The Church and the Cosmological Revolution

By R. Jeffrey Grace

In order to understand why the cosmological revolution in early modern Europe was first met with resistance by the Catholic Church we can take a closer look at the most famous example of this resistance: the confrontation with Galileo over the heliocentric view of the universe. To place it all into context, recall that the accepted view of the world and the cosmos at that time was of an orderly hierarchy of sorts, where the earth sat at the middle of it all. As one ascended into the heavens one encountered perfect spheres within which the heavenly bodies were embedded. God was located beyond the outermost sphere. This realm where God was located was a realm of pure perfection and as you descended from this realm you became further removed from perfection, until the lowest realm, the material realm, was reached. That is where we were located on Earth.

This hierarchical view of the cosmos was understood to be reflected within the hierarchical structure of our society, where the Church was at the top followed by the rulers and on down to the lowly plebes of the land. As far as they could see, the Church leaders understood that once this cosmological model was shattered, it left the Church in the very unfortunate position of no longer reflecting the way things are structured. It would lose its status as the highest institution and its authority would be undermined.

It’s easy to look at what happened with Galileo and come to the conclusion that the Church is anti-science, but nothing could be further from the truth. The problem that the Church had with Galileo, and in fact the problems that arise in our time between science and religion, are driven by a pastoral concern rather than an opposition to science. At that time, to admit that the Church was wrong about the cosmos would have been devastating to all Christian believers. For them, to say that the cosmos was not structured with the earth in the center was tantamount to saying that God did not exist. No one in our day and age expects the Catholic Church to make statements or claims that are scientific in nature. We don’t turn to the Church to hear an explanation of the theory of gravity for instance. But in Galileo’s time, people weren’t accustomed to the concept that while science and religion both make statements of truth, the truths being proclaimed flow from two different ways of describing the world we live in.

The problem for the Church then, as well as for theology now, is the discernment of the methods used and the nature of the knowledge gained by those methods and how those methods produce certain knowledge that is special to each discipline yet say something true about our world. The theologian today has to resist the impulse to denounce a scientific theory simply for the reason that it conflicts with their theological model, and the scientist has to resist the temptation to claim that a finding of science invalidates a tenet of faith or doctrine. Neither one can really make such a claim because by doing so they are taking conclusions reached by their particular method and are attempting to address issues that require a different method. For example, a scientist will develop a theory of evolution and then proclaim that this theory invalidates a creator God. A scientist really has no grounds for such a claim, because such a claim is theological, not scientific. To reach such a conclusion the scientist would have to use a theological method to articulate a theological statement rather than try and make a theological conclusion from a scientific method. We need to avoid trying to make theological statements based on the scientific method and also from making scientific statements based on the theological method. This is a pastoral concern, and one which the Church was really intent on when it strove to keep Galileo from undermining the faith of many who simply were not theologically equipped to understand the revolution in cosmology.

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