Thursday, January 25, 2007

Paradigm shift!

Well, I am about to do something monumental.

Wait for it...

I was WRONG.

Or at least, I was making a problem unnecessarily difficult. You see, I wasn't entirely convinced that the position I outlined in my previous post was totally orthodox. Not that the JBC is declaring heresy or anything. But I was getting a slightly uneasy feeling in my stomach as I argued that God's commands in Joshua and Judges could be re-interpreted so that, wherever God is "speaking", what we're really seeing is an outdated understanding of God's permissive will; and that this could be held without any violence done to the notion of Biblical inerrancy.

Kind of like how, if I'm not totally convinced I'm doing something smart, sometimes I'll run it by Mom casually--you know, as if I was convinced it was smart--and I take careful note of her reaction. Now I may not always agree with Ma (I love you Ma) but more than once that reaction of hers has been a good "common sense" barometer.

But in this case, instead of Mom, I ran my thinking by the folks at That post was ignored rather quickly (although now it has two helpful posts by "Verbum" and, maybe less so, by "Genesis315".

Providentially, another post popped up on the same subject which got a lot more attention--I guess it had a better title. And was shorter. But I jumped right in (and, if I do say so, with some good one-liners) and what came out was some good solid apologetics, courtesy of Scott Hahn, who I haven't read much of--partially because intellectual snobbery dictates that one avoid scholars whose books appear on the shelves of kitschy Catholic gift shops. Alas this is also why I have been deprived of Fulton Sheen. Am I inconsistent for devouring essays by C.S. Lewis? Naw; I'll never read Narnia.

Anyway, what Hahn did for me was help to make an important adjustment. You see, there's a fault line somewhere between the overall Biblical doctrine of God and the way God appears in the Deuteronomical history. My mistake was not in believing that there was a fault-line, but in where I placed it. I said it may have been the incomplete understanding of God by the inspired authors. To preserve orthodoxy, one need only to move the fault-line backwards a bit--to the nature of deuteronomy - the second law - itself: a law for a broken people, which permitted evil because, given God's overarching plan for salvation, no other mode of divine intervention would be consistent with God's very self.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Thinking about the Book of Joshua

My current series of bulletin articles for the parish concerns violence in the Old Testament--in particular, the conquest of the Canaanites in the Book of Joshua. The Lord establishes a Herem or curse against Jericho, such that everything in it is forfeit and must be destroyed, including women and children.

Beyond this, there is the story of Achen. He was caught hoarding forbidden treasure, admitted his crime, and so he and his wife, children, and possessions were stoned and burned. So much for leniency for a 'guilty' plea.

My original motivation for researching this issue was to respond to a YouTube video that expressed distaste for the God of the Old Covenant. Yet I am now writing for a largely conservative Catholic audience--much of which believes that Biblical inerrancy means that the whole thing is literal. So I am trying to balance a persuasiveness suitable for an agnostic with a theological caution suitable for sensitive Catholics. Fun!

I've looked at the 1966 Catholic Encyclopedia, the Jerome Biblical Commentary, Reading the Old Testament by Lawrence Boadt, and A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture. So, nothing really cutting-edge.

What is becoming apparent to me in the research is that (as far as I understand it) the inerrancy of the Bible may not exclude the hermenutical possibility that the Book of Joshua is lacking in precision in the way it describes God as "commanding" the Israelites to carry out certain acts. Rather, the divine will underlying the slaughter of the Canaanites and the brutal authoritarianism of Joshua may not be God's direct will, but rather his "permissive" or "possibilizing" will. In other words, it was God's direct will that the Canaanite religion be eradicated and that the land come into possession of the Israelites. But he did not intend, in the same way, that these goals should be carried out by means of indiscriminate murder. Rather, it was that God allowed these means to be used, though they be objectively sinful, and their executors, even Joshua himself, may not have been necessarily acquitted the guilt.

What are some reasons why this might be? Although God was not averse to putting miracles in the service of his ends, it would not fit the pattern of the Old Testament to miraculously imbue Israel with anachronistic, enlightened ways of thinking about war, conquest, religious purity, and himself. Nor, for similar reasons, would God miraculously turn Jericho into a nation of faithful Israelites overnight. Either case would involve a violent override of the free will of human beings. Thus it was fitting for the Lord to be, as it were, minimalistic in his intervention: he, and he alone, is the reason why Israel was able to win.

