Science in Bluegrass – Think: St. Robert Bellarmine, Galileo, and How to Think

A statue of St. Robert Bellarmine at Bellarmine University. (Photo specific to The Record)

Look around the Archdiocese of Louisville for a statue of a prominent scientist. You won’t find much. But you can find a large statue of someone closely associated with a prominent scientist: the statue of St. Robert Bellarmine that stands at Bellarmine University.

Even the admirers of this saint criticized his dealings with the scientist Galileo Galilei. In a 2009 column in the Louisville Courier-Journal on the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first telescope discoveries in 1609, then-President of Bellarmine University, the late Joseph McGowan, wrote about how “Galileo’s observations put him into all sorts of things Directions brought trouble, ”how Galileo had to retract his findings and how St. Robert’s involvement in this controversy had occasionally led to jokes at the university.

Chris Graney

But the Galileo / St. Robert story is complex. St. Robert did not deny Galileo’s observations and findings. By 1611, various astronomers from St. Roberts’ own order, the Society of Jesus, had purchased good telescopes and checked these results. You didn’t get Galileo into trouble.

However, St. Robert questioned Galileo’s interpretation of these results. Galileo had said they supported Nicolaus Copernicus’ theory that the earth orbits the sun. But other astronomers had made solid scientific arguments as to why the earth couldn’t move. Astronomers like Simon Marius saw another theory in telescopic discoveries, which was that the earth is at rest and the sun is orbiting it and the planets are orbiting the sun.

Meanwhile, a prominent Tuscan noblewoman, Christina of Lorraine, had asked if Copernicus’ ideas were not against the Bible. The Bible describes the sun as moving – for example rising and setting (Eccl. 1: 5) – rather than the earth. Christina’s questions and Galileo’s answers added religious controversy to an academic debate. That got Galileo into trouble.

In 1615, the then high-ranking church official called St. Robert Galileo to “prove it”. Sure, St. Robert said, we could respond to arguments like Christina’s by assuming that biblical references to a moving sun refer only to what we see. We watch the sun rise and set. But why make this assumption, he said, without proving that the earth and not the sun moves? When in doubt, we stick to the simple words of the Bible.

There were doubts. Galileo never found any evidence. There was solid science against him. In 1616, St. Robert officially asked Galileo to give up his support for Copernicus. Galileo was never asked to withdraw his knowledge; these had been verified, turned out to be true. But a few years after St. Robert’s death, Galileo was actually forced by the Inquisition to publicly withdraw his support for Copernicus.

Of course, over time (long after Galileo himself died) these seemingly solid scientific arguments for why the earth could not move were resolved by even more scientific discoveries.

The evidence St. Robert wanted has been found. Galileo had been forced to retract an idea that turned out to be correct.

President McGowan used the Galileo / St. Robert story to emphasize knowing how to think, what to think about – an important distinction.

Silencing people and telling them what to think is a particularly bad idea in science, even when the evidence seems against them. It is a very good idea to ask for evidence and challenge people how they think. St. Robert’s relationship with Galileo included some of both.

Visit his statue for a while. See Galileo and Marius and Christina from his point of view. What would you have done if he were him?

Chris Graney writes for Sacred Space Astronomy, the blog of the Vatican Astronomical Observatory. He is a member of the St. Louis Bertrand Church in Louisville.

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