceed with great care in explaining the Scriptures that appear contrary, and say rather that we do not understand them than that what is demonstrated is false.(vi)

Again, his statement indicated that it is not a matter of faith but of appearance and interpretation. For a cardinal of the Papal Inquisition that regularly refuted statements made contradictory to the Church to take this stance suggests that few informed Christians or theologians would have dismissed Galileo and Foscarini’s proposals simply because they incorporated modern science with scriptural understanding. The cardinal was implicitly saying that there could be no contradiction between scientific fact and Christian truth. By admitting that a reevaluation of the Scriptures would be necessary were Galileo’s demonstration proven to be true, the Cardinal was demonstrating the Church’s comprehensive understanding of the compatibility of science and faith.

Despite the presence of cardinals like Bellarmino, Galileo came to feel intimidated and pressured by the Church for proof of his research. 1615 was a momentous year, as it became apparent that Galileo did not yet have proof or a demonstration, and as he feared that the Church would condemn him before he could provide it.

This fear prompted Galileo to write a letter to the Duchess of Tuscany explaining his stance and the backlash that he had suffered for it. Galileo needed to garner support. He chose to write to the duchess, rather than to the clergy directly, because he knew he would gain more attention from an educated lay audience and, therefore, would be in a better position to defend his stance to the greater public. He would gain more attention this way because the Church was very concerned about public opinion. If Galileo could influence the people, he could buy time with the Church. Galileo was aware that he wrote during a time of deep clerical anxiety, wherein many members of the clerical hierarchy were wary of attacks against the Church’s authority. He knew such attention-grabbing behavior would make the Church even more nervous. He planned to manipulate this knowledge by presenting himself to the public as so obviously correct that the Church would appear degenerate if it were to dismiss Galileo’s findings. Galileo was a biased source when it came to the discussion of his findings because he placed greater emphasis on presenting his findings in a highly believable way than on presenting them in a logically and scientifically sound way.

Discussing the significance of Galileo’s letter to the duchess, Dr. Carroll notes:

We must remember when we read his account [the letter to the Duchess] that, first of all it is his interpretation of the events, and, second, that he has chosen his facts carefully in order to achieve his end: to persuade the authorities of the Catholic Church not to act foolishly and condemn Copernican astronomy.(vii)

Galileo had to use his rhetorical skills and rest his argument on the authority of Copernican astronomy when confronting the Catholic Church; the facts were unable to speak for themselves, since Galileo had yet to produce factual proof. His letter to the duchess was written with the purpose of buying Galileo time to produce his demonstration before the Church could condemn him.

Remember, in addition, that both Galileo and the officers of the Inquisition share the same Aristotelian ideal of scientific knowledge; both sides understand what a demonstration is. If Galileo, in fact, had a demonstration for the motion of the Earth, he surely would have presented it, for he knew that demonstration would prevent the Church’s condemnation of Copernican astronomy.(viii)

Galileo and the Catholic Church were both aware that he could not meet these standards.

Because there was no scientific proof of Copernican astronomy or Galileo’s propositions concerning the motion of the earth, the cardinals of the Inquisition proceeded to declare them “foolish and absurd.”(ix) It is clear that the cardinals were not acting solely out of reverence for Scripture, but also out of respect for thorough science. Their response may seem harsh, but the Church had to think critically about how their reaction would affect the perception of their authority and how it would align with their standards of evidence and interpretation. They did not reject Galileo simply because he did not conform to their standards, but, rather, they took him to trial to communicate a message that the Church was steadfast and authoritative. Being steadfast meant that the Church did not budge when it came to quality of scientific proof. For the Church to not harshly cast out Galileo would make it seem that the Church was satisfied with incomplete evidence. The Church’s honoring of scientific quality and integrity in regards to proofs has a direct effect on its authority. The decision to denounce Galileo was done in protection and honor of these two concepts. Therefore, it would have been irrational for the Church to recognize Galileo’s findings when he had no demonstration or factual proof to offer.

Another important piece of contextual evidence is the academic approach to biblical interpretation at the time. The Church, and anyone who was educated, utilized a four-fold method of interpreting the Bible and recognized that the Scriptures involve multiple literary registers. As Peter Blair points out in “Epistemic Pluralism and the Christian Tradition:”

In the Middle Ages, this dual sense of Scripture—literal and allegorical—was hardened into a four-fold exegetical system. Scripture was understood by all Biblical scholars to have four senses: literal, moral, allegorical, and mystical. This four-fold hermeneutic does not deny the truth of the Bible, but rather it assumes that the kind of truth being conveyed varies throughout the Bible according to the genre or mode of expression being used in different passages.(x)

Galileo’s incident took place in the early 1600s, a time when the Catholic Church still carried the tradition of a four-fold system of biblical interpretation. So, therefore, not only did the Church value science and scientific methodology for their own sakes, but the Catholic Church also kept science in mind when reading the Bible. Biblical scholars would not have taken the literal meaning of a passage without also considering the allegorical, moral, and mystical meaning of the Scripture. Though Galileo framed it as though he were the only rational interpreter who knew how to reconcile the teachings of the Bible with modern life, that was not the case. He removed the context of the cardinals’ teachings and education in the “four-fold exegetical system” when presenting their criticisms of his theories.

Thus, the Church’s condemnation of Galileo was based not solely on the fact that Galileo’s findings contradicted Scripture. The Church’s decision to take Galileo to trial was rather based on a sophisticated understanding of Scripture, the desire to protect the Church’s authority, and a desire to uphold a high standard for scientific evidence.

Though interpretation is still a sensitive subject that invites much disagreement, it is important to discuss. If biblical scholars of the Middle Ages thought there was merit to looking at Scripture through different lenses, then it is likely worth our time as well to experiment and investigate various readings of Scripture. Additionally, when reading Scripture and investigating scientific truths, we should follow the example of Galileo and the church and be intellectually honest by analyzing the two until they are reconciled rather than blindly accept that they sit in contradiction.

Another important lesson from the clarified version of Galileo’s conflict with the Church is that biblical scholarship and science can have relevant implications for one another. Both disciplines make observations on past accounts and environments that they use to inform the way they look at the present world. In many ways, biblical scholars catalogue and hypothesize in the same way that scientists do.



  1. Joshua 10:12-13 (NIV).
  2. William Carroll, Galileo: Science & Faith (London: Catholic Truth Society, 2009) 56.

iii. Carroll,16.

  1. Carroll, 20.
  2. Carroll, 22.
  3. Carroll, 22-23.

vii. Carroll, 30.

viii. Carroll, 32.

  1. Carroll, 38.
  2. Peter Blair, “Epistemic Pluralism and the Christian Faith,” The Dartmouth Apologia 5.2 (2011): 33-34.


Macy Ferguson ’16 is from Stoneville, NC. She is a double major in Government and Native American Studies.

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