[BTW, all of this is: other historical-critical problems and their theories notwithstanding. I know that the Historical Books are complex interweavings of narratives of different traditions, genres, disparate chronologies, etc. and so on. But these are not really relevant to the issue at hand.]

The problem with a literalistic interpretation of Joshua is not so much that God could will the annihilation of a people, if they were an obstacle to his mysteriously elected vehicle of the salvation of the world. If God directly destroyed Jericho, a la Sodom and Gomorrah, it would be less of a logical problem, both because of God's absolute supremacy over Creation, and because (from the standpoint of Christian faith) death, from God's point of view, is not the unmitigable end of the person. Yet even so, such would be difficult to reconcile with Ezekiel 33:11, "As I live, says the Lord GOD, I swear I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked man, but rather in the wicked man's conversion, that he may live."

The problem is, rather, that in employing Israel to carry out the deed, in every grizzly result that ensues, there erupts instances where God seems to contradict himself. Not only does the Herem on Jericho appear to contradict several of the more enlightened statements of God through the later prophets, but it also contradicts points of the supposedly already-established Deuteronomical law concerning guilt and warfare.

The ultimate result is that one seems to be forced to accept one of two breaches of traditional religion. If one holds steadfastly to as literal a sense of the Old Testament as possible, this appears to result in either a self-contradictory or a changing god. If one is convinced, as I myself am, that notwithstanding his absolute power and freedom, God does not contradict himself or leave his beloved creatures to dwell in absurdity, then this presents serious problems for a literal interpretation of the divine commands in Joshua.

The picture of divine inspiration portrayed by the Jerome Biblical Commentary and the Catholic Encyclopedia--both of which have Nihil Obstats and Imprimaturs (though I understand that these can mean much less than their stated purpose)--is that the Spirit is everywhere in Biblical history moving individuals to write his Word in their words. And although they are assisted by the Spirit to "without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures," (CCC 107) yet nevertheless the Old Testament can "contain some things which are incomplete and temporary" (Dei Verbum 15).

Will elaborate more, if I haven't already fallen into too much heresy.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The trouble with YouTubing that you need one of two things that I don't have: (a) to be extraordinarily talented (or a pretty young girl), or (b) not to care about putting out high-quality or interesting videos. Neither applies to me.

Now I have a backlog of things I want to do, and neither the energy or confidence to do them. I've tried to shoot the response to the debate half a dozen times, and whatever wasn't completely incomprehensible was way too long and boring. Same goes for another video I've been trying to shoot based on notes on a philosophical definition of the word 'faith'.

My perfectionism isn't just killing me there. I have a half-finished essay on the Holy Family sitting on my computer desktop that mocks me whenever I look at it. ARGH. Paralyzing perfectionism SUCKS. God help me.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Notes for a "Re: The Experiential God" video

I watched videos from YouTube members about God and science and such, and I figured I would jump in. I wrote four pages of notes already, but it's so disorganized that I couldn't hardly begin to make a cogent video response that was less than 30 minutes. So here's my attempt to synthesize their points and my points in an outline that can take less than 10 minutes to present.

Their points:

