Protestant Appreciation of Catholic Achievements in the Scientific Revolution

For many people, the trial of Galileo demonstrates the medieval Roman Catholic Church’s hostility to science, and has become part of the view that somehow religion is intrinsically opposed to scientific investigation and progress. Yet historians of science, from Pierre Duhem, A.C. Crombie and James Hallam have noted how the medieval church had an active interest in science, and that many of the achievements of the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century were actually solidly based on those of their medieval predecessors. Some sections of the Church defended Galileo, such as the friar, Thomas Campanella. Historians have also pointed out that the trial was not simply about the science itself. One important factor was Galileo’s highly critical tone towards the Aristotelians, which included the then Pope. Another factor was that at the time the heliocentric system was underdetermined – it lacked the scientific evidence to make an absolutely convincing, watertight case. Roman Catholicism was also not alone in rejecting the new, experimental science. The 16th century Lutheran Church in Germany still remained strongly Aristotelian in its scientific philosophy, and part of it continued to reject the heliocentric theory until the 18th century.

Although many of the Protestants, who did accept and promote the new experimental science, saw Galileo’s trial as evidence that the Roman Catholic Church had been hostile to science, they also recognised that parts of the Church had also embraced it and promoted it. Thomas Sprat, the author of the History of the Royal Society, also acknowledged the Roman Catholic Church current scientific activities and achievements. He wrote

‘The Church of Rome has indeed of late look’d more favourably upon it (experimental knowledge). They will now condemn no man for asserting the Antipodes: The severity with which they handled Galileo, seems now very much abated: they now permit their Jesuits to bestow some labours upon natural observations, for which they have great advantages by their travails; and their clergy may justly claim some share in the honour, as long as the immortal names of Mersennus and Gassendus (Mersenne and Pierre Gassendi) shall live’.

The Jesuit Order was particularly active scientifically. In his Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius de Loyola, the Order’s founder, urged his followers to contemplate God as the Creator of the natural world, whose activity sustained it and caused it to operate. Point 2 of the ‘Contemplation for Obtaining Love’ in the fourth week of the Exercises commands the reader to ‘consider how God dwells in the creatures: in the elements, giving them being; in the plants, giving them growth: in the animals giving them sensation: in men, giving them understanding’. Point 3 further advises the reader to ‘consider how God works and labours on my behalf in all created things … as in the heavens, elements, plants, fruits, flocks’.

The Roman Catholic Church of the Middle Ages and 16th and 17th century was thus certainly not as hostile to science as those who consider religious faith to be opposed to science believe. Despite the trial of Galileo, some Protestant scientists, such as Sprat, recognised the Church’s positive attitude to science in their time, and readily praised the achievements of Catholic scientists.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

One Response to “Protestant Appreciation of Catholic Achievements in the Scientific Revolution”

  1. Kate Says:

    “Historians have also pointed out that the trial was not simply about the science itself.” — When one thinks of the Church’s opposition to scientific inquiry, one must realize one crucial thing: that the religious dogma of the roman catholic church was melded together with the Aristotelian system. Since the middle Ages, Aristotle’s physics – recovered after the fall of Greece and Rome, and preserved reverently by the Arab world – have been the root of church science. They have been used to explain/ validify/ strengthen the messages from the Holy Scripture, and therefore, questioning Aristotle would be equal to questioning God. Therefore, it makes little sense to separate both cores of science and religion, when speaking of the church in the pre – modern era. (Just sayin’, bro).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: