Stephen Jay Gould is an interesting case of a scientist who (1) knows that there is something wrong with current materialistic explanations of the origin of species and (2) is a convinced materialist.

So, Gould plays both pope and Luther in the debate about evolution. In popular books and articles he assures the public that evolutionary materialism is true; at the same time he publishes technical articles demolishing what he calls “Darwinian fundamentalism” — i.e., the neo-Darwinism taught in most high school biology classes.

There is one point, however, where Gould is consistent, and this is his antagonism to religious faith. This hostility erupted in a recent column in Natural History magazine, when he addressed that favorite historical episode of anti-Catholic intellectuals: the Galileo affair.

Galileo is one of those hot button words, like Inquisition, which are used to end any discussion about the compatibility of Catholicism and human progress. Even educated Catholics wish that the whole sorry episode could be swept under a rug and forgotten.

This is not, however, the attitude of Pope John Paul II. Shortly after becoming Pope, he established a commission to look into the Galileo affair. The commission's report affirmed that Church authorities in the 17th century had gravely violated Galileo's rights as a scientist; but it also interestingly supported the anti-Catholic Victorian biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, who examined the Galileo case and reluctantly concluded that “the Church had the best of it.”

The Galileo affair, which comprised two trials in 1616 and 1633, is a complicated subject, and I can't lay out all the details in the space of a column. Catholics, however, ought to be aware of a few facts that don't exactly match the version put forth by writers like Gould.

Most people, for example, are unaware that until Galileo forced the issue into the realm of theology, the Catholic Church had actually encouraged the new astronomy that emerged in the 16th century. In 1543, Nicolai Copernicus, a Polish canon and devout Catholic, published his epochal book supporting the heliocentric (earth around the sun) model at the urging of two Catholic prelates, dedicating it to Pope Paul III, who received it cordially.

If the issue had remained purely scientific, Church authorities would have shrugged it off. Galileo's mistake was to push the debate onto theological grounds; he told the Church: Either support the heliocentric model as a fact (even though not proven) or condemn it. He refused the reasonable middle ground offered by Cardinal Bellarmine: You are welcome to hold the Copernican model as a hypothesis; you may even assert that it is superior to the old Ptolemaic model; but don't tell us to reinterpret Scripture until you have proof.

Galileo's belligerence may be partly explained by the fact that he did not have direct proof. His response to Cardinal Bellarmine's challenge was his theory of the tides, which purported to show that the tides are caused by the earth's rotation. Even some of Galileo's supporters could see that this was nonsense. Also, ignoring the work of Kepler, he insisted that the planets go around the earth in perfect circles, which the Jesuit astronomers could plainly see was untenable. In fact, the Copernican system was not strictly “proved” until 1838 when Friedrich Bessel succeeded in determining the parallax of star 61 Cygni.

The real issue in the Galileo affair was the literal interpretation of Scripture. In 1616, the year of Galileo's first trial, there was precious little elasticity in Catholic biblical theology. But this was also the case with the Protestants: Luther and Melanchthon had vehemently opposed the heliocentric model on scriptural grounds. Indeed, Luther had the privilege of being the first churchman to call Copernicus a “fool.”

Contrary to popular reports, Galileo did not abjure his theory under the threat of torture. In the second trial of 1633, precipitated by Galileo's reckless inopportunity, he was treated with great consideration, being housed by the Vatican in a luxurious apartment. As for the trial itself, given the evidence (such as it was) it was extremely fair by 17th-century standards. This was, after all, an age when hundreds of “witches” and other religious deviants were subjected to juridical murder in northern Europe and New England. Galileo himself died peacefully in bed after spending the rest of his life in a pleasant country house near Florence.

Gould is wrong in stating that the Church “officially” declared the Copernican theory to be heresy. The Inquisition's erroneous judgment of the case did not amount to an irreformable teaching of the Magisterium. And, indeed, in 1741 Pope Benedict XIV bid the Holy Office grant an imprimatur to the first edition of The Complete Works of Galileo.

Yes, parties high in the Catholic hierarchy made grievous mistakes in the Galileo affair. But the episode, which did not loom very large in the minds of Galileo's contemporaries, was very different from the myth perpetuated by modern enemies of the Church.

George Sim Johnston is a writer based in New York.