  • AbortedSoul
    • Surprised at the existence of an intelligent Christian (Hey, there are more of us than you think).
    • Doesn't believe in "any god was invented by man" i.e., any "Invisible Sky Daddy". Carl Sagan: "This extraordinary theory requires extraordinary evidence". (I agree)
    • Evolution stuff, blah blah, we're all evolved from random processes, nothing special about human beings, etc. (Law of accelerating returns)
    • God not needed to require or validate "love". It's just sociobiological imperatives.
    • James W. Prescott's "cross-cultural study" - punishing children --> devotion to the inferiority of women + devotion to supernatural beings.
    • Evil Bible verses
    • Truth is more important than feeling good.
  • LanysNeverLesser
    • Belief in God an axiom of a formal system of thought; not in itself rational
    • Why believe in God? Experience.
  • MetaBob
    • What divides people between those who experience and those who don't experience God?
    • The experiences may be real, but the interpretation of them is not so obvious. What to say to someone who has such an experience but interprets it according to a different tradition?
    • Calm manner a trojan horse for a kind of belief system. Do you believe that human beings must believe in the true God or else?
    • Spirituality not incompatible with atheism
    • Correlation =/= cause, as far as religion and violence goes.
    • Atheism is a religion. (So awesome!)
    • Science shows us a world in which God is not a literal part. (I agree)
    • God-in-us; we bring God into the universe (blah).
    • Law of accelerating returns... sounds good. Ray Kurzweil, "The Singularity is Near". (Sounds a lot like Teilhard de Chardin's "Omega Point")
      • We are the intelligence of the universe; headed towards a singularity of intelligence.
    • Science doesn't say anything that can't be refined.
    • Stuff about alien races. Drache equation - assumptions.
    • Singularity stuff "religious" unless you define "religion" as narrowly as the various institutional superstitions
  • Cortmeister
    • Can understand how religion came to be; perhaps religion is hardwired into human beings...
All right. First part of my video I basically need to introduce myself and make it clear that I'm a Catholic of an all-or-nothing variety, so they don't need to guess about what my opinions are on such or another topic. But then I'll concede many of their points.
  • AbortedSoul
    • I'm sympathetic to the rejection of mythological-seeming, invented deities, and I understand why the Christian God seems by all appearances to fall within that category (cite Xenophanes).
    • I am also sympathetic to his statement that truth takes priority over feeling (cite Simone Weil).
    • I believe in evolution; I believe what science says. I don't always believe what scientists say, because sometimes they speak not as scientists but as philosophers, and in my opinion bad ones.
    • I understand his problem with the "evil Bible verses" and I plan to do a separate video addressing that problem.
    • I am more sympathetic with AbortedSoul, vs. MetaBob, about the non-spiritual element of atheism, at least as MetaBob himself conceives it. I do not consider a sentimental awe at our own technological development "spiritual".
  • MetaBob
    • I agree with his critique of LanysNeverLesser's argument from experience, both in the aspect of how it divides humanity into the "haves" and "have-nots" of religious experience, and in how it neglects the fact that all experience is interpreted by a pre-existing tradition.
    • I want to assuage MetaBob's concerns and assure him (and any listening secularists) that while the Catholic tradition does assign very important value to belief in God and belonging to the Church, and has serious criticisms of atheism abstractly understood, our theology of grace prevents us from judging anyone (cite Trent, Pius IX, Vatican II, Catechism, document from Congregation for Evangelization + Dialogue).
    • I agree that atheism can be spiritual, but my criterion for a genuine spirituality would be that it begins with an awe at an Other that transcends us; MetaBob's own spirituality appears to be a mere awe at our collective selves. I would consider Buddhism to be spiritual; I would not consider Hegelianism and its modern derivatives to be spiritual.
    • I agree that atheism is a quasi-religion, but not because of its sentimentality towards science, or the ritualism of organized atheism. I believe that it is on the same level as the theistic traditions insofar as it makes positive and axiomatic metaphysical claims which are not universally demonstrable in an absolutely compelling way. In fact I believe that it is impossible to be a thinking human being without at least having implicit metaphysical propositions operative in one's behavior.
    • I agree in a less qualified sense that science does indeed show us a world in which God is not a literal part. If God were a part of the world, then he wouldn't be God, but a part of the world. All of the Abrahamic traditions make an absolute and radical distinction between God and the world. In a certain sense, the modern division between modern science and religious belief already had its seed in ancient times, when the study of the changing natural world was held in low regard precisely because nobody ever expected to find the Ultimate and the One amidst stones and beasts. But for the Abrahamic traditions, that distinction is more radical even than was taught by the Greeks.
    • I agree in a generally progressive view of history; I do not believe that it is tied to technology, but rather to culture and civilization.
    • I agree re: alien races. Basically the question is totally up in the air. As the statistics about the size of the universe, and the statistics about the improbability of the development of intelligent life both approach infinity, the only result is the total unpredictability of the outcome.
  • Cortmeister
    • I certainly do think there are naturalistic explanations for the origin of human religiosity, but isn't that strange, given that the evolution of features that help a species survive usually entails that those features correspond in some way to objective reality? (c.f., William James, "The Sentiment of Rationality")
  • LanysNeverLesser
    • I agree about the nature of axiom-based formal systems, and I would even apply this train of thought as a critique of atheist's claim to have a suitable foundation for moral action.
Now, to organize my own points.
  • Regarding science and religion
    • Seems like the only thing that would surprise atheists more than the existence of God is the existence of a thoughtful Christian. Here's a thought: maybe Christians would stop kicking around prejudices about atheists being moral degenerates when atheists stop kicking around prejudices about Christians being intellectual degenerates.
