The War on Galileo
by Ronald Bruce Meyer


Total Wordcount 5517



Galileo portrait
Galilei Galilei (1564-1642)
(portrait by Leoni)


Galileo Galilei formulated the basic law of falling bodies, which he verified by careful measurements. He constructed a telescope with which he studied lunar craters, and discovered four moons revolving around Jupiter. The Italian astronomer, mathematician, and physicist was educated in Florence, in Northern Italy, with which Arab Sicily had shared the study of such science as there was in his day. But Florence preferred literature to physics, so Galileo moved to Padua to teach to a multitude of approving students there. He later taught at Pisa and studied the laws of falling bodies, disproving Aristotle's view that the rate of a falling object is proportional to its weight

It was a Dutch optician's fitting of lenses to either end of a tube that led Galileo to improve on, and experiment with, the first crude telescope. With this instrument he applied his mastery of mathematics to a study of astronomy. It was because of his discoveries, and his failure to keep silent about them, that the 67-years-dead Copernicus was brought back into public discussion.

The subsequent "war on Galileo," that is, the attacks of the Roman Catholic Church on the science of Galileo (to a lesser extent the upstart Protestant Church vied with the Roman Church in orthodoxy) is told excellently in White's Warfare of Science With Theology. It is retold here to put to rest some late apologetics and misinformation. The conflict is an apt illustration of the inescapable irreconcilability of theological doctrine and science.

How the conflict began

The interests of the Roman Church in the 17th century lay in unquestioning acceptance of the official, biblical cosmology, as expanded and bolstered by that of Ptolemy. The compulsory belief, the "safe science," of the day was in a stationary earth (Psalm 104:5), overseen by fixed stars, and around which revolved the moon and the sun (in fixed "spheres"). All the observable heavenly bodies were perfect and immutable, and their number could be no more than seven. The Bible said it; the Church taught it; that ended it.

Unsettling this settled dogma came Galileo and his telescope, a mere decade after Giordano Bruno (1548?-1600) was murdered by the Church in the flames of Campo dei Fiori -- for unorthodox opinions. In his Sidereus Nuncius or Starry Messenger (1610) Galileo announced his support for the Copernican view of the universe: the earth moving around the sun, and Jupiter circled by moons.

Blasphemy! cried the clerics. Not at all, replied the scientist. Look here and see for yourselves. It is impious to look, said some; these so-called moons are delusions of the devil, said others. Jesuit Father Christoph Clavius ingeniously argued that "to see satellites of Jupiter men had to make an instrument which would create them." Such a discovery contradicted the prescribed number of bodies in the heavens. Galileo counter-argued that a figurative interpretation of the biblical statements would save his observations from the taint of heresy. He wrote as much to his friends, Father Benedetto Castelli and the Grand-Duchess Christina -- but to no avail.

Father Tomasso Caccini, a Dominican, preached a sermon against him grounded in a tasteless pun (after Acts 1:11) on the scientist's name: "Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye looking into heaven?." Galileo had said, "[The universe] cannot be read until we have learnt the language and become familiar with the characters in which it is written. It is written in mathematical language, and the letters are triangles, circles and other geometrical figures, without which means it is humanly impossible to comprehend a single word," (Opere Il Saggiatore) so, not content with reviling astronomers, Caccini assured his flock that "geometry is of the devil" and that "mathematicians should be banished as the author of all heresies."

The Archbishop of Florence called his discoveries unscriptural. A Father Lacazre claimed Galileo's researches cast "suspicion on the doctrine of the incarnation." The word in clerical circles was that such a cosmology "upsets the whole basis of theology. If the earth is a planet, and only one among several planets, it cannot be that any such great things have been done especially for it as the great doctrine teaches. If there are other planets, since God makes nothing in vain, they must be inhabited; but how can their inhabitants be descended from Adam? How can they trace back their origin to Noah's Ark? How can they be redeemed by the Saviour?" And, not surprisingly, one cleric, the Dominican Father Nicoḷ Lorini called Galileo's discoveries "atheistic."

How Galileo was condemned

But the epithets "infidel" and "atheist" have been hurled against a distinguished list of benefactors of humankind. Among them are Isaac Newton, Blaise Pascal, John Locke, and John Milton. Incredibly and ironically, these four possess otherwise unblemished -- and unquestionable -- Christian credentials!

* It is an old Latin pun:
most of the Inquisitors
were recruited from among
Dominican monks,
so they were considered
"hounds of the Lord" --
Domini = of the Lord;
Canes = hounds.

The Inquisition smelled sulphur and a gallery of clerics set the dogs of the Holy Office onto Galileo's trail.* They were encouraged by the Pope, who declared Sidereus Nuncius a heresy. The Archbishop of Pisa conspired to entrap Galileo, first by attempting to flatter Castelli and the Grand Duchess into giving up Galileo's letters -- those which recorded his "heretical" interpretation of Scripture. At the same time he was writing condemnatory letters about the scientist to the Inquisition. When Galileo's friends declined to betray him, the clerical defenders of the "safe science" joined forces to silence him. At the center of the religious plot to halt the advance of science were two popes: Paul V (1605-1621) and Urban VIII (1623-1644). Though their personalities could not have been more different, the effect of their treatment of Galileo differed little in the end. But one more character entered the drama: Cardinal Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621), a Jesuit (after 1930, a saint), and arguably the greatest theologian the Christian world has known. He was the chief exponent of bending observed truth to the form of revealed truth. He was employed by the Inquisition to cross-examine Galileo on his written statements.

Galileo was summoned to Rome in 1615, by Pope Paul V, to appear before the Inquisition. He was fifty-one years old. In Rome he was confronted by Bellarmine: two giants in their respective fields matching wits. But the playing field was far from level. Bellarmine had in hand the opinion of the Holy Office on Galileo's propositions:

The first proposition, that the sun is the center and does not revolve about the earth, is foolish, absurd, false in theology, and heretical, because expressly contrary to Holy Scripture.

The second proposition, that the earth is not the center but revolves about the sun, is absurd, false in philosophy, and, from a theological point of view at least, opposed to the true faith.

Moon phases
The phases of the moon
as Galileo drew them
from his observations

Bellarmine also had in hand a letter from the Pope requiring that Galileo to be confined in the dungeons of the Inquisition if he refused to renounce the two propositions. In a sense, the cardinal was well armed: all he lacked was any knowledge whatsoever about science. Bellarmine then compelled Galileo, "in the name of His Holiness the Pope and the whole Congregation of the Holy Office, to relinquish altogether the opinion that the sun is the center of the world and immovable, and that the earth moves, nor henceforth to hold, teach, or defend it in any way whatsoever, verbally or in writing."

Nothing could have been clearer -- or more brutal and illogical. Bellarmine, the Pope, and the Holy Office were asking a man to disbelieve the evidence of his own senses and to believe what he knew in his heart to be wrong. Faced with a choice between life as a hypocrite and torture (followed, perhaps, by death), most of us, too, would acquiesce. It was 26 February 1616. Galileo promised to obey.

Some say Galileo did not agree, based on the fact that the documents pertaining to this confrontation were not revealed until eighteen years later, at his second inquest in Rome, and may have been falsified. At that later time, Bellarmine was not alive to authenticate the documents produced, but it is doubtful that Galileo would have been allowed to leave Rome in 1616 without some such agreement.

The Index Librorum Prohibitorum or Index of Prohibited Books -- books no Catholic was permitted to read under pain of excommunication and damnation (very real threats at the time) -- was administered by the Congregation of the Index. They decreed, within the next two weeks, that: "the doctrine of the double motion of the earth about its axis and about the sun is false, and entirely contrary to Holy Scripture," and therefore must be neither advocated nor taught. Further, the astronomical work of Copernicus was placed in the Index donec corrigatur ("until corrected"), together with "all writings which affirm the motion of the earth." That would seem to be an implicit inclusion of Galileo's book, and also of certain works by the German astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630).

It is argued that the Index did not commit papal infallibility to a judgment of science; that the Index was not the Church speaking ex cathedra. The articles in both Catholic Encyclopedias (1909 and 1967) attempt to wiggle out of this error. The doctrine of infallibility was declared in 1870, only forty years before the original Catholic Encyclopedia was published, and was, at the time, carefully crafted to exonerate the Church from all guilt in matters such as this. (McCabe, who spoke with some of the principals, notes that the record of the debate over this new doctrine shows considerable opposition to it for this very reason.)

But this sophistry is easily demolished. First, the very reason for the existence of the Index (which was abolished only in the 1960s) was to provide spiritual guidance for Catholics. That is clearly the teaching authority of the Church. Without the moral force and authority of the Pope "exercising the office of pastor and teacher of all Christians" behind it, the Index is just another list. Second, the Index, as printed, is preceded by a papal bull outlining the purpose of the list and the penalties for failing to avoid the works listed therein. The bull is signed by the Pope, who commands that, if the denounced works are either taught or read, the violator may be punished in this world and further tormented in the next. Nothing could be clearer.

Urban VIII
Pope Urban VIII
(1568-1644)

Galileo and Urban VIII

Galileo stayed at Rome for a time, trying to make allies to science among the Roman clergy, but eventually retreated to Florence and returned to his studies and researches. At least the Inquisition and the Pope did not compel him to quit his researches. He simply was forbidden to publish his results!

Until 1623. In that year, Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, a fellow Florentine of noble birth, was made Pope. He was seated in Rome under the name of Urban VIII. Galileo, at last, saw a chance to cultivate a sympathetic audience for his ideas. But when it became known that Galileo still held to the Copernican system, he was commanded again to Rome. The Pope himself tried to sway the scientist with theological argument (it was too late for Bellarmine's help). At the same time, cowardly attacks on Galileo's ideas appeared in books and sermons -- their authors knowing full well that Galileo was forbidden to defend himself. For example, Father Orazio Grassi, a Jesuit and rival, charged that his ideas lead "to a denial of the Real Presence in the Eucharist." Then, one of the unkindest cuts of all (but not the last), his salary as a professor at the University of Pisa was stopped.

The attacks continued. In 1631 Father Melchior Inchofer, a Jesuit, said, "The opinion of the earth's motion is of all heresies the most abominable, the most pernicious, the most scandalous; the immovability of the earth is thrice sacred; argument against the immortality of the soul, the existence of God, and the incarnation, should be tolerated sooner than an argument to prove that the earth moves." Father Fromundus, a theologian of Antwerp, chimed in that "sacred Scripture fights against the Copernicans." To prove his points he cited the passages in Psalms for the sun's motion (104:5), and Ecclesiastes for the earth's stability (1:4-5). As final proof of the falsity of the Copernican system, Fromundus reasoned that, if true, "the wind would constantly blow from the east" and that "buildings and the earth itself would fly off with such a rapid motion that men would have to be provided with claws like cats to enable them to hold fast to the earth's surface." (Jean Bodin [1530-96] the French political theorist, and the English author Sir Thomas Browne [1605-82], also considered the theory unscriptural.) Galileo still was forbidden to defend himself against these craven attacks.

But the scientist was negotiating to do so, all the same. By about 1624 Galileo had composed an answer to his critics in the form of a dialog -- one voice for the Ptolemaic view, and two for the Copernican view of the heavens -- and volunteered to submit to any condition Pope Urban wished, so long as he would allow it to be published. It took eight years of negotiations, but Galileo succeeded -- the Dialogo Sopra i Due Massimi Sistemi del Mondo (Dialogue on the Two Principal Systems of the World) -- was published in 1632. The condition was that a preface, written under the direction of a Father Ricciardi, and claiming all but that the Copernican view was a flight of fancy, be added to the publication. Galileo signed it; the book was a popular success; the preface was seen for the foolishness it was, and ignored. And Galileo made at least one prescient statement in the text:

Take note, theologians, that in your desire to make matters of faith out of propositions relating to the fixity of sun and earth you run the risk of eventually having to condemn as heretics those who would declare the earth to stand still and the sun to change position -- eventually, I say, at such a time as it might be proved that the earth moves and the sun stands still.

The Dominicans, the Jesuits, and much of the other clergy, began to suspect that they had been flim-flammed. The Pope took the controversy personally: the arguments against the Copernican system, in the voice of the simple-minded character Simplicio, were his own -- and were bested. Not only that, because the Dialogo was written in Italian, the language of the masses, not in Latin, the language of the elite, he, Prince Barberini, had been bested before all the world! Now the war on Galileo transcended the merely spiritual and became personal.

Much has been written in an attempt to exonerate Urban in his actions against Galileo. It is claimed that Urban was sympathetic to the advance of science, friendly to Galileo, and tried as much as was in his power to soften his inevitable confrontation with the Inquisition. On the other hand, it is argued that Galileo himself was rude, argumentative, and arrogant. But such words are wasted because the historical record is clear.

Urban was a cultural philistine. He was hated by the Romans, both for his conceitedness and for his scandalous nepotism. He spent more to fatten his relatives with sinecures than on the Thirty Years' War and the fight against Protestantism. As long as it served his purposes, in the doctrinal fight against the Protestants (who accused the Roman Church of stifling science), Urban was pleased to let Galileo be. As long as Galileo confined his ripostes to besting the Jesuits, whom Urban hated, the Pope was content to have it so. But the Dialogo was too much for a man of Urban's station, or was made so by whisperings from his ambitious advisors. Now only revenge on Galileo would salve Urban's vanity.


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