Being right

The problem for Galileo, so far as it was theological, was that the earth is not in heaven. This it would be, by the mediaeval model, if the sun were put at the centre of the universe, as the Copernican arithmetic seemed to indicate. But in contemporary Ptolemaic cosmology, the earth, being at the centre, was the farthest one could be from heaven. It did not participate in the dance of the spheres, and so, could not hear the music.

Of course, it turned out Copernicus, the Catholic canon, was wrong, along with everyone else. For the sun is not stationary, either, even though the wonderful aurora displays over the weekend made us think twice.

Can you believe it? That the earth is revolving around the sun?

“I will not believe that there is such a demonstration, until it is shown me,” said Cardinal Bellarmine, quite typically. This brilliant Counter-Reformation cleric got bad press out of the Galileo affair, even though he judged carefully. (The Protestants up north were much less cautious in condemning heliocentricity.) He thought that scripture and the better homiletic passages, along with common sense, seemed to endorse the Ptolemaic model. For it sure looked like the sun was rising every morning. But one must be circumspect about such things.

We now know that the professoriate were Galileo’s real enemy; not the Church. They were narrowly Aristotelian (instead of broadly Aristotelian, like Thomas Aquinas) and quite censorious. Aristotle was “settled science” for them, and Aristotle wasn’t a heliocentrist. Galileo had too much enjoyed defying “settled science,” and twitting the professors at Padua. They wanted him punished “as an asshole,” and Church officials were persuaded to play along.

There are Galileos in every science, always, and like their original, they generally jump the gun. I appreciate the “zen” Galileo, patiently polishing lenses for his telescopes, rather than the alarming controversialist looking for trouble. But the real hero of the Galileo affair (according to me) was Robert Bellarmine, then, perhaps, the most learned man in Italy. He subscribed to truth, at every level, and at all times.