Wednesday, April 20, 2022

China, Galileo, and the Heavens

Over recent decades, however, the Ministry of Rites had made a succession of embarrassing mistakes.

Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, by Tom Holland

The time was the early seventeenth century.  The place was China.  The mistakes had to do with keeping track of upcoming eclipses and the movements of the stars.  The work was a strict monopoly of the state, and like all such state monopolies, mistakes are certain.

An eclipse was upcoming.  It was decided that a contest would be held: who could best predict the proper time and date?  The barbarians who had recently arrived from the furthest West were the most accurate.  As their reward, they were commissioned by the emperor to reform the calendar.  Johann Schreck, a Jesuit priest and a polymath – expert in astronomy, mathematics, linguistics and a physician – was to lead this effort.

Besides their interest in the stars, these barbarians and their Chinese counterparts held something else in common: a Catholic baptism!  Three years’ travel from Rome, and separated by Muslim Turks and others, yet here they were.

China was not to be treated as Spain treated the inhabitants of the New World.  Too ancient, too powerful (not much has changed, it seems).  The Jesuits would live as they had in other lands – by adopting as many of the local customs as they could without offending their Catholic faith.

Confucius had been bestowed with the same divine gift of reason that came upon Aristotle; Confucianism could even lead one to Christ.  Or so thought Matteo Ricci, an Italian who arrived in China in 1582.  Of course, some of his superiors were not so convinced.

Haughtiness toward the poor, an “obscene” number of wives, and certainly not a hint of worship toward the One Creator God of Israel.  In fact, no real concept of creation or of a god.  Fire, water, earth, metal, wood: these were the constituent elements of a naturally occurring order.  Yin and yang would provide balance.

Schreck, less than a year after his appointment, would die.  Investigating an herb that was said to induce sweating, he made himself the subject of the clinical trial.  A few hours later, he was dead.  Yet he left the others with some of the most advanced equipment in the world for observing the heavens.

Before he died, Schreck explained to his Chinese colleagues of the most glorious mathematician the world knows: Galileo Galilei, who had improved upon a lens that enabled one to better see the stars.  Schreck had met him several years before.  His lens would be christened a ‘telescope.’

His discoveries delivered a blow to Aristotle’s model of the universe – for example, a pitted moon could no longer be considered unchanging and incorruptible.  Impatient for fame and contemptuous of Aristotle and his admirers – yet, with desires to climb the social ladder.  The celebrity that would be his if he could convince the leaders of the Church to exchange Aristotle for him.

Off to Rome, where he would convince many of the faults of Aristotle’s cosmology.  Some of the most eminent mathematicians – Jesuits – had corroborated Galileo’s claims.  One cardinal, Maffeo Barberini, would even praise him in verse.  And not a bad supporter, as he would later become Pope Urban VII.

Schreck would explain to the Chinese that Galileo’s telescope allowed him to conclude that Venus is a satellite of the sun, travelling around it.  Ultimately, a heliocentric solar system.  Yet, an idea with a long line of Christian scholarship behind it.  Even so…

On 24 February 1616, a panel of eleven theologians had delivered their considered judgment: that certain proofs for heliocentrism did not exist, and that it should therefore be condemned as ‘foolish and absurd in philosophy.’

To argue it as a hypothesis was acceptable; it just should not be argued as established fact.  As I have written elsewhere, the Copernican model also came with some flaws, hence it could not be accepted as better than or an improvement upon what was already consensus.

A demand for empirical evidence had gone head-to-head with wild supposition – and the demand for empirical evidence had won.

At least this is how the Church saw it.  Speculation about heliocentrism was perfectly licit; nor was it condemned as heresy.  Galileo only needed to provide proof, evidence that clearly demonstrated his conception.

This, to Galileo’s frustration, was a challenge he found himself unable to meet.

At this point, I am compelled to point out that it was the Church which was willing to consider scientific and mathematical evidence, and it was Galileo who wanted to be taken on faith.  Not the story many have wished to believe in the intervening four hundred years.

Galileo’s patience, however, would wear thin.  Taking advantage of his relationship with Urban, he convinced the pope to allow him to pursue this idea further – as long as he only presented it as a hypothesis.  Galileo would work on this for six years, presenting his case as a dialogue between an Aristotelian and a Copernican.

He would name the Aristotelian ‘Simplicio’; the pope, alerted to what Galileo was up to, felt that his generosity was being flung in his face.  Galileo would be put on trial, and on 22 June 1633, he was condemned.  Spared prison, he would spend the last nine years of his life under house arrest.


The entire debacle had been a concatenation of misunderstandings, rivalries, and wounded egos – but the scandal of it, all the same, reverberated across Christendom.

The Protestants would point to this as evidence of a Church of fanatics too bigoted to permit the study of the heavens.  In fact, the truth of the story appears to be quite the opposite.


  1. The Roman Catholic Church has certainly committed its share of crimes, as could be said of any powerful organization run by humans with a 2000 year-old pedigree, but the more I look into the supposed big ones, the more I find sympathy with the Church. The first of the Crusades were a response to 400 years of Muslim aggression and to aid the Byzantines being besieged by the Turks, the Spanish Inquisition was an attempt to solidify the victory of a 700 year-old fight to retake Spain from the Muslims and killed a few thousand people at most, the treatment of deviant sects of Christianity were often tolerated so long as they remained under the authority of the Church, the rate of abuse of children in the Catholic Church is far less than that found in our public schools run by "heroic" teachers, etc. I hadn't known about Copernicus and Galileo, so thank you for these two other examples.

    I recently listened to Dave Smith's comedy special Libertas, and the way he describes how leftists overplayed their hand in regards to Trump, is how I feel Protestants overplayed their hand in regards to the Catholic Church. Dave said that because Liberals kept calling Trump Hitler, if Trump is anything less than Hitler, then he will think he has done a pretty good job. Outraged leftist: "He gassed like 20,000 people!" Dave's response: "Only 20,000?... I mean, I thought you said he was gonna be like Hitler. Guy makes a lay up and now they're calling him MJ. Relax. Let him work." In the same way, my Protestant upbringing had led me to believe this Catholic Church was an unredeemable tyrannical oppressor. In reality it was a Holy institution which was tasked by Jesus to carry His teachings into the future, though it was necessarily run by flawed humans and has made many errors and has been corrupted many times. Still, Matthew 16:18 holds.

    1. I was raised the same, with only this one very smallest of the small Protestant denomination fully holding the key. There were adjacent Protestants who were OK, but the farther removed - some Protestant denominations, but of course Catholic and Orthodox - they were just wrong...really about everything.

      Everything? Turns out not the case. Each is wrong about something, right about many things.

  2. Wait. China took European slaves? Where is the talk of reparations to Germans? Just kidding. But if that ever happened I would be suing Norway and Denmark for reparations over what the Vikings did to my ancestors.

    But this is a very interesting story. It is another piece of evidence for a belief I have. Truth is never found through surface level analysis. As good as narrative is, it is used to deceive us as much as teach. No. To know truth you must dig deep until you hit the lowest level of detail that is appropriate. Many times the truth is the exact opposite of what it appears on the surface.

    I lay out my ideas in the link:

    1. You reminded me of Tom Woods' "How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization." IIRC, Woods also tackles the misinformation on the Galileo affair, as described by BM.

      With regards to slavery.

      I read a few years ago that more Europeans were enslaved and transported to North Africa than African slaves transported to the new World. An estimated 1.2 to 4 millions Europeans were enslaved and transported to Africa in roughly the same time period Of an estimated 12 million enslaved Africans were transported into the New World. But, the history of European slavery goes back further.

      I was challenged by my son in-law about my statement about Europeans vs. African slaves. Of course, a 10 second google search "proved" me and my several hours of reading and following links a few ago. End of debate ... I am wrong. Heck, the word "slave" is derived from "Slav" because of all Slavs that were captured and soled as chattel. That millions were enslaved from regions of what today is Ukraine and Crimea and shipped to the Middle East and North Africa, well, that is not found in a neat package by a google search. Are the estimates correct? Maybe, maybe not but it seems that there is no debating some people. It hurts their sensibilities.

    2. Also, of the 12 million slaves transported to the Americas. A third went to Brazil alone. Many more went to the Caribbean and Central America. Only 388,000 went to the US. That means those who were the most cruel were not the Anglo-Saxons.

  3. Is this a book review? Are your comments about Galileo from the Tom Holland book? The two books I have read on the subject - Galileo, A Brief Insight by Stillman Drake and Galileo Revisited by Dom Paschal Scotti both present a Galileo who urged the Catholic Church to refrain from making doctirnal pronouncements on matters of science. Furthermore, Galileo did indeed have "proof" that the heavenly bodies did not rotate about the earth. Specifically, the Galilean moons of Jupiter, which can be seen to rotate about that planet.
    Galileo's trial did not include any empirical evidence. The judges were not capable of evaluating such things. He was convicted of heresy simply because he disobeyed Pope Leo's order that he shall not teach or justify the notion of heliocentrism.
    I repeat my question - do your comments on Galileo come from the Tom Holland book?

    1. From the Holland book, and also from my earlier reading. The issue of Galileo is not as cut and dry as modern science and anti-Christian thinkers would wish us to believe.