The War on Galileo
by Ronald Bruce Meyer

Galileo imprisoned

So this vindictive prince embroiled the Roman Church in the greatest blunder in its history. Initially there was an attempt to ban sale of the book, but it had already been circulated across Europe. Urban then fed Galileo to the dogs of the Inquisition, along with some of his defenders. When Father Castelli pleaded on Galileo's behalf that "nothing that can be done can now hinder the earth from revolving," the Benedictine was banished in disgrace. Ricciardi, who wrote the preface to the banned book, was fired from the papal staff. The Florentine Inquisitor who approved the printing of the Dialogo was reprimanded.

With his advocates and friends silenced, Galileo had to face the authorities alone. The trial documents, long suppressed by Rome, reveal that Galileo was ordered, in harsh language, to come to trial at Rome; that if he did not comply, said the Pope, he was to be "brought in chains"; that the protests of his friends and the Florentine ambassador were ignored; that once in Rome, being nearly seventy years of age, suffering from hernia, insomnia, and near-blindness from gazing at the sun through his telescope, Galileo was kept waiting for several months; and that he was several times threatened with torture. His whereabouts for 21-24 June are omitted from the documents of the episode. Scholars who have studied the documents (Favaro, Fahie) suggest that Galileo was actually in prison during that time, though the Catholic Encyclopedia denies this.

And then came the final humiliation, which Bellarmine did not live to see: Galileo was forced to recant: on his knees and in public. The alternative to compliance needn't have been articulated -- he remembered well the burning of Bruno in 1600. And so the greatest scientist of his day swallowed his much-abused pride, fell to his aging knees, and perjured himself before his God and the world:

Epur si muove
[And yet it does move]
--Apocryphal words
to himself after Galileo
made his abjuration
of the heliocentricity

I, Galileo Galilei, son of the late Vincenzio Galilei of Florence, aged 70 years, tried personally by this court, and kneeling before You, the most Eminent and Reverend Lord Cardinals, Inquisitors-General throughout the Christian Republic against heretical depravity, having before my eyes the Most Holy Gospels, and laying on them my own hands; I swear that I have always believed, I believe now, and with God's help I will in future believe all which the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church doth hold, preach, and teach...

I abjure with sincere heart and unfeigned faith, I curse and detest the said errors and heresies, and generally all and every error and sect contrary to the Holy Catholic Church. And I swear that for the future I will neither say nor assert in speaking or writing such things as may bring upon me similar suspicion; and if I know any heretic, or one suspected of heresy, I will denounce him to this Holy Office, or to the Inquisitor and Ordinary of the place in which I may be...

In Rome, at the Convent della Minerva, this 22nd day of June, 1633.

Galileo trial

"The Trial of Galileo"
Painting by Cristiano Banti (1857)

Not satisfied with this indignity, the Inquisition, whose proceedings were the direct order of Pope Urban VIII, obliged the scientist to betray to the Inquisition anyone else who may teach, defend, or support the "heresy of the motion of the earth." It is not likely that Galileo was actually tortured -- he would not have survived -- but all knew he was in frail health, so the threat of torture was as effective on him as actual torture on a healthier man.

Still not satisfied, the Church authorities thoroughly expunged Galileo's writings and theories from all Church colleges (that is, from nearly all colleges in Catholic Europe). One text which referred to Galileo as "renowned" was ordered by the Inquisition to change the reference to "notorious." And on 16 June 1633 the text of Galileo's abjuration was ordered circulated, with Urban's approval, to papal nuncios across Europe, so that they may "recognize the gravity of his error, in order that they may avoid it, and thus not incur the penalties which they would have to suffer in case they fell into the same." New publications of Galileo's works, or those with a Copernican basis, were forbidden. At the same time, opponents of the Copernican system were encouraged to refute the theory, knowing they could not be answered.