    • As I said before, I accept what science tells me; just not always what scientists tell me. Of course, that means that I can't be a fundamentalist. But it doesn't mean that I can't be a fully believing Catholic. Christians have always been able to interpret parts of the Bible in non-literal ways; Biblical literalism pops up in history when Christian societies either forget, or are not willing to accept, the writings of the ancient fathers. Consider Augustine.
    • Now, there is talk of miracles in the New Testament, and I believe in those literally. I don't think that makes me an idiot. The belief that miracles are impossible is a metaphysical claim, not a scientific one. The only premise necessary to believe that miracles are possible are that, all scientific truth notwithstanding, infinite being can break into finite being with startling and unpredictable results. Let me make an analogy with AbortedSoul's argument about morality. Atheists don't believe that morality is absolute; but that doesn't mean that they break moral rules whenever they can. Well, by the same token, theists don't believe that the observable patterns of the universe are absolute; but that doesn't mean that we expect superstitious miracles to pop up everywhere we go. (Of course, I've spoken with some really superstitious Catholics, just as I've spoken with some really immoral atheists).
  • Regarding science and philosophy
    • I wish that everybody who studied science was required also to study the philosophy of science. Sophisticated human thought didn't begin with Galileo, and science is not the successor to philosophy; it is a branch of it. It's a big branch, and an impressive one at that; but still, one branch among others. The scientific method sets rules for itself in order to maximize accuracy in description of the perceptible universe. For this reason science must bracket questions outside of its purview. (That does not mean that scientists must do so; indeed, they're always talking about the "big questions". But when they do so, they are not being scientists).
    • I believe that it is a fallacy to believe that no question with a real answer falls outside of the competence of the scientific method. In fact, this belief would eliminate the scientific method itself, because the method's own dictates cannot be discovered via any sort of experimentation. They are based, rather, on epistemological reflection on what sorts of knowledge can be based on unmediated contact of phenomena with our five senses.
    • For this reason, there are several things that everybody takes for granted as being "real" yet which are not proper objects of science. History, properly speaking, is not a science; the past is as unavailable for lab experiments as is God itself. True, the Method and technology are used to enhance our knowledge of relics and vestiges of the past. But this is only the indirect study of the past; it is only by combining the hard evidence with interpretation (a process that is woolier than the Method) that we can make approximate reconstructions of what happened. Futurology is not a strict science for the same reason. The human sciences - anthropology, sociology, and psychology - are at best murky, as people and societies seem to be only partially conformable to the Method's ability to make inferences based on patterns. The broader the scope of the human sciences, the fewer certainties issue forth. Metaphysics is not a science, not because it has no reality, but because it constitutes the very foundations of science. Metaphysics asks questions like, what is an object; what is cause and effect; is time continuous or a series; what is motion; what are the constituents of being as being. The question of how metaphysics corresponds to reality yields other fields that are real but not scientific: epistemology, logic, and phenomenology. Then, finally, we have ethics--and even the debate about whether good and evil are real or not has less to do with what can be observed scientifically, than it does with how those observations are interpreted.
    • I want to emphasize that I am not trying to discredit or critique science. I believe in science. But I have much less of a mystical awe of science than does Kurzweil; I think of the method as an ordinary tool of investigation rather than a vehicle to human self-transcendence. I also distinguish between science and reason - science is a branch of reason - which AbortedSoul does not seem to do. Thus I find that religion is good and reasonable for reasons which have little to do with the discoveries of science. That means that you will never find me arguing that religion is good because this or that study shows that religion makes people happy. I do believe that religion makes people happy--it makes me happy--but whether it does or not is irrelevant to whether one ought to believe it. That is, of course, unless the alleged happiness that comes with religion is a clue as to its correspondence with some kind of reality--but I don't make this claim.
    • As a philosophy student I find science relatively uninteresting. In all of its investigations it seems to say so little of significance to everyday life and action. On occasion, questions of science interact with other fields that I am interested in, like the significance of the biology of ovulation for the question of abortion and "double effect", if one has, like me, already accepted the axioms that life begins at conception and that it is objectively evil to intentionally, artificially terminate any individual human life. The question of alien life is moderately interesting but has very little importance as far as Christianity is concerned; we've already discovered a "New World" once, and learned some hard lessons from the experience. Let's hope that if we do interact with aliens, we will remember our own dark history of colonization and exploitation, eh?
    • Certainly, the progress of science makes us very technologically advanced. So we get all kinds of new mechanical toys to play with. Maybe technology will save us from destroying our own planet; that would be cool--but also unlikely, as long as the world is governed primarily by market forces and democracies full of individuals who aren't willing to make sacrifices. But unlike Kurzweil I don't believe that technology is an important indicator of the progress of human civilization on the whole. The better standard is one put most eloquently by Hubert Humphrey: "The moral test of a government [or civilization in general] is how it treats those who are at the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the aged; and those who are in the shadow of life, the sick and the needy, and the handicapped." I would also add: the refugee, the minority, and the woman. By this criteria, I think we've made a lot of progress; but this progress is not, unlike technology, constant, necessary, or even agreed upon as to the shape that it takes.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Notes for a Galileo video

