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The Re-Trial of Galileo Galilei

Students relive history, debate religion and science
December 27, 2016

Male student reads a statement in front of a panel of three judges while an audience of 60 people look on in the courtroom.

Male student reads a statement in front of a panel of three judges while an audience of 60 people look on in the courtroom.
Students had an authentic experience in University of St. Thomas’s mock courtroom. UST faculty-judges were Susan Stabile, professor of law and director of the UST Office for Spirituality as well as one of the nation’s leading scholars on the intersection of Catholic social thought and the law; Father Patrick Tobin, a Dominican priest and chemistry professor; and Dr Peter Distelzweig, assistant professor in philosophy whose research explores the interactions between philosophy, science, and medicine in early modern Europe and who has taught his own classes on Galileo.

Some think of it as the original “war on science.” In 1633, the Catholic Inquisition tried Galileo Galilei and found him guilty of “vehement suspicion of heresy” for defending heliocentrism, the idea that the earth revolved around the sun.

But for J.B. Shank, professor of history and current director of the Center for Early Modern History, that characterization is not only inaccurate, but is also a misleading notion that persists to the present day: that religion and science are inherently at odds and that the differences between them are clear and distinct. “This binary of religion and science is often misunderstood ” he says. “It’s messy.”

To go in-depth into those complexities with his students, Shank decided to try a semester-long experiment: putting Galileo back on trial.

400 Years in the Future

In 1616, the Roman Catholic Church placed the works of Copernicus on its list of prohibited books and issued an injunction against Galileo to abstain from teaching or defending Copernicus’ heliocentric doctrine. Four hundred years later, Shank wanted his students to not only read the documents, but to place themselves in the shoes of Galileo and his inquisitors. He used a simulation created by Douglas Allchin, author and former University of Minnesota adjunct faculty member.

“The Galileo affair is still too often turned into a cartoon with really bad caricatures of the heros and villains and simplistic understandings of the relationship between science and religion,” he says, “We’re breaking down the idea that science is clear and obvious objective truth and that religious people are irrational believers of an unquestioned, authoritarian faith.”

Shank brought in a series of leading Galileo scholars as guest lecturers and the class analyzed everything from the problems associated with telescopic observations at the time to the relationship between natural science and biblical interpretation. Along the way, they were preparing for the trial. Divided into teams of Galilean defense and Catholic prosecution, each student was responsible for arguing in one of four areas: astronomical observations, problems of motion, interpreting scripture, and politics and procedure.

“Doing it in a debate form is a really good idea because it forces you to put yourself in that period of history,” says student Michaela Bunke ′17. “Everything that happens after the trial, you don’t get to use. This is 1633. You don’t know that the earth actually rotates around the sun. So you’re going on what Galileo had, what the Church had.”

An Intercollegiate Trial

Photo from the Galileo Mock Trial

“It was particularly good to join a secular research university with a leading Catholic college in the Twin Cities,” says Shank, “It’s a perfect way for these two institutions to work together since both are interested in the same thing, the broader understanding of science and religion.” In late November, the students were ready. They trekked to the moot courtroom of the University of St. Thomas School of Law where three University of St. Thomas faculty awaited them. This team of judges brought expertise on Catholic social thought and the law; chemistry; and the interactions between philosophy, science, and medicine in early modern Europe.

When all was said and done, the trial (which was filmed and is available on YouTube) took close to two hours, with students and judges staying in character (and time period) the whole time. Students passionately argued their cases and the St. Thomas judges asked tough questions.

“We’ll be better historical debaters now,” says Liz Jensen ′17. “History is up for grabs, it’s up for translation, it's up for interpretation. And being able to maintain a good, healthy debate is so important.”

The Verdict

So in the end, what was the re-tried Galileo’s fate?

The UST judges found him guilty, but interestingly, the audience—made up of about 60 faculty members and students from both institutions and members of the general public (including one who still defends the Church’s old earth-centered cosmology)—found him not guilty, demonstrating Shank’s assertion of the complexity of the subject.

Chris Matko, ′17, says that although the class focused on a time period 400 years ago, he sees its immediate relevance today. “I see so many parallels with the stances that people take,” he says. “The fact is that it does not come down to a definitive answer, it comes down to a subjective answer of how the world should work.”

Bunke agrees, “There’s still an implicit idea that science and religion are in conflict at their very foundations, that they can’t exist together. But I think it’s exciting to talk about and to bring it to the forefront. Let’s actually talk about why they may—or may not—be in conflict.”

It is this kind of reaction that has Shank pleased with the experiment. “The students have been enthusiastic and engaged. It’s been a very energizing experience for everyone. They’re coming away with a much more complicated understanding of both science and religion and a much deeper understanding of how historical change really happens.”

He hopes to pursue more intercollegiate collaborations and to be able to teach the class again, knowing there is always more to explore for both him and his students, “I’ve only come away from it more fascinated. My own thinking and research about Galileo has grown enormously. This is a really important issue that connects us to early modern history. We live everyday in a world shaped by this particular, contingent outcome, and for students to study it as it unfolded and to see that it could have been otherwise shows them how history is directly relevant to their lives today.”