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The Relationship between Science and Religion in the 17th Century - Part 2

Updated on November 10, 2016
"Nicolaus Copernicus Tornaeus Borussus Mathemat.", 1597
"Nicolaus Copernicus Tornaeus Borussus Mathemat.", 1597 | Source

Continuing from Part 1, we find that Copernicus used emerging technology of the Scientific Revolution era and presented his hypotheses of a heliocentric understanding of our solar system. He knew, however, the implications these hypotheses would have in terms of the Churches Aristotelian position, and initially presented an anonymous treatise and then, at the end of his life, released “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies” in 1543. Copernicus presented his ideas as mathematical hypothesis, and according to Professor Merry E. Weisner-Hanks, “not because he had physical proof, but because it was far simpler that Ptolemy’s system in terms of the geometry involved in calculating planetary motion.”[1] This is crucial to understand, that Copernicus approached his research from a mathematical viewpoint and eventually others, such as Johann Kepler and Galileo, found geometrical harmony in Copernicus’ hypotheses. In 1514 Copernicus wrote the Commentarious which outlined his hypotheses in the form of the following seven theories; that planets do not revolve around a single fixed point, that the Earth is at the center of the orbit of the moon, the sun is the center of the universe (all bodies revolve around it), the distance between the Earth and Sun is small compared to the distance of the stars from the Sun, stars do not move, and only appear to because the Earth moves, the Earth moves in a sphere around the Sun, and finally the Earth’s orbit around the Sun causes the planets to orbit in the opposite direction.[2]

[1] Merry E. Weisner-Hanks, Early Modern Europe 1450-1789. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 376.
[2] Nicholas Copernicus, The Commentariolus, accessed October 8, 2015,

Portrait of Galileo Galilei by Giusto Sustermans
Portrait of Galileo Galilei by Giusto Sustermans | Source

Copernicus dedicated his “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies” to Pope Paul III, possibly to make the Churches reception of it more palatable, however, the Church banned the book in May of 1616; seventy three years after Copernicus died. The reason being that there were flaws in Copernicus’ theories and they were not fully formed. That being the case, the Church was not threatened by his work, that is, until Galileo began publishing his views of a heliocentric solar system, using Copernicus’ theories as his framework. Galileo was a student of mathematics, philosophy and physics, and was also a devout Catholic. Until his learning of a new “looking glass” and his subsequent construction of his own telescope, Galileo still taught the geocentric methods of astronomy, even though he regarded it is inadequate.[1]

This would however change when he was able to view the moons of Jupiter and subsequently published The Sidreal Messenger, which presented that four moons orbited Jupiter, substantiating the claims of Copernicus that it was possible for a an object to orbit one thing while that thing orbited another. David B. Wilson points out that the “existence of Jupiter’s moons settled the matter, because now even an earth-centered universe would possess an instance of this peculiar arrangement.”[2] Galileo also discovered sun-spots and phases of Venus, but the Aristotelian astronomers of his day refused to even see for themselves, using Galileo’s telescope, the proof against their stubborn viewpoint. Galileo wrote to Father Benedetto Castelli, a Montecassino monk and a disciple of Galileo, stating that in the face of these discoveries, “in order to convince these obdurate men, who are out for the vain approval of the stupid vulgar, it would not be enough even if the stars came down to earth to bring witness about themselves.”[3]

[1] Hardwick, Religion and Science: From Galileo to Bergson, Kindle Edition
[2] David B. Wilson, "Galileo’s Religion Versus the Church’s Science? Rethinking the History of Science and Religion." Physics in Perspective, 1999, 73.
[3]Giogio De Santillana, The Crime of Galileo (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955), 14.

