Saturday, July 03, 2010

A spiritual exemplar for Scientists: Galileo!


It may surprise the reader that scientists are spiritual creatures too. The Roman Church recognizes sainthood (by canonization) of pious people who can be exemplars for the faithful to live lives of holiness.

The Catholic Church being in the fullest sense, catholic, has saints for almost every calling in life ir life's problems. And Catholics call these people as "patron saints". Lawyers have St Thomas More. Doctors have St Luke. Even the Internet has its own patron saint, St Isidore of Seville, who 1000 years before the World Wide Web was invented, wrote 20 volumes of the Etymologiae documenting the knowledge of his time. It is said that the work is like a relational database. Countries and other geographic entities have their saints too. You may get the hives because of a hairy caterpillar. You then call on St Magnus of Fussen (Who is he?! Where is Fussen?) Saints also carry national identities even if they never lived in the country were they are patrons. For example St George is the traditional patron of England and Russia.

Scientists have for their patron St Albert the Great, (1106-1290) who is best remembered as St Thomas Aquinas' professor. Albertus Magnus as he is known in Latin, was also known for keen observation of natural phenomenon and his scientific observations were remarkably accurate given the limitations of his day. Also he systematized Aristotle's philosophy making it acceptable to Catholicism. We owe our knowledge of Aristotle to him.

Albertus Magnus works were finally published in their entirety in 1899 in 38 volumes. He was canonized and declared Doctor of the Church in 1931 by Pope Pius XI. His feast day is on November 15. Since Albertus Magnus was bishop of Regensburg and a professor at that city's university, he is naturally one of Pope Benedict XVI's favourite saints, His Holiness having taught there.

While Albertus Magnus is a suitable saint for scientists, he lived at a time when science was done as part of philosophy. The saint did his science in the medieval period and not in the modern one. Science became a distinct branch of knowledge during the Scientific Revolution. This began in 1543 when Copernicus published his "De revolutionibus orbium coelestium" and Andreas Vesalius published his "De Humani Corporis Fabrica". The revolution ended with Isaac Newton (and some contend that it ended with Charles Darwin's "Origin of Species" in 1854).

Perhaps the most celebrated scientist in this period is none other than Galileo Galilei. This brilliant, rebellious, ribald and cantankerous man is considered to be the father of modern experimental science. While Albertus Magnus himself did experiments, Galileo is the first scientist to insist that evidence gathered by experiments is paramount in determining the truth about nature and that this can be modelled mathematically. Science wasn't the same since then.

But as we all know, Galileo ran afoul of the Church, which did not really oppose heliocentrism, but wanted that it be considered as a hypothesis. But Galileo insisted that his observations supported that heliocentrism is established scientific fact. In the "Dialogo" he put the defence of Church belief on geocentrism in the mouth of Simplicio (meaning "stupid"). The Pope wasn't amused. Galileo was tried for heresy by the Inquisition, sentenced to house arrest for "vehement suspicion of heresy" The Church admitted its error when Pope John Paul II apologized for the Galileo affair on October 31, 1992. In 2008, the Vatican proposed the erection of Galileo's statue within the Vatican near the HQ of the Pontifical Academy of Science (descendant of the Academia Lincei which Galileo was one of the founders) but the next year indefinitely shelved the idea. Perhaps the idea of erecting a statue of a scientist in the Vatican was too radical. It may end up as an object of pilgrimage!

The Roman Church has so come close to a scientific canonization of a Catholic! Was this to assuage its guilt?

Of course Galileo is not likely to be declared a "Servant of God"anytime soon. It may take 400 years unless scientists, fans, devotees and their postulator (most likely a Jesuit!) come up with a positio to be submitted to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints very soon.

The problem is that intellectuals even those theologically harmless like the famed English convert from Anglicanism and subsequently cardinal John Henry Newman, took 120 years before he gets beatified. Newman will be beatified when Pope Benedict XVI visits England this September.

Like Galileo, Newman was suspected of holding on to heretical if not modernist ideas such as the role of the laity in the development of doctrine. Newman anticipated the direction of Vatican II by one hundred years.

But Galileo was no theologian nor he was a saintly celibate like Newman or Albert the Great. Galileo never married his mistress, frequented the brothels, had a saintly but independent minded daughter who became a nun, and lectured what we know now as ribald jokes to his students (who naturally flocked to his lectures in droves).

The rebellious Galileo wouldn't don his doctoral gown not because it was unbearably hot but because it wasn't suited for the pleasures of the night.

But while popular media may describe Galileo as the Roman Church's "most illustrious heretic" Galileo was never a heretic. Galileo remained a loyal Catholic to the end of his days. Some have even proposed that the whole Galileo affair would be bygones if the Church canonizes him as the Patron of Modern Science. The Church would have been fully rehabilitated if it does this.

Galileo is really a saint, no doubt about that. The laity have made him so. Here is a link to a photo of his tomb. Note that people light candles for him! Also his fingers have been treated as holy relics in reliquaries!

Should Galileo be made a Catholic saint? Perhaps but not now! But it would be fun and inspiring to scientists to have Saint Galileo of Acetri. Who knows this may inspire the Church of England to canonize Saint Darwin the Evolver (giving it a breather from the acerbic debate on women priests and bishops) and finally all who hold on to Faith to have The Fallen Angel of Dawkins!

4 comments:

Jego said...

Interesting thing is that eventually, both geocentrism and heliocentrism were proven wrong.

The Church was perfectly willing to accept heliocentrism too if Galileo could prove his theory. He was actually threatened with excommunication because he was being an a$$ about his theory. :-D

Ben Vallejo said...

Scholars from the atheistic to the most Catholic agree that Galileo became cantankerous and acerbic towards the end.

But the Church had no right to peer review Galileo. It did not have the competency. That's why JP II had to apologize.

Now the Church has all bases covered. It has the Jesuits. Even if the Jesuits are theologically heretical, the Church will still allow its Jesuit scientists to peer review scientists.

Jego said...

But the Church had no right to peer review Galileo.

So we say now with 21st century eyes. In the 16th century, they did have the right. There was no peer-review process outside of the Church. Universities were almost all Catholic at that time. And they were being fair about it: "Prove it, or else state plainly that it is an unproben hypothesis." Cardinal Bellarmino wrote that if Galileo could prove his theory, Church teaching on geocentrism would have to change. That was a pretty scientific requirement we ask of modern scientists today: Where's your evidence? Pope JPII's apology was politically expedient (remember, heliocentrism was proven wrong in 1992) and probably apt but as far as the 'peer-review' process in the 17th century was concerned, everything was legit.

Jego said...

correction to the previous comment. I meant " heliocentrism was already proven wrong in 1992" not 'proven wrong in 1992' which is incorrect. :-)