Broken in body and in spirit, Galileo spent the last nine years of his life under house arrest and carefully watched by the Inquisition. It has been suggested (Santillana and others) that Galileo's final days were quite comfortable, with freedom to experiment and entertain guests. This is only theoretically true, since even a gilded cage is still a cage. But Galileo's captivity ended with his death on 8 January 1642.

Tomb monument

A monument bequeathed
by Galileo's assistant,
Vincenzo Viviani (1622-1703).
Designed by Giulio Foggini
it was completed in 1739.

Persecution after death

The persecution of Galileo, however, did not end with the end of Galileo's life. His heirs were refused permission to bury the great scientist in his family tomb at Santa Croce. His friends were forbidden to erect a monument in his honor. Said Urban: "it would be an evil example for the world if such honors were rendered to a man who had been brought before the Roman Inquisition for an opinion so false and erroneous; who had communicated it to many others, and who had given so great a scandal to Christendom." As late as 1765 the French astronomer Joseph Lalande (1732-1807) tried in vain to get Galileo's works removed from the Index. Finally, in 1822, 190 years after the condemnation of Galileo for espousing it, the Inquisition announced that "the printing and publication of works treating of the motion of the earth and the stability of the sun, in accordance with the general opinion of modern astronomers, is permitted at Rome." Thirteen years later Galileo's "erroneous" works finally were removed from the Index.

As to his personal religious belief, we have no objective evidence for or against the claim that he was a "devout son of the Church," as the Catholic Encyclopedia says. Indeed, Pope John Paul II called Galileo "a sincere believer," but offered no evidence to support the proposition. Had the first Catholic Encyclopedia been written in 1709, rather than in 1909, the article on Galileo may have taken an entirely different view of his orthodoxy. It is simple knowledge of human nature to assume that, if Galileo had religious opinions in support of the prevailing orthodoxy, he would not suffer for voicing them; if he opposed orthodoxy, he could truly suffer by speaking out. In fact, he remained silent, which logically means he had no opinion, or a contrary one.


On 10 November 1979, Pope John Paul II asked the Pontifical Academy of Sciences to conduct an inquiry into the celebrated and controversial "Galileo case." A commission of Church scholars was assembled on 3 July 1981 and reported, via Cardinal Paul Poupard, eleven years later, on 31 October 1992. The Pope accepted the results of the inquiry and, shortly thereafter, addressed the Academy, in French, thanking the commission and commenting on the roles in human life of faith and science. Here are some excerpts, as they appeared in the translation of L'Osservatore Romano N. 44 (1264), on 4 November 1992:

[At] the time of the first centenary of the birth of Albert Einstein, ... I expressed the hope before this same Academy that "theologians, scholars and historians, animated by a spirit of sincere collaboration, will study the Galileo case more deeply and, in frank recognition of wrongs from whatever side they come, dispel the mistrust that still opposes, in many minds, a fruitful concord between science and faith."
In this next passage, Pope John Paul II appears to vindicate Galileo's prescient warning to theologians:
One might perhaps be surprised that ... I am returning to the Galileo case. Has not this case long been shelved and have not the errors committed been recognized?

That is certainly true. However, the underlying problems of this case concern both the nature of science and the message of faith. It is therefore not to be excluded that one day we shall find ourselves in a similar situation, one which will require both sides to have an informed awareness of the field and of the limits of their own competencies. The approach provided by the theme of complexity could provide an illustration of this.
Finally, the Pope said...
If contemporary culture is marked by a tendency to scientism, the cultural horizon of Galileo's age was uniform and carried the imprint of a particular philosophical formation.... The majority of theologians did not recognize the formal distinction between Sacred Scripture and its interpretation, and this led them unduly to transpose into the realm of the doctrine of the faith a question which in fact pertained to scientific investigation...