Title page of Galileo's Sidereal Messenger.
Title page of Galileo's Sidereal Messenger. | Source

Galileo was again a devout Catholic, and as such he held to the belief that Holy Scripture had the sole purpose of salvation and that the literal interpretation of Scripture should not be taken into account unless that interpretation is based on and pertains to faith, morals and salvation. Galileo states that,

For it seems reasonable to deduce, that whenever Scripture has had occasion to speak about matters of natural science…Scripture has not hesitated to veil some of its most important statements, attributing to God himself qualities contrary to his very essence, solely in order to be accessible to popular understanding.[1]

Galileo clarifies this by adding that,

…these things has nothing to do with the primary intention of Holy Writ, namely divine worship and the salvation of souls, and matters far removed from the understanding of the masses. This being the case, it seems to me that the starting point in disputes concerning problems in natural science should not be the authority of scriptural texts, but the experience of the senses and necessary demonstrations.[2]

While this seemed like a very logical thought pattern, it was also a very dangerous one in the seventeenth century. The ongoing controversies between Protestants and Catholics on the interpretation of Scripture made making interpretations of Scripture privately, as Galileo did, a major factor in condemnations against those doing so.

[1] Galileo Galilei, Selected Writings. Translated by William R. Sheea, & Mark Davie (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), Kindle Edition.
[2] Ibid., Kindle Edition.

The Catholic viewpoint of a centralized authority was an essential factor in the balance between the natural sciences and religion. The Church believed that Protestantism would only fragment the Christian belief system. To combat this view, the Church brought together the Council of Trent, from 1545 to 1563, as an effort to correct this fragmentation. The Council of Trent concluded that “Catholicism affirmed the validity of tradition, branding as heretical any deviation from the unanimous agreement of the Church Fathers over the centuries. Among the points they had agreed upon were that the sun moved and that the earth did not.”[1] In 1616 Cardinal Robert Bellarmine concluded that the Council of Trent’s position in disagreement of Galileo’s accommodation theory of Bible interpretation as valid and that the hypotheses of Copernicanism indeed would undermine the authority of the church’s traditional biblical interpretations.[2]

When Pope Urban VIII became the supreme pontiff, Galileo found an opportunity to present his Copernican theories to the liberal Pope who had a keen interest in the sciences and a fondness for Galileo himself. However, this did not turn out as well as Galileo had expected, when he went to Rome and met with Urban VIII and was unable to get the pontiff to remove the ban on the Copernican theory. This meeting led to Galileo producing the Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, which ultimately put him in a very precarious position as a Catholic and scientist. Galileo would be summoned before the Inquisition in 1633. However, in regards to standard inquisition question, Galileo was not put in jail or tortured, in fact, the Inquisition went on to ‘warn” him by saying, “And to the end that this thy grave error and transgression remain not entirely unpunished, and that thou mayst be more cautious in the future, and an example to others to abstain from and avoid similar offences…”[3] Galileo was put on house arrest, his Dialogues were put on the prohibited works list, and required for three years to recites the Seven Penitential Psalms.

[1] Wilson, Galileo’s Religion Versus the Church’s Science? Rethinking the History of Science and Religion, 68.
[2] Ibid., 80.
[3] Tribunal of the Supreme Inquisition, "Modern History Sourcebook: The Crime of Galileo: Indictment and Abjuration of 1633." Fordham University. (1999), accessed September 10, 2015,

Cristiano Banti's 1857 painting Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition
Cristiano Banti's 1857 painting Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition | Source

The culmination of Galileo’s trial, arrest and force recant of his positions in his Dialogues brings about the idea that the natural sciences and religion had no place for each other. However, John Heilbron points out that

The Roman Catholic Church gave more financial and social support to the study of astronomy for over six centuries, from the recovery of ancient learning during the late Middle Ages into the Enlightenment, than any other, and probably all, other institutions.”[1]

It is also clear that if anything, scientists of the seventeenth century were of the belief that Scripture played an important role in that it showed God’s providence to allow man to be saved by His grace, but also that it provided the window for the humble man to understand things that the Bible purposefully left to out inquisitive minds. That leaves us with the important question of has science and religion come to terms with each other. In the seventeenth century it was a process that was beginning, but centuries of discovery, increases in technology and the continual inquisitive mind of man, has brought religion and science closer together than ever before.

[1] Numbers, Galileo Goes To Jail And Other Myths About Science And Religion, 21.

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