Dr Noel Roberts' response to my letter concerning his article on Galileo (September AD2000) prompts the following reply.
In the first place, the supposed obscurantism to which I was referring was the one traditionally imputed to the Church by the enemies of religion. That the present-day Church should have seen fit to take the blame for how the Galileo affair was handled and should be saying that the Inquisition acted outside its competence in condemning Copernican theory is an interesting historical irony.
But the findings of the papal commission which rehabilitates Galileo are not good history. They stem from the fallacy of considering historical situations not on the terms in which they were understood at the time, but anachronistically, in the light of current knowledge and contemporary presuppositions, and of passing judgement with the benefit of hindsight. They bespeak a fundamentally anti-historical attitude.
However insightful Galileo may have been, it was not until some 100 years later, as Dr Roberts himself reminds us, that the evidence for his theory became available. By insisting that the Church confirm the veracity of an unproven scientific theory, loudly proclaiming himself as its champion, Galileo was forcing the issue. It was his procedure which was the problem.
Secondly, Galileo was found guilty on two counts: of propounding the thesis that the earth is in motion, and of asserting that the Bible is not a scientific authority. He could maintain the latter position only by interpreting the scriptural passages opposed to the Copernican theory in a non-literal sense.
Dr Roberts is correct in saying that Galileo's approach to the interpretation of Scripture was in line with St Augustine's in trying to find out "the real meaning of its statements", but in the early decades of the 17th century challenges to Catholic orthodoxy were widespread, and this was not the time for anyone, let alone a layman, to contend in the absence of overwhelming scientific evidence that the obvious meaning of Scripture should be overridden in favour of an unobvious sense.
By refuting the biblical arguments against Copernicanism Galileo was openly challenging the Church's claim to be the sole arbiter of Scripture. The verdict of the Inquisition made it clear that in dealing with a question of science as one of hermeneutics he had adopted an exegetical position which opened him to "vehement suspicion of heresy".
North Carlton, Vic