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Galileo’s Clash With the Church

Galileo’s Clash With the Church

 Galileo’s Clash With the Church


IT IS June 22, 1633. An unsteady old man is on his knees before the court of the Roman Inquisition. He is a man of science, one of the best known of the day. His scientific convictions are based on long years of study and research. Yet, if he wants to save his life, he must renounce what he knows to be true.

His name was Galileo Galilei. The Galileo case, as many call it, has raised doubts, questions, and controversy that still echo today, some 370 years later. The case has left an indelible mark on the history of religion and science. Why so much fuss? Why has the Galileo case made news again in our modern era? Does it really symbolize a “fracture between science and religion,” as one writer termed it?

Galileo is considered by many to be the “father of modern science.” He was a mathematician, an astronomer, and a physicist. One of the very first men to study the skies by means of a telescope, Galileo interpreted what he saw as support for a notion that was still hotly disputed in his day: The earth revolves around the sun and therefore our planet is not the center of the universe. No wonder that Galileo is sometimes seen as the founder of the modern experimental method!

What were some of Galileo’s discoveries and inventions? As an astronomer, he discovered, among other things, that Jupiter has moons, that the Milky Way is composed of stars, that the moon has mountains, and that Venus has moonlike phases. As a physicist, he studied the laws governing both the pendulum and falling objects. He invented such instruments as the geometric compass, a kind of slide rule. Using information received from Holland, he made the telescope that opened the universe before him.

A prolonged confrontation with the ecclesiastical hierarchy, however, turned the career of this illustrious scientist into a drama​—the Galileo case. How did it begin, and why?

 Conflict With Rome

As early as the end of the 16th century, Galileo embraced the Copernican theory, which states that the earth revolves around the sun and not vice versa. This is also called the heliocentric (sun-centered) system. After using his telescope in 1610 to discover celestial bodies that had never before been observed, Galileo became convinced that he had found confirmation of the heliocentric system.

According to the Grande Dizionario Enciclopedico UTET, Galileo wanted to do more than just make such discoveries. He wanted to convince “the highest-ranking personages of the day (princes and cardinals)” that the Copernican theory was true. He cherished the hope that with the help of influential friends, he could overcome the church’s objections and even win its support.

In 1611, Galileo traveled to Rome, where he met high-ranking clergymen. He used his telescope to show them his astronomical discoveries. But things did not turn out as he had hoped. By 1616, Galileo found himself under official scrutiny.

Theologians of the Roman Inquisition labeled the heliocentric thesis “philosophically foolish and absurd and formally heretical, since in many places it expressly contradicts the sentences of the Holy Scriptures according to their literal meaning, the common exposition, and the sense of the Holy Fathers and doctors of theology.”

Galileo met with cardinal Robert Bellarmine, considered the greatest Catholic theologian of the day and labeled “the hammer of the heretics.” Bellarmine formally admonished Galileo to stop promoting his opinions on the sun-centered system.

Facing the Inquisition Court

Galileo tried to act prudently, but he did not renounce his support of the Copernican thesis. Seventeen years later, in 1633, Galileo appeared before the Inquisition court. Cardinal Bellarmine was dead, but now Galileo’s main opposer was Pope Urban VIII, who had in the past been favorable. Writers have called this trial one of the most famous and unjust in antiquity,  even ranking it along with the trials of Socrates and Jesus.

What provoked the trial? Galileo wrote a book entitled Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. In effect, it advocated heliocentrism. The author was directed to present himself to the court in 1632, but Galileo delayed, being ill and almost 70 years old. He made the trip to Rome the following year, after being threatened with bonds and forced transportation. By order of the pope, he was interrogated and even threatened with torture.

Whether this sick old man was actually tortured is a matter of controversy. As recorded in his conviction sentence, Galileo was subjected to “rigorous examination.” According to Italo Mereu, a historian of Italian law, that phrase was the technical expression of the day used to describe torture. A number of scholars agree with that interpretation.

At any rate, Galileo was sentenced in an austere hall before the members of the Inquisition on June 22, 1633. He was found guilty of “having held and believed false doctrine, contrary to the Holy and Divine Scriptures, that the Sun . . . does not move from east to west and that the Earth moves and is not the center of the world.”

Galileo did not want to become a martyr, so he was forced to recant. After his sentence was read, the elderly scientist, kneeling and dressed as a penitent, solemnly pronounced: “I do abjure, curse, and detest the said errors and heresies [the Copernican theory] and in general all and any other error, heresy, or sect contrary to the Holy Church.”

