Galileo as secularist hero . . . and Catholic saint


A museum in Florence, Italy is now displaying two fingers and a tooth from Galileo Galilei as “secular relics.” The relics, disinterred in the 18th century and until recently lost from public view, resurfaced recently and are now on display at Florence’s Galileo Museum.

What’s odd about this (typical) spin on Galileo as a secularist hero is that he was a devout Catholic whose motives, early research, and behavior during the ecclesiastical trial all stemmed from his deep faith. For a thorough Christian-historical account of the “Galileo Affair,” check out this article by Virginia Stem Owens. Here’s a taste:

Say the name Galileo, and most people picture the astronomer standing before scowling Inquisition judges, forced to recant his claim that the earth revolves about the sun.

To secular scholars, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) was a martyr to religious bigotry, demonstrating how pious superstition can shackle human knowledge. To Protestant historians, Galileo’s fate is a sharp contrast to the freedom other Enlightenment luminaries, like Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, and Johannes Kepler, enjoyed in Reformation regions.

But there’s more to Galileo’s story. Born in 1564 into a Europe passionate—and passionately divided—about its faith, the astronomer experimented, observed, and published his findings without ecclesiastical restraint for almost seventy years before his run-in with the papal authorities. He lived and died just as faithful to the Roman Church as Boyle was to the Anglican or Kepler to his Lutheran roots.

This stands in contrast to the network of thinkers and tinkerers, self-styled “the New Philosophers,” who would help bring the scientific revolution to full flower. Many of those men paid little attention to the commitments of nationality or religion that divided their contemporaries. They considered themselves citizens of a borderless and nonsectarian commonwealth of science. Indeed, for some, their allegiance to the pursuit of verifiable truths about the natural world superseded all other commitments. The Dutch mathematician and physicist Christiaan Huygens, for example, declared, “The World is my Fatherland, Science is my Religion.”

Despite Galileo’s faithfulness to his church, he is most often portrayed today as a secular scientific hero who stood firm against religious bigotry. His loyalty to his faith is largely ignored. Internationally famous by middle age, he might easily have found more intellectual freedom in England or the Dutch states or even in the French court. Yet he remained in Italy and submitted to an Inquisition he considered ignorant and a pope who used him as a political pawn.

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