Another lesson which we can draw is that the different branches of knowledge call for different methods. Thanks to his intuition as a brilliant physicist and by relying on different arguments, Galileo, who practically invented the experimental method, understood why only the sun could function as the centre of the world, as it was then known, that is to say, as a planetary system. The error of the theologians of the time, when they maintained the centrality of the earth, was to think that our understanding of the physical world's structure was, in some way, imposed by the literal sense of Sacred Scripture.... There exist two realms of knowledge, one which has its source in Revelation and one which reason can discover by its own power. To the latter belong especially the experimental sciences and philosophy. The distinction between the two realms of knowledge ought not to be understood as opposition. The two realms are not altogether foreign to each other, they have points of contact. The methodologies proper to each make it possible to bring out different aspects of reality.
So there we have it. Science and religion do not conflict, but they describe two different aspects of reality. As this writer is neither theologian nor philosopher, he leaves it to the reader to determine whether or not conflicting world views conflict.

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This essay was based largely on the works of Andrew Dickson White and Joseph M. McCabe, in addition to the sources cited in the text.

Andrew D. White

Joseph M. McCabe

Sources on the Controversy
With comments from Joseph M. McCabe.

Bergman, Jerry. "The Galileo Affair Continues: Hunting Heretics Today," 1996; Contra Mundum, No. 15 Sumer/Fall 1995. (Another apologist at work, liberally citing Santillana's apologetic work).

Brodrick, James S.J., Galileo; The Man, his Work, his Misfortunes, Plymouth: Latimer & Trade, 1964. (a tale told by a Catholic apologist)

Browne, Sir Thomas (1605-1682), Pseudodoxia Epidemica, or, Enquiries into Very many received Tenets, and commonly presumed truths, (known as "Browne's Vulgar Errors"), 1646; 5th ed. London: The Assigns of Edward Dod, 1669. (source for Browne's criticism of the Copernican theory: book 4, chapter 5.)

Campanella, Tommaso (1568-1639), The Defense of Galileo, (Apologia pro Galileo, trans. by Grant McColley), Northhampton Mass.: Smith College, 1937. (Campanella was a Dominican friar who openly defended the humanistic ideas of Bernardino Telesio, resulting in an accusation of heresy and imprisonment.)

Catholic Encyclopedia: an international work of reference on the constitution, doctrine, discipline, and history..., 16 volumes, New York: Universal Knowledge Foundation, 1909, article "Galileo."

NewCatholic Encyclopedia, New York: Mc Graw Hill, 1967, article "Galileo." (The online version can be found at
this link.)

Drake, Stillman, Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo, Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1957.

Drake, Stillman, Galileo, Garden City, NY: Doubleday/Anchor, 1980.

Draper, John William. History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science, International Scientific Series. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1875, repr. 1957.

Fahie, John J., Galileo, His Life and Work, 1903. (McCabe says this "is the best in English, though it has not the aid of Favaro's book.")

Favaro, Antonio, Galileo e l'Inquisizione, (Galileo and the Inquisition, Italian) 1907. (The translaton from the Latin church documents of Galileo's censure was first published in this book, according to McCabe, who writes: "The documents, Latin and Italian, given by Favaro completely demolish the statement of Taylor [see below] and other Catholics that the Pope was not personally hostile and was merely compelled to correct a breach of Galileo's engagement.")

Finocchiaro, Maurice A., trans., ed., The Galileo Affair: A Documentary History, 1989.

Fromundus, Father, Ant-Aristarchus, (date unknown).

Galileo Galilei, Dialogo Sopra i Due Massimi Sistemi del Mondo (Dialogue on the Two Principal World Systems), 1632 (trans. from the Italian by Stillman Drake, 1953) .

Galileo Galilei, Sidereus Nuncius, 1610 (Starry Messengertrans. from the Latin by Stillman Drake and found in his Discoveries and Opinions...) .

Gebler, Karl von, Galileo Galilei and the Roman Curia, (trans. by M. Sturge), London: Kegan Paul, 1879.

Hallam, Henry., Introduction to the Literature of Europe in the 15th, 16th, & 17th Centuries, 4 vols., NY: Armstrong & Son, 1880. (source for French philosopher Jean Bodin's criticism of the Copernican theory.)

