Thursday, 15 September 2016

Faith and reason in a letter of Robert Bellarmine

To mark his feast day on 17th September, Thinking Faith have published an article about St Robert Bellarmine by Br Guy Consolmagno SJ, who works at the Vatican Observatory: Bellarmine in Perspective.

In part, the article gives an account of a letter written by Robert Bellarmine in connection with the Galileo affair. Br Consolmagno observes in connection with the letter:
We now recognise that the way science understands the universe is not subject to the kinds of proof that one would demand in mathematics. Rather, science argues from probability to probability, always recognising that no description is perfect or final. 
I suspect that this reading of a letter from the 17th century in the framework of a later time skews Br Consolmagno's way of reading it. I am not sure, for example, that practicing cosmologists do really consider the heliocentric view of our solar system as a "probability". My own reading of Bellarmine's letter, from the days of my youth some 20 years ago when Cardinal Ratzinger was still Cardinal Ratzinger and not Pope Benedict XVI, is offered below. What struck me then, and still strikes me now, about the letter is its profound trust in both human reason and in religious faith as giving access to knowledge. (My translation is, so far as I recall, taken from Part V of Arthur Koestler's book The Sleepwalkers.)
In April 1615, St. Robert Bellarmine wrote a letter to the author of a book which had defended the Copernican view of the universe, clearly addressing the letter to Galileo as well.  St. Robert Bellarmine fulfilled a role in the Church of his time similar to that of Cardinal Ratzinger in our own time.  He was a man of great intellect and profound devotion.  He was well informed about the state of contemporary scientific endeavour and seems to have had quite cordial communications with Galileo.  His letter is strikingly modern, and very concisely presents an answer to the debate as it had come to be presented. 
“..It seems to me that your Reverence and Signor Galileo act prudently when you content yourselves with speaking hypothetically and not absolutely, as I have always understood Copernicus spoke..”

This is a reference to the fact that the Copernican view was an interpretation of astronomical observations.  At least one other successful interpretation was possible, and it is in this sense that the Copernican view represented a “hypothetical” rather than an “absolute” claim.  To accept it as a “hypothesis” in this sense was quite a different thing than accepting it as being the way things really were.
“..If there were a real proof that the Sun is in the centre of the universe ... and that the 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 we should rather have to say that we did not understand them than declare an opinion to be false which is proved to be true..”
This is the critical passage in the letter.  Underlying it is the conviction that the results of scientific study and the content of Christian faith are in harmony with each other.  When science can offer convincing proof, then it is necessary to look again at the way in which Scripture is understood.
“But I do not think there is any such proof since none has been shown to me.....I believe that the first demonstration (i.e. that the Copernican view is a workable hypothesis) may exist, but I have grave doubts about the second (i.e. the existence of proof that the Copernican view is the way things really are); and in the case of doubt one may not abandon the Holy Scriptures as expounded by the holy Fathers..”
This is an important balancing of the previously expressed willingness to look again at the way in which Scripture is understood.  In the seventeenth century there really was not any absolute evidence of the earth’s movement through space.  In the twentieth century there is, and, if he were alive today, St. Robert Bellarmine would accept that proof and be willing to understand Scripture differently as a consequence.

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