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.

Reprinted with permission from Bionic Mosquito.

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