Okay, so Pope John Paul II “rehabilitated” Galileo in 1992, ending 359 years of official condemnation. Although this condemnation was typically presented to the public as a relic of antiquated bureaucracy, rather like those laws which continue to outlaw chewing gum on the Sabbath or some such, we must understand that the Roman Catholic Church remained earnest in its condemnation up to that very point in 1992, even if certain modernizing segments were embarrassed by the fact that it remained on the record. In fact, as Yves Gingras notes in his book Science and Religion: An Impossible Dialogue, while the conflict between Galileo and the papacy is presented primarily as a struggle of wills and only tangentially related to the science, the Church’s official position on the nature of the universe firmly geocentric through the 1800s. The 1757 Index of Prohibited Books did not remove Galileo’s Dialogue, and French astronomer Jerome Lalande’s popular book of astronomy would be put on the Index in 1830. Only in the 1835 edition of the Index were the works of Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler removed from prohibition. However, on through the 1900s, the Church was particularly sensitive of any publication regarded as too favorable to Galileo.
Of course. The Church had, centuries prior to Copernicus, baptized certain pagan thinkers and made a Christian dogma of their conception of the universe, and to deny that, to say that the Church was in error on something so fundamental, would upend society. As science historian James Burke noted in The Day the Universe Changed, “Belief in Aristotle and Ptolemy was the bedrock of social stability.” So when Copernicus and then Galileo came along and challenged that, their only recourse was to stand by their previous assertions, to double down on the geocentric tradition with the hope that they could contain the spread, because social change can happen fast like that, the moment an institution’s credibility begins to be questioned. Gingras again: “Conservative by nature, institutions are virtually forbidden to admit error without running the risk of losing credibility and authority.” We can see these actions as indicative of weakness or close-mindedness, but if you were within that institution or relied upon that institution, you had every reason to back its stance.
Although the contagion could not be contained, the Church retained its position on these issues, doubling and tripling down on its contrast with the secular world with the hopes that one of these retrograde bets would pay off. As Peter Sloterdijk writes in Rage and Time: A Psychopolitical Investigation, “The fact that Catholicism presented itself after 1870 as being at the peak of its antimodern campaign does not change the general situation. All of its efforts on the theological and political fronts were only the effects of weakness: the flight of the pope into the dogma of infallibility, the mobilization of an external mission, the militant incitement of Marianic fervor, the condemning of liberal and secular books, the founding of ultramontane parties in the parliaments of the secular world. All of these actions reveals the frightful panic of a declining power.”
Why does that sound so familiar right now? Can we not perhaps look at our modern world and find one issue in which the scientific consensus constitutes a threat to the structure of stability, a threat that is met not by a rational consideration of the evidence at hand but, instead, the manufacture of dogmas and the incitement of speculative fervors? And do we not increasingly have political parties that—if not ultramontane in the sense that they advocate for absolute papal authority in matters relating not just to faith but also discipline—do insist upon disciplining the population at large by reference to an absolute faith?
Yes, climate change is our heliocentric revolution of the twentieth century, the simple recognition of the fact that what goes up in smoke comes down in fire. And the faith that demands we doubt the evidence of experience is the market economy, the capitalist system, which has so much invested in the notion of infinite and infallible growth, world without end, amen. And the reason they will not debate this subject at all is because, to adapt that Burke quotation, “Belief in Adam Smith and Milton Friedman is the bedrock of social stability.”
The parallels are plenteous and obvious, and I’m certainly not the only one who has ever made this argument. But my goal is to draw attention to the other factors relating to the growing acceptance of heliocentric theory, as well as the time span over which change finally occurred. Copernicus and Galileo had the great fortune to be formulating their theories in an era when the power of the Church was no longer universal in Europe, thanks to the various Protestant reformations, and so the ideological enemies of the Church had room to adopt science that actually worked, especially if it came with the added bonus of driving the dagger a little deeper into the reputation of Rome.
However, when it comes to the Church of Capitalism, we are not quite so fortunate, for, ever since the fall of the Soviet Union and other communist powers, the world has lacked for a true alternative economic system, no matter how flawed it was. After all, the mere presence of the Soviet Union was a boon to anti-racist activists in the United States, if only because American authorities were sufficiently worried about looking bad on the world stage that they began sending in the feds to investigate lynchings and assassinations across the country, because each murder could constitute a propaganda coup for a communist superpower more than happy to broadcast the racisms of its chief rival to the Third World. But where is our chief rival today? And don’t say China, for it has become less a communist state and more a state capitalist state, outstripping the West in its ability to produce goods and exploit its workers.
A sufficiently powerful rival to the capitalist system could adopt the mantle of environmentalism for propaganda purposes and thus spur the rest of the world to good deeds, but we are rather lacking that during these waning days of Babylon, which means that grassroots activism must need be all the more intense in order to accomplish the necessary ends.
And that intensity is all the more necessary when considering the time across which the original geocentric-heliocentric debate actually raged. Yes, the Copernican view was quickly adopted due to its utility, thus making this one of Burke’s days in which the universe changed. But as Gingras noted, the Catholic Church always retained faith in its dogma of yore and, had it the ability, would most certainly have enforced that, at least down until that day in 1992. And so even if the world makes a successful transition from “free market” fundamentalism and to an economic system that allows us to live upon this planet sustainably, there will, perhaps for centuries, be powerful people dreaming of their economic Arcadia, planning and scheming how to get the planet back from us. Just as they will pass down the legends to their descendants of those glory days, so, too, must we pass down to those who come after us an awareness of just who the enemies are and how to recognize them. This is an intergenerational struggle, and so the lives we save will not be just our own.