Galileo’s Issue Was Satire as Much as Science

“It was a mistake,” the monk said quietly.

One of my students had stopped the brown-cloaked Dominican as he strode across the plaza of the Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome. We had just been reenacting Galileo’s trial just feet from where some of this monk’s brethren had presided over it around 380 years ago.

My student wanted to know what this 21st-century monk thought about the whole thing.

Just this summer, Florence reopened its history of science museum in grand style. The irony of renaming the museum for Galileo given the whole history of Galileo and the Church is rich and thick as Roman summer heat.

Some would say it’s more than ironic that for years it was only Galileo’s middle finger that sat preserved in the museum. Now, the new version of the place has added a few extra of his parts—more fingers, a vertebra—that were apparently snipped off for safekeeping by one of the folks who, demanding that his hero deserved a better burial place, moved his body to a more fitting resting place a century later, to share eternity with Michelangelo and Machiavelli.

Galileo was reburied in a ceremony similar to that used for saints; this and the whole reliquary-rich nature of the museum clearly suggest that Galileo is treated, presented, and thought of as a saint. This for a man who was famously condemned from on high by the Inquisition and friends.

My students, like many Americans, integrate Galileo’s story neatly into our homegrown science-versus-religion narrative without batting an eye. But this narrative, although it’s sometimes touted as having begun with Adam, was born here only after the Civil War. And besides, it doesn’t work with Galileo at all. He was—irony again— a devout Catholic unto his end, a man whose condemnation by and forced groveling before the Church left him psychologically scarred for life.

This is not to say Galileo was, pardon the expression, a saint. He had three kids out of wedlock, bought the legitimacy of the one son and stuck his two daughters in a convent (never to leave) for life. And Galileo fired up the Church hierarchy quite intentionally. In his most (in)famous work, Galileo’s cleverly-presented ideas are scoffed at by characters portrayed as, well, not too bright, and thinly veiled as cardinals or, worse, the Pope.

And perhaps this is what got the Church powers most riled up. Perhaps this is the greatest irony: that this whole Galileo thing and all its ongoing repercussions aren’t about science vs. religion at all. Not about God or belief or high ideals, but about power and popularity. What may’ve stuck in the Inquisition’s craw most painfully was that Galileo and his ideas were popular, and not just because he wrote with humor, drama, and style. Galileo wrote in Italian, not in the scholarly Latin of his colleagues, but through the mouths of characters speaking Italian. The drama and the Italian (and also, I’m sure, Galileo’s scientific brilliance) made his books runaway bestsellers across Italy and the rest of Europe.

Nobody in power likes people more popular than they are.

What if that’s what it’s still about now? Power struggles. There’s a famous story about Carl Sagan: one of the most prominent astronomers (following in Galileo’s scientific footsteps) and one of the two or three most prominent science popularizers of the 20th century. In 1994, when Sagan came up for membership in the National Academy of Sciences, the highest science honor in the land, its members voted him down.

Some religious people and their leaders are threatened by science. Some scientists and their leaders are threatened by religion. They think, and I’ve heard all of the above say: if we yield one point, we’ll be swallowed up, inundated, or disappear. They think it’s about yielding points, rather than about interaction and discussion. Perhaps people of faith feel this because of the fast and overwhelming rise of science and its impact on our everyday lives; perhaps scientists feel this because they are afraid of the role belief plays and has always played in our lives.

Of course, it was the monk back in Rome talking to my student who had it right. We all make mistakes. Let’s agree to disagree as we have to, but move on and move up, already.

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