But it will at once be said, what of Galileo? Does not his case show the anti-scientific temper of churchmen? Nearly half a century ago, Cardinal Newman in his Apologia characteristically observed that this very case sufficed to prove that the Church did not set herself against scientific progress, for this is the “one stock argument” to the contrary, “the exception which proves the rule.” Commenting upon the Galileo incident, Professor Augustus de Morgan, in his article on the Motion of the Earth in the English Encyclopedia, has expressed exactly the same conclusion. He is an authority not likely to be suspected of Catholic sympathy. He says:

“The Papal power must upon the whole have been moderately used in matters of philosophy, if we may judge by the great stress laid on this one case of Galileo. It is the standing proof that an authority which has lasted a thousand years was all the time occupied in checking the progress of thought(!) There are certainly one or two other instances, but those who make most of the outcry do not know them.”

There is no doubt that Galileo was prosecuted by the Roman inquisition on account of his astronomical teachings. We would be the last to deny that this was a deplorable mistake made by persons in ecclesiastical authority, who endeavored to make a Church tribunal the judge of scientific truth, a function altogether alien to its character which it was not competent to exercise. The fact that this was practically the only time that this was done serves to show that it was an unfortunate incident, but not a policy. The mistake has been to conclude that this was a typical case–one of many, more flagrant than the others. This single incident has indeed made it impossible that anything of the same kind should ever occur again. It was rather because of the way in which Galileo urged his truths than because of the truths themselves that he was condemned. Even Professor Huxley, in a letter to Professor St. George Mivart, November 12th, 1885, said: “I gave some attention to the case of Galileo when I was in Italy, and I arrived at the conclusion that the Pope and the College of Cardinals had rather the best of it.”

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)


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