"I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason and intellect has intended us to forgo their use." - Galileo Galilei

On YouTube, I've been having a fun little conversation with "Cortmeister," a political commentator and agnostic (or "soft atheist") with lots of interesting life stories and a pleasant attitude towards people with different beliefs than his own. We've traded a couple video responses about science and religion, and in his last video on the topic, he mentioned Galileo and even suggested that clerics at the time were still enforcing the belief that the world was flat.

That was a little while ago, but I wasn't going to be satisfied with leaving a comment that flat-earth believers were the minority since a century after Christ (with Pliny the Elder); by the 5th century, the educated populace was nearly unanimous. The notion that people in the middle ages believed the world was flat was popularized in 1828 by Washington Irving's The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus; Wikipedia on "Flat Earth".

I am preparing a more extensive video that explains the Galileo affair based on some simple Web research. I wanted it to be a little higher production value than my last videos, since anti-religious sentiments tend to run strong in the Tubiverse. Cortmeister is not my only audience member, but I couldn't ask for a better dialogue partner, owing to his patience and moderation.

Importantly, my goal here is not primarily to defend the Church. It is merely to complicate the picture. But there is a sense in which that is a defense in itself. After all, where the 17th century Church is concerned, a complex picture will typically be more favorable than a simplistic one.

Here are the links I collected just from Googling "Galileo".

Catholic Points of View
Other References

I wanted to use one or two real books, but the library was closed; thus I'll have to disclaim any scholarly pretensions. It's all just Internet sources.

A couple of notes on the sources

History is interpretation. That does not mean that it is entirely or even widely subjective, but human controversies will play upon different sympathies in different people, whether they are recent or thousands of years old. Factually, I saw only one glaring difference between two accounts: the author of the Catholic Encyclopedia has no knowledge of Douglas Linder's allegation that the 1616 injunction against Galileo was likely a forgery by his unscrupulous enemies. The book review from First Things gives us an interpretation somewhere in the middle: the injunction was not illegitimate, but it was secret, and was only discovered after Galileo's Copernicanism was brought to the Inquisition's attention a second time. But this is really the only factual difference between accounts.

One will notice also a significant difference in tone and interpretation in the different articles. Both of the articles from explicitly Catholic sources tend to have a defensive edge on them; the one from "Catholic Answers" in particular conveys a slight air of "the Church can do no wrong." That might rub some people the wrong way, but I still recommend it alongside the others, as it makes some good points. However, both the Catholic sources tend, I believe, to overstate the "kindness" with which the elderly Galileo was treated by his prosecutors. Relative to a serious criminal, perhaps, Galileo was treated like royalty; but relative to the earnest and faithful Catholic that he was, his treatment could only be called unjust and brutish.