Hayward, Fernand, A History of the Popes, NY: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1931.

Holden, C. S., Galileo, 1905. (McCabe says this is "based upon the untruthful Catholic version" of events.)

Inchofer, Father Melchior, Tractatus Syllepticus, (cited in letter: Galileo to Deodato, 28 July 1634).

Lecky, William E.H. (1838-1903), History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe, (popularly known as Rationalism in Europe), London: C.A. Watts & Co., 1910, repr. 1946.

McCabe, Joseph M. (1874-1955), A Rationalist Encyclopedia: a Book of Reference on Religion, Philosophy, Ethics, and Science, London: C.A. Watts & Co., 1948, repr. 1971 (Gryphon Books). (McCabe was a Catholic priest for 12 years, then became a Rationalist polemicist. He wrote and debated forcefully, for most of the first half of the 20th century, against theism and superstition and in favor of science. His autobiography is called Eighty Years a Rebel.)

Martin, Thomas, Galilée, (date unknown). (source for the Inquisition's order to substitute "notorious" for "renowned" in reference to Galileo.)

Namer, Emile, Galileo: Searcher of the Heavens, trans. by Sibyl Harris, Robert M. McBride & Company, 1931.

Nash, J.V., How Galileo Was Gagged by the Inquisition, Little Blue Book No. 1383, Girard, Kansas: Haldeman-Julius Company, (n.d. but probably 1920s; McCabe wrote many books for E. Haldeman-Julius.).

L'Osservatore Romano
(the Vatican-published newspaper), 4 Nov 1992.

Poupard, Paul Cardinal, ed., Galileo Galilei: Toward a Resolution of 350 Years of Debate, 1633-1983, (trans. by Ian Campbell), 1987.

Putnam, George H., The Censorship of the Church of Rome and its Influence on the Production and Distribution of Literature, 2v., New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1906.

Reston, James, Jr., Galileo, a Life, 1994. (Reston apparently believes the truth should approach authority on its knees when he writes, page 273, "If Galileo had only known how to retain the favor of the fathers of this college [the Church], he would have stood in renown before the world; he would have been spared all his misfortunes, and could have written about everything, even about the motion of the earth.")

Ronan, Colin A., Galileo, New York: Putnam, 1974.

Santillana, Giorgio de, (b. 1902) The Crime of Galileo, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1955. (Written by a Catholic apologist and described, even by the Catholic Encyclopedia, as "unfair.")

Shapere, Dudley, Galileo: A Philosophical Study, University Of Chicago Press, 1974.

Taylor, F.Sherwood, Galileo and the Freedom of Thought, 1938. (According to McCabe, writing in 1946: "[Taylor] effectually disguises the fact that he is a Catholic, has not seen (or was unable to read) [Favaro's] documents, and his work abounds in errors, especially about the character of the Pope. The translation of documents which he gives are from a nineteenth-century writer, and worthless. A sound work on Galileo and Pope Urban VIII is badly needed.")

Walsh, James J., The Popes and Science, 1908. (McCabe says Dr. Walsh "has the effrontery to assure the readers of his book that Galileo's life was `the most serene and enviable in the history of science.'")

Wegg-Prosser, Francis R., Galileo and His Judges, 1889.

White, Andrew Dickson (1832-1918), A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, 1895 (2v), 1955 (1v combined). (White was an American historian, a diplomat, and the first president of Cornell University, 1867-1885, one of the first non-sectarian universities in the US. McCabe calls his work "the first and most complete account written in English, though very conciliatory toward the Church." I have based my essay in large part on White's more extensive coverage. The full text of the two-volume work is available at this link).

NB: You can find an interesting discussion on something Galileo did notdo — formulate a pre-Newtonian law of inertia — in "The Reality Of Newton's Inertia" by Ethan Skyler for Physics News.

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