The documents that I shall quote in translations (the originals may be found in the appendix) will show that the Pope wanted the doctorates in philosophy and in medicine to be given only after seven years of study, at least four of which were to be devoted to the post-graduate work in the special branch selected. He wished, moreover, to insist on the necessity for preliminary education. He wanted the permission to teach these branches, which in that day was equivalent to our term of doctorate, to be given in all institutions for the same amount of work and after similar tests. These are just the matters that have occupied the thoughts of university presidents for the last quarter of a century, and have been the subjects of discussion in the meetings of various college and university associations. Pope John [XXII]’s bulls would be interesting documents to have read before such associations even at the present time, and would form excellent suggestive material on which the discussion of the necessity for maintaining college standards might well be founded…

All this will show John as really one of the greatest Popes not only in the century in which he lived, but as distinguished as only a comparatively small number have been among the successors of Peter. Though he ascended the Papal throne at the age of seventy, the next twenty years were full of work of all kinds, and John’s wonderful capacity for work stamps him as one of the great men of all time. It is a well-known rule, constantly kept in mind by Catholic students of history, that the Popes against whom the most objections are urged by non-Catholic historians are practically always found, on close and sympathetic study, to be striking examples of men who at least labored to accomplish much. As a rule, they strove to correct abuses, and as a consequence made bitter enemies, who left behind them many contemporary expressions of disapproval. Any contemporary authority is somehow supposed to be infallible. We forget, when a man tries to do good he is likely to meet with bitter opposition from many. If their expressions are taken seriously by historians who write with the purpose of finding just as little good and just as much evil as possible in a particular character, the resulting appreciation is likely to be rather far from the truth.  

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


Certain words of Laennec’s preface are an echo of Auenbrugger’s expressions. He said:

“For our generation is not inquisitive as to what is being accomplished by its sons. Claims of new discoveries made by contemporaries are likely, for the most part, to be met by smiles and mocking remarks. It is always easier to condemn than to test by actual experience.”

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

It might be thought that such examples of persecution were of course rather frequent in the distant centuries, and must not be taken too seriously, since they come in times before men had learned to respect one another’s opinions and to realize that the assertions of an authority in science are only to be considered as worth the reasons he advances for them. Most people will be quite ready to congratulate themselves on the fact that our modern time has outlived this unfortunate state of mind, which served to hamper scientific investigation. They will probably even be quite self-complacent over the supposed fact that, ever since the study of natural science was taken up seriously at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century, this unfortunate temper has disappeared.

Those who think so, however, know nothing of the history of nineteenth century science, and especially not of nineteenth century medicine. Jenner’s great discovery of the value of vaccination against small-pox came just before the nineteenth century opened. It met with the bitterest kind of opposition. This was especially the case in England. There is a doubt whether Germany did not eventually do more to bring about the recognition of the immense value of Jenner’s discovery than his native England. Anyone who has read Jenner’s life knows how much he was made to suffer from the bitterness of opponents’ expressions with regard to him. It is true that he was eventually rewarded quite liberally, and that honors were showered upon him, but only after a preliminary series of trials that must have made him regret, if possible, that he had ever devoted himself to the propaganda of a great truth. Nor did the dawn of the vaunted nineteenth century bring in a better state of affairs in this regard.

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

Many people are accustomed to think that, after the spirit that came into the world with the French Revolution, men were less prone to listen to authority or cling to old-fashioned notions, and that liberalism of mind is to be found written large on many pages of nineteenth century scientific history. One of the great scientists of the first part of the last century was Dr. Thomas Young, to whom we owe so much with regard to the theory of light waves and the existence of the ether to carry them. Men absolutely refused to listen to this idea at all at the beginning, though now it is the  groundwork of most of our thinking and of nearly all of our mathematical demonstrations with regard to the movement of light. They not only refused, however, but they expressed their scorn of the man who invented such a cumbrous theory. Dr. George M. Gould, in one of the volumes of his Biographic Clinics, has told the story of Dr. Young’s career, and I prefer to present it in his words rather than my own.

“A practicing physician, Young, as early as 1801, hit upon the true theory of the luminiferous ether, and of light and color, which nearly a century before had been discovered by Robert Hooke. But his scientific contemporaries would not see it, and to avoid persecution and deprivation of practice, Dr. Young was compelled to publish his grand discoveries and papers anonymously. Published finally by the Royal Society (one can imagine the editor’s smile of superior wisdom over such trash), they were as utterly ignored as were those of Mitchell, Thompson and Martin as to eyestrain, two or three generations later. Arago finally championed Dr. Young’s theory in the French Academy, but the leaders, LaPlace, Poissin, Biot, etc., denounced and conquered, and not until 1823 would the Academy allow the publication of Fresnel’s papers on the subject; in about twenty-five years the silencers were themselves silenced. But Young had been silenced too; his disgust was so great that he resigned from the Royal Society, and devoted himself to his poor medical practice and to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics.”

