The moons of Jupiter, named after Galileo, orbiting their parent planet. Galileo viewed these moons as a smaller Copernican system within the solar system and used them to support heliocentrism. (Photo from Wikipedia)
In 1638, the English poet John Milton visited Italy. He described the experience in his polemic Areopagitica, written in 1644 to advocate freedom of the press.
“I have sat among their learned men — for that honour I had — and been counted happy to be born in such a place of philosophic freedom, as they supposed England was, while they themselves did nothing but bemoan the servile condition into which learning among them was brought; that this was it which had damped the glory of Italian wits; that nothing had been there written now these many years but flattery and fustian. There it was that I found and visited the famous Galileo, grown old, a prisoner of the Inquisition, for thinking in astronomy otherwise than the Franciscan and Dominican licensers thought.”
There were many reasons that had nothing to do with astronomy for Galileo’s imprisonment, not the least of which was a fear that accepting new scientific knowledge that contradicted certain biblical passages might provide ammunition to Protestant literalists who would attack the Catholic Church for not being sufficiently committed to biblical truth.
But the basic reason for what has come to be known as the Galileo affair was, indeed, not religious but his espousal of a new science that abandoned an understanding of astronomy that went back to ancient Greece. Galileo espoused the heliocentric (sun-centered) astronomy of the priest Copernicus who postulated that the Earth and the other planets revolve around the Sun rather than the Sun and planets revolving around the Earth.
The choice of traditional science over the newborn scientific revolution with its emphasis on observation and calculation began a break between Catholicism and science that endures today despite church leaders’ still insufficient attempts to embrace scientific progress, most notably, perhaps, in evolutionary biology. Scientists and churchmen (for they are almost all men) generally view each other warily, with doubts that either has much to offer the other.
It was only in 1992 that Rome finally admitted that, in the words of Cardinal Paul Poupard who headed the investigation of Galileo’s 1633 conviction, “We today know that Galileo was right in adopting the Copernican astronomical theory.” It took 359 years to reach the cardinal’s “today” and officially declare that Catholics are allowed to believe that the Earth revolves around the Sun.
We are in a Church still led by those who seem to have slept through their science classes in school.
The latest indication that Aristotelean metaphysics is alive and well can be seen in the response of some bishops and others to a Pew Foundation study that shows that a majority of Catholics in the study do not use the word or concept “transubstantiation” to describe their understanding of the Eucharist.
To oversimplify, in Aristotle’s science there is a basic reality, its “substance,” underlying specific examples marked by “accidents.” Think of substance as the dog-ness of Fido and accidents as the Fido-ness of your dog.
“Transubstantiation” means that the substance of the bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Christ while such accidents as color, shape, taste and smell remain those of bread and wine.
It is a neat and intellectually satisfying explanation so long as Aristotle’s 2,500-year-old science as Catholicized by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century works for you, as it apparently does for some church leaders upset that Catholics no longer use it to explain their faith in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. For anyone whose scientific education, no matter how elementary, took place after the scientific revolution of the 17th century, though, an explanation of that faith that depends on substances and accidents makes no sense and explains nothing.
Surveys show that faith in the real presence of Christ in the sacrament is strong not only among Roman Catholics but among many other Christians as well. Those other Christians include the Orthodox and Eastern Catholics for whom transubstantiation was never a theological concept.
It is not only in matters of sacramental theology that ancient ignorance tries to trump modern science. The ongoing controversies in the Church regarding gender identity and how it can be lived find their source in a refusal to accept the findings of modern biological and social science.
The same is true in the matter of contraception, where ancient ideas of reproductive biology form the basis of a moral teaching that is generally ignored by modern men and women. Ancient science will not convince modern minds and hearts.
The study of metaphysics is a requirement for seminary training. But understanding reality is no longer primarily the realm of metaphysics. Science with its empirical and mathematical explorations must join philosophy in the training of theologians. Otherwise, theology that seeks to proclaim the Incarnation will be increasingly disincarnate from the real universe.
Father William Grimm is a New York-born priest active in Tokyo. He has also served in Cambodia and Hong Kong and is the publisher of ucanews.com. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of ucanews.com.
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