St. Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621), whose feast the Church celebrates today, was in many ways a remarkable man. One of the few charges that the tribunal of history ever leveled against him was his opposition to Galileo, the great hero of scientific freedom. The many myths surrounding the Galileo affair have been propounded and exploded too many times to count. Even the defiant rejoinder, “Eppur si muove” (“Yet it moves”), seems to have been the fabrication of polemical historians. Yet it too “moves” from generation to generation as a slogan of the dignity of conscience and the density of the Church.
The true story is, of course, more complicated. As it turns out, Bellarmine and Galileo were both partly right. Ironically, as Fr. James Brodrick observes, Bellarmine turns out to have been more farsighted in field of scientific theory, and Galileo more prescient in the field of scriptural interpretation.
Galileo had a keener sense of literary genres than Bellarmine. Whereas Bellarmine felt constrained to interpret scripture “according to the common opinion of the Fathers”—all of whom agreed in interpreting descriptions of the sun’s motion literally—Galileo tended to understand passages depicting the sun’s movement more poetically. He wrote to a Benedictine monk on Dec. 21, 1613:
If the Bible, in order to accommodate itself to the capacity the unlearned, has not refrained from expressing even its principal dogmas in a distorted manner by attributing qualities to God which are incompatible with and indeed totally opposed to His Divine Essence, who can assert with assurance that when it speaks incidentally of the earth, the sun, or any other natural object, it abandons this style and chooses to express its real meaning in the literal sense of the words it employs?
Bellarmine, on the other hand, had a keener sense of the provisional nature of scientific modeling. Galileo argued that Scripture must be taken figuratively if its pronouncements contradict what “the conclusions of natural science, which the clear evidence of the senses, or apodictic demonstrations, have put beyond dispute.” Bellarmine, incidentally, agreed. He merely doubted that Galileo had yet proven his case “beyond dispute:”
If there were real proof that the sun is in the centre of the universe, that the earth is in the third heaven, and that sun does not go round the earth but the earth round the sun, then we should have to proceed with great circumspection in explaining the passages of Scripture which appear to teach the contrary, and rather admit that we did not understand them than declare an opinion to be false which is proved to be true. But as for myself, I shall not believe that there are such proofs until they are shown to me. Nor is a proof that, if the sun be supposed at the centre of the universe and the earth in the third heaven, the celestial appearances are thereby explained, equivalent to a proof that the sun actually is in the centre and the earth in the third heaven. The first kind of proof might, I believe, be found, but as for the second kind, I have the very gravest doubts, and in case of doubt we ought not to abandon the interpretation of the sacred text as given by the holy Fathers.
Bellarmine understood scientific hypotheses to be an attempt to “save the appearances” of observed phenomena. Hence he also understood that the same appearances can be “saved” by several different models. The Copernican and Ptolemaic solar systems did not exhaust all possibilities. Even if Galileo’s system explained celestial phenomena more elegantly than Ptolemy’s, there was always the possibility that another model would come along that surpassed both (perhaps without requiring the Church to relinquish an ancient reading of Scripture). As Pierre Duhem, the renown philosopher of science, pointed out, all celestial phenomena observable at the time of Galileo could as easily have been accounted for by Tycho Braché’s model (which was developed precisely to avoid contradiction with certain passages literally understood).
Though sanctity did not preserve Bellarmine from some error, his patience and prudence did keep him in cordial relations with Galileo. St. Robert died in 1621. Yet Galileo was still invoking his name 12 years later at his tragic trial, as if the saintly pastor would intercede for him from beyond the grave. And though the portrayal of the Church’s blind opposition to self-evident scientific truth has been proven unfair-or at least unnuanced-on many occasions, it endures nevertheless in the popular imagination. Eppur si muove.