There is a popular tradition​—unconfirmed by solid evidence—​that after abjuring, Galileo stamped his foot and exclaimed in protest: “And yet it does move!” Commentators claim that the humiliation of renouncing his discoveries anguished the scientist until his death. He had been condemned to jail, but his sentence was commuted to perpetual house arrest. As blindness descended upon him, he lived in near seclusion.

A Conflict Between Religion and Science?

Many have concluded that Galileo’s example proves that science and religion are hopelessly incompatible. In effect, over the centuries the Galileo case has alienated people from religion. It has convinced many that religion is by nature a threat to scientific progress. Is that really so?

Pope Urban VIII and the theologians of the Roman Inquisition did in fact condemn the Copernican theory, claiming that it was contrary to the Bible. Galileo’s adversaries referred to Joshua’s statement, “Sun, stand thou still,” which, according to their reading, was to be understood literally. (Joshua 10:12, King James Version) But does the Bible really contradict the Copernican theory? Not at all.

The contradiction lay between science and an obviously incorrect interpretation of Scripture. That was how Galileo saw the matter. He wrote to a pupil: “Even though Scripture cannot err, its interpreters and expositors can, in various ways. One of these, very serious and very frequent, would be when they always want to stop at the purely literal sense.” Any serious student of the Bible would have to agree. *

Galileo went further. He claimed that two books, the Bible and the book of nature, were written by the same Author and could not contradict each other. He added, though, that a person could not “with certainty assert that all interpreters speak under divine inspiration.” This implicit criticism of the church’s official interpretation was likely considered a provocation, leading the  Roman Inquisition to condemn the scientist. After all, how dare a mere layman interfere with ecclesiastical prerogatives?

Referring to the Galileo case, several scholars have raised doubts about the infallibility of both the church and the pope. Catholic theologian Hans Küng writes that “numerous and indisputable” errors of “the ecclesiastical teaching office,” including “the condemnation of Galileo,” have brought the dogma of infallibility into question.

Galileo Rehabilitated?

In November 1979, a year after his election, John Paul II hoped for a review of the position of Galileo, who, the pope admitted, “had to suffer a great deal . . . at the hands of men and organisms of the Church.” Thirteen years later, in 1992, a commission appointed by the same pope acknowledged: “Certain theologians, Galileo’s contemporaries, . . . failed to grasp the profound, non-literal meaning of the Scriptures when they describe the physical structure of the created universe.”

The fact is, however, that the heliocentric theory was not criticized by theologians alone. Pope Urban VIII, who played a prominent role in the case, rigidly insisted that Galileo refrain from undermining the centuries-old church teaching that the earth is the center of the universe. That teaching came, not from the Bible, but from the Greek philosopher Aristotle.

After the modern-day commission made a laborious review of the case, the pope called the conviction of Galileo “a hasty and unfortunate decision.” Was the scientist being rehabilitated? “To speak, as some do, of Galileo’s rehabilitation is absurd,” says one writer, “because history condemns, not Galileo, but the ecclesiastical court.” Historian Luigi Firpo said: “It is not the place of persecutors to rehabilitate their victims.”

The Bible is “a lamp shining in a dark place.” (2 Peter 1:19) Galileo defended it against a misinterpretation. But the church, by defending a man-made tradition at the Bible’s expense, did the opposite.


^ par. 24 An honest reader will readily admit that a statement about the sun standing still in the sky is not meant as a scientific analysis but as a simple observation about how things appeared from the standpoint of human eyewitnesses. Astronomers, too, often speak of the rising and setting of the sun, planets, and stars. They do not mean that these heavenly bodies literally revolve around the earth but, rather, that they appear to move across our sky.

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The Life Of Galileo

Born in Pisa in 1564 of a Florentine father, Galileo studied medicine at the university there. Showing little interest in that discipline, he abandoned it for the study of physics and mathematics. In 1585 he returned to his family without obtaining any academic qualification. Yet, he gained the esteem of the greatest mathematicians of his day, winning the post of mathematics lecturer at the University of Pisa. After his father’s death, economic difficulties forced Galileo to move to Padua, where he was appointed to a more lucrative position, the chair of mathematics in that city’s university.

During his 18 years in Padua, three children were born to Galileo by his mistress, a young Venetian woman