Galileo, Galileo. Everybody knows this story, right? Scientist puts forth a revolutionary new concept that challenges the presuppositions of the religious elites and so they and silence him. People love telling this story because it perfectly illustrates the close-minded, anti-scientific nature of the Catholic Church, or maybe even Christianity in general. The fact that it isn't true is... inconsequential.
I should clarify; Galileo did believe the earth revolves around the sun (heliocentrism) and he was tried by the inquisition for heresy, twice, and the second time found to be gravely suspect of it. However, his heliocentric views were not really the reason for his trial. There are plenty of people who have already explained what happened. If you want in in-depth look at the history or theories in dispute, try Google or click here. As I really don't like rehashing the same ground as everyone else, i'm going to try and take a slightly different approach. I'm more interested in the theology and philosophy that got us into this mess in the first place, so i will try and discuss these.
The Catholic Church has a strong dislike for schism and scandal. At the time of Galileo this had grown into a blatant paranoia, largely due to the resent emergence of Protestantism. This is understandable considering the 30 years of war and millions of casualties, on both side, which followed. (However, in truth, this was more political than religious (i'll address it in a future post)) Although, as Christians we should be a little paranoid about these two things. Schism is a break in the unity of the Church. Christ's final request to the Father before His passion was that we would be one, that we would posses a true unity. As the Church of Christ, we strive vigilantly to manifest that unity He prayed for. To cause schism is to go in the completely wrong direction.
To cause scandal is to cause another to stumble in their faith, to lead another away from Christ. That is, away from the eternal joy of union with the Trinity and towards an eternal oblivion of despair. Jesus says it is better that a man have a millstone tied around his neck and he be cast into the sea, than that he would cause scandal. This is very serious. Additionally, as a schism is a breaking with the Church, the ordinary means of coming to Christ, schism is a form of scandal. When we discuss these, we are not discussing merely earthly affairs. Schism and scandal can have eternal ramifications. Under the Church's understanding of these things, they place people's immortal souls in jeopardy.
This is my first premise; schism and scandal are very serious issues, the Church is completely justified in treating them as such. At the time of Galileo the debate between geocentrists and heliocentrists was very heated. There were scientists and theologians on both sides of the issue. In fact, heliocentrism was the minority opinion among scientists. Geocentric scientists and theologians felt very strongly about their position. Heliocentric scientists and theologians felt very strongly about their position. Within this debate Galileo emerged as a dominant and divisive figure. (He was not nice to his opposition.)
Galileo had a talent for angering his opponents and disenfranchising his friends. The issue was not what he was saying so much as how he was saying it. He was a brilliant scientist but politically, he was a moron. He wanted to push his theory in political and theological circles as well as scientific ones. Where ever the question could be raised, he was there raising it. Eventually the Church told him to shut up. They felt his tactics could cause scandal. They were worried the debate had potential to give rise to schism. In order to prevent this, they chose to embrace the majority scientific and theological position and suppress the dominate voice of the minority. Again, this was done, not to refute a scientific position or define a theological concept, but solely to prevent those two great evils of scandal and schism.
Imagine if you were in the military. Your commanding officer gives you an order. You would have to follow it, right? Now, imagine if you disagreed with that order and you disobeyed. What would happen? It would not matter if you were right or wrong, you would be in trouble. The Catholic Church is like the military. As a Catholic i am under the authority of my superiors; primarily my priest and bishop. If they tell me to do something i need to do it. It was the same with Galileo. The Church told him he was allowed to conjecture on heliocentrism but that he couldn't actively defend it. (This is kinda like telling a five year old that he can play with a ball so long as he doesn't throw it. There is nothing wrong with the ball, but if he throws it he might break something.) So what happened? Galileo decided to ignore them and threw the ball.. ah.. actively defend heliocentrism. Consequence? He got slapped down. (There is nothing wrong with throwing balls, but i told you not to. So now you are in time-out.)
It was felt that Galileo was causing schism and scandal. His higher ups limited the means by which he could defend his position in order to stop this. He didn't obey them and so he got in trouble. If you study the history of the Church and contemplate the life of Galileo you will probably come to a few conclusions: If he had avoided the political lime light rather than pursuing it, he probably would have been fine. If he had limited himself to science, rather than defending his position in theological forums as well, he probably would have been fine. If he had been willing to consider heliocentrism a theory, rather than definitively true, he probably would have been fine. If he hadn't insulted and alienated all his politically powerful friends (like the Pope), that would have helped. It seems as if Galileo was trying his absolute best to get himself excommunicated. We should not be shocked that he almost succeeded.
(side note: Galileo believed the sun was at the center of the universe, so technically, he was wrong.)
A few points in Summary:
-The Church never condemned heliocentrism as wrong, only as problematic.
-Galileo was not a pure scientist, he debated theology as well.
-Galileo did not get in trouble for being wrong, but rather for being disobedient.
(Edit: The sentence against Galileo was not an excommunication. He was found gravely suspect of heresy, and sentenced to house arrest.)