What's at stake in the question?

I do not often encounter strong anti-Catholic or anti-religious people in my daily life; I wish that was good evidence to conclude that the "science versus religion" debacle has largely faded into a dead history of bad philosophy, bad science, and bad religion. Unfortunately, this is not true, as the Internet and sometimes even the print media often remind me.

Although the name of Galileo is not usually the first to come up in Internet debates, as one among a litany of historical embarrassments of organized religion, it's still a popular old chestnut--usually somewhere after the Inquisition, the Crusades, and the witch burnings. That's a little ironic, really, as none of those three things are the worst things Christians have done; the death tolls pale in comparison to the 30 Years War (~7 million), the French wars of religion (~3 million), or the higher estimates of the Albigensian crusade (~1 million). Those first two are probably rarely mentioned because they are, after all, the killings of Christians by other Christians, and thus apparently less of a scandal (Source). (As a further aside, I point out that the cynical human consciousness never seems to shed as much of a tear for the brutalizations of civil wars, especially when said wars occur among a people not "my" own. How much of that temptation lurks beneath certain Americans' enthusiasm about leaving Iraq to its own violent squalor? "Let God sort it out," indeed.)

But that's neither here nor there. When the name of Galileo does come up, it is bound to polarize debaters around one basic grievance: that given the choice between the sober conclusions of careful observation, and the security of a superstitious tradition, the Church not only chose the latter, but persecuted one of her own best and brightest in its pursuit.

This grievance is more or less universalized depending on the passion of the argument. Either the Galileo affair represents the darkness of the "dark ages;" the pathos of superstition inherent in the Catholic religion; the opposition of Christianity to science or even the whole of reason; or else the fundamental incompatibility between religion and critical thought since the beginning of recorded history. The battle between faith and science begins with the Galileo story and expands through time and space to develop a near cosmic significance. The Galileo affair long ago achieved a quasi-religious status as an icon of the birth of independent reason. Galileo is to modern rationalism what Moses is to Judeo-Christianity: its first emancipator, lawgiver, and standard. I do not believe that it is an accident that the number-one complaint I read against organized religion is not its moralism, its historical violence, its self-righteousness, or its sentimentalism. No; this dubious honor has always (in my experience) been reserved to the complaint that religion--and in particular, Christianity--is anti-intellectual.

A point on Catholicism and Galileo today

That Catholic authorities were, in part, to blame for all this I think is beyond serious dispute; hence Pope John Paul II did a good thing when he expressed regret for the way Galileo was treated. That was in a speech to the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences on October 31, 1992--the text of which has never been published on the Internet in English (the link is to the Babelfish translation of the French, which is very readable). However, the way the speech was presented in the media produced some serious misconceptions (worsened by the lack of an English version).

The first misconception is that John Paul was conceding the entire dispute between science and religion as it was being mythologically represented by popular culture. That idea is silly on the face of it; one need only look at any of John Paul's other writings to know that he stands firmly within the whole of miraculous and fantastical belief of traditional Christianity.

The second misconception (and most irritating to me personally) is that 1992 was some kind of watershed; as if Galileo--and by extension, rational scientific thought--was under censure in Catholic thought for 359 years, until we were finally "liberated" by John Paul's "pardoning" of Galileo, as suggested by news articles like this one. Galileo's Dialogues were in circulation again no later than three years after his sentencing, thanks to Matthias Bernegger; and his complete scientific works were officially released from censure in 1741 by Pope Benedict XIV. John Paul's speech was no more than a concession of irresponsibility on the part of the then-magisterium; not the momentous release of Christendom from centuries of thoughtlessness!

An outline of points

From the specific to the general, here are the points I would like to make.
  1. Some of Galileo's enemies may have been dishonest scoundrels; but they were neither as simple-minded nor as superstitious as they are often thought. His first opponents were not pious Bible thumpers, but professional scientific rivals who earnestly believed that heliocentricism was scientifically inferior to geocentricism (and not entirely with bad reason). In other words, Galileo's main enemies were not primarily concerned that he was a heretic; but rather that his theory was simply stupid and wrong and would turn back the progress of science. Heresy was just an easier conviction to win, especially when the authorities were generally not scientists, but fearful and reactionary theologians.

  2. Concerning the issue of Biblical literalism, Galileo's clerical opponents were not strictly Biblical literalists; even Pope Urban VIII and Robert Bellarmine were (cautiously) open to the idea that Biblical geocentrism was figurative rather than literal. Catholicism has a long tradition of nuanced and spiritual interpretation of Scripture going back to Augustine. But the theologians were petty and authoritarian, and they were offended that a layman would presume to tell them how to read the Bible correctly. [Autobiographical note: I know personally the sting of being told that one is arrogant and insubordinate when one initially believed only that he was only speaking commonsense truths. Although, to be sure, Galileo had much better credentials than I do.] One should also remember that one of the central sticking points of the freshly-remembered Protestant Reformation was the Protestants' insistence on the divine pedigree of the individual interpretation of the Bible. With that on the clergy's mind, there should be no surprise that the Inquisition would spook at Galileo's call to rework centuries of traditional Biblical interpretation, especially based on a theory that the scientists themselves were not unanimous on.

    An analogy: consider how successful today's conservative "scientists" have been at stymieing the progress of alternative energy by their continual suspicion of the truth of global warming, and you have a pretty good picture of the political environment three centuries ago.

  3. There is also the human and political dimension. Although we cannot really judge Galileo's personality with certainty, he was certainly more willing to take risks than was his predecessor Copernicus. I don't believe that it is a sacrilege to suggest, as does Stephen Barr in First Things, that Galileo may have made some political and even scientific mistakes; and that certainly he could have furthered his discoveries and thought within the boundaries of what was acceptable to the Inquisition. But where Galileo was sometimes criticized for his rashness in attempting to popularize his discoveries too soon (and some of them were, in fact, false), this could probably be forgiven him on the grounds that modern science was largely born with him. As such it had not yet developed the methodical, paranoid self-criticism which is today such an important part of it. To be sure, the greater weight of the blame rests upon individuals who, completely apart from Galileo, stoked the fires of controversy in order to see his influence removed--in particular (according to Linder's "The Trial of Galileo") Niccolo Lorini and Tommaso Caccini, as well as cardinals that seemed bent as much on making an example out of Galileo as they were on making sure they would never see him again.
So what?

Ostensibly, the reason I took up this project was simply to reply to Cortmeister's question as to whether the Church in fact proclaimed as a doctrine a matter of the physical sciences. In fact it did--though not infallibly--because it believed that not only that it was Biblical but also that the matter had already been sufficiently intellectually settled by natural philosophy.

But really I also felt that this was a good opportunity to give the whole issue some new exposure. When the Galileo affair is placed within a context of a brand new science competing with entrenched Aristoteleanism, the heels of the Protestant Reformation, the state of theology and the personalities that were at work, it loses some of its mythological status. Nobody denies that there was corruption and buffoonery among the clergy. But that was one of many factors that ultimately led Galileo to have his greatest work be rejected by the Church that he loved, and to live the rest of his life in compromised freedom. Indeed, although Galileo is proof that the best response to new ideas is patience and openness, he is also proof that even geniuses can be wrong, and themselves need to be patient with a world that has not quite caught up with them yet.

It is my opinion that the Church is far from the enemy of discovery and development of the sciences. Historically it has been ambivalent about philosophy, and over the centuries it has tended to oscillate between extremes--in one era being the sole preserver of enlightened human wisdom in a dark age; and in another, fearing the excesses and recklessness of unchecked studies vis-a-vis the saving faith of her members. In most eras it has been a little bit of both, in different areas.

Like every other natural thing, the Church appreciates and loves learning, since it is the right development of the faculty of reason which is a God-given gift. But the Church also recognizes that no natural virtue is free from the possibility of corruption, and thus everything must be tested (though it has been slower to realize that it itself is not free from the possibility of corruption). Says St. Paul, "Test everything: retain what is good" (1 Thessalonians 5:21).