(In which, by the way, as might be expected I suppose, he made a distinguished name for himself.)

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

Harvey discovered the circulation of the blood, at a time and under circumstances that would surely lead us to expect its immediate acceptance and the hailing of him as a great original thinker in science. He first expounded it to his class, very probably in 1616, which will be remembered as the year of Shakespeare’s death. The glory of the great Elizabethan era in England was not yet passed. Men’s minds had been opened to great advances in every department of thought during the preceding century, by the Renaissance movement and the New Learning in England. Probably no greater group of original thinkers has ever existed than were alive in England during the preceding twenty-five years…What happened is interesting for our purpose. Harvey was so well acquainted with the intolerant temper of men as regards new discoveries, that he hesitated to publish his book on the subject until men had been prepared for it, by his ideas gradually filtering out among the medical profession through the members of his class. He waited nearly fifteen years after his first formal lesson on the subject, before he dared to commit it to print. Shakespeare had made Brutus say to Portia:

“You are my true and honorable wife,
As dear to me as are the ruddy drops
That visit my sad heart;”

but men were not yet ready to accept the great principle of the blood movement. There seems to be good authority for saying that Harvey had more than suspected his great truth for twenty-five years before he dared print it. He realized that it would surely meet with opposition and would make serious unpleasantness between him and his friends. He was not deceived in anticipation. Many of his friends fell away from him, and according to tradition, he lost more than half of his consulting practice, because physicians could not and would not believe that a man who evolved such a strange idea as the constant movement of the blood all over the body, from heart to surface and back, could possibly be in his right mind, and, above all, be a suitable person to consult with in difficult cases.

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

Since the time of the Enlightenment, if not already long before, we have been victims of a form of self-illusion of a steadily growing humanity which has freed itself from the shackles of the past and approaches a glorious future where rationality, logic, and tolerance dominate. Not surprisingly, certain objects, such as the chastity belt, or ideas, such as courtly love, serve supremely well as icons of a past world as we imagine it, either in idealistic terms, or highly pejoratively, whereas the present does no longer accept those or has changed them thoroughly out of utter disrespect and ridicule. The danger, of course, rests in our tendency to replace one myth with another, and the more we deride and criticize institutions, people, and ideas from the past, the more we submit to a mythical ideology determined by a teleological presentism (giving absolute priority to the own present world) which enjoys radical priority over pastism (giving priority to a historical thinking about the past as an entire alternity). As Kathleen Biddick defines the former: “Presentism looks into the mirror of the Middle Ages and asks it to reflect back histories of modernist or postmodernist identities”.

For instance, freedom, tolerance, and democracy are commonly claimed as the highest ideals of the modern Western world, in radical contrast to the Middle Ages which were determined, without chronological or any other order, by the Inquisition, the phenomenon of the witch-craze, pogroms against Jews, and the Crusades, that is by highly irrational, intolerant, dogmatic, and authoritarian methods and principles. This binary opposition is as wrong as could be, since neither side squarely fits into these black-and-white categories, but mythical thinking prefers such contrasts since they facilitate the explanation of human history, whether correctly or not. This history, or the cultural development, has always been much more complex and diversified than is commonly assumed. We can easily identify outstanding representatives of medieval tolerance, and, by the same token, representative of modern tyranny, and vice versa. The crimes of the present ought not to be weighed differently than the crimes of the past. Correspondingly, outstanding intellectual, literary, or artistic accomplishments by medieval people ought not to be treated as irrelevant or outdated in comparison with works produced in the modern time. Undoubtedly, we live in a much improved, perhaps more civilized, world characterized by enormous advances on the political, technological, scientific level. But this does not justify the perpetuation of wrong ideas and subjective value judgments concerning the past with regard to its standards of ethics, morality, philosophy, aesthetics, and even technology and sciences.

Albrecht Classen, The Medieval Chastity Belt: A Myth-Making Process (2007)

Certain historical incidents in which Church authorities and ecclesiastics assumed an attitude distinctly opposed to true scientific advance can be found. They are, however, ever so much rarer than is thought. Let those who accept unquestioningly the supposed opposition of Church to science, count over for themselves the definite cases of this in history which they know for certain, and they will be surprised, as a rule, on what slight grounds their persuasion in this matter is founded. We have detailed the policy of the Church with regard to education and science. Such incidents of opposition as can be gathered were breaks away from that policy. They were not due so much to faith or theology, though these were often made excuses for them, as to the natural opposition to novelty, so common in man…The ultra-conservatism which is the real factor at fault in these cases exists in all men beyond middle life. It is a wise provision of nature very probably to prevent the young and headstrong from running away with the race. We would be plunged into all sorts of curious experimental conditions only for the fact that those beyond middle life act as a brake on the initiative of their juniors. While it does some harm, there is no doubt of its supremely beneficial effects in the long run. For one announced great discovery that proves its actual right to the title, there are at least a hundred that are proclaimed with loud blare of trumpet, yet prove nonentities. This sometimes becomes a very troublesome brake on progress, however. Some three hundred years ago, Harvey said with regard to his epoch-making discovery of the circulation of the blood, that he did not expect any of his contemporaries who was over forty years of age to accept it. His premonition in this matter was fully confirmed by the event. Darwin, I believe, once remarked that he did not think that men of his own age in his own generation would accept his theory, and most of them did not.

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

Originally vaccination was opposed by certain clergymen on the grounds of theological objection to its use. At the present time most of such objection has ceased, It is still clergymen, however, who are the most prominent among the anti-vaccinationists, though now they usually find biological and pathological, instead of theological reasons. They proclaim it a crime against nature, from the biological standpoint, that the disease of an animal should be conveyed to man, even for protective purposes. At the present time one can find just as bitter objections to vaccination in anti-vaccination journals as when the subject was first brought under discussion. Men must find some reason for their opposition, and they take the weapon that is handiest and that they are able to use with best effect. In an era when theological ideas were dominant, theology was ready at hand for this purpose, but any other ology will do just as well, and the history of science, even in the present day, will show that always some ology, regardless of human feelings, is used quite as ruthlessly and as cruelly as in the olden days. There are tortures of spirit that are worse than prison or even fire.

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

Intolerance and prejudice is, moreover, not confined to religious organizations. The same spirit that burned Michael Servetus and Giordano Bruno for the heresies of science, led the atheist “liberal” mob of Paris to send to the scaffold the great chemist Lavoisier, with the sneer that “the republic has no need of savants.” The same spirit that leads the orthodox Gladstone to reject natural selection because it “relieves God of the labor of creation,” causes the heterodox Haeckel to condemn Weismann’s theories of heredity, not because they are at variance with facts, but because such questions are settled once for all by the great philosophic dictum (his own) “of monism.”

This very natural ultra-conservative mood of scientists is well illustrated by a passage from Galileo’s life, in which he himself describes in a letter to Kepler, the great mathematician and astronomer of his time, the reception that his new invention, the telescope, met with from distinguished men of science, their colleagues of the moment. The Italian astronomer encountered the well-known tendency of men to reason from what they already know, that certain advances in knowledge are impossible or absurd. The favorite expression is that the thoughts suggested by some new discovery are illogical. Men have always reasoned thus, and apparently they always will. Knowledge that they learn before they are forty constitutes, consciously or unconsciously, for them the possible sum of human knowledge, and they can only think that apparent progress that contradicts their previous convictions must be founded on false premises or faulty observation. We cannot help sympathizing with Galileo, though it must be a consolation for others who are struggling to have ideas of theirs adopted, to read the words addressed to his great contemporary and sympathetic fellow worker by the Italian astronomer.

“What wilt thou say,” he writes, “of the first teachers at the University at Padua, who when I offered to them the opportunity, would look neither at the planets nor the moon through the telescope? This sort of men look on philosophy as a book like the AEneid or Odyssey, and believe the truth is to be sought not in the world of nature, but only in comparison of texts. How wouldst thou have laughed, when at Pisa the leading Professor of the University there endeavored, in the presence of the Grand Duke, to tear away the new planets from Heaven with logical arguments, like magical exorcisms!”

This gives the key to the real explanation of the Galileo incident better than would a whole volume of explanation of it. It is now realized that very few of those who have been most ready to quote the example of Galileo’s condemnation as an argument for Church intolerance in the matter of science, know anything at all about the details of his case. The bitter intolerance of many men of science of his time, including even that supposed apostle of the experimental method–Bacon–to the Copernican system, is an important but ignored phase of the case of Galileo, as it came before the Roman inquisition. The peculiar position occupied by Galileo caused Prof. Huxley, writing to Prof. St. George Mivart, November 12th, 1885, to say that, after looking into the case of Galileo when he was in Italy, he had arrived at the conclusion “that the Pope and the College of Cardinals had rather the best of it.” In our own time, M. Bertrand, the Perpetual Secretary of the French Academy of Sciences, declared that “the great lesson for those who would wish to oppose reason with violence was clearly to be read in Galileo’s story, and the scandal of his condemnation was learned without any profound sorrow to Galileo himself; and his long life, considered as a whole, must be looked upon as the most serene and enviable in the history of science.”

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

The new situation [of freedom of belief] is the product (so far as one can understand a very complex and obscure process of causation) of the spread of tolerance, of humane and liberal sentiment, in recent centuries; and also of the revolution in intellectual climate which means that countless men and women today think there is nothing ultimately obscure about the world, or (which can be a very different thing) nothing makes the notion of a divine creator or savior either necessary or plausible. This last situation, the confident rationalism or the scientifically based agnosticism which have come to be the dominant faiths among the twentieth century intellectuals, were indeed unthinkable in the twelfth century intellectuals, were indeed unthinkable in the twelfth century at least in any recognizable form.

Professor C.N.L. Brooke, “Heresy and Religious Sentiment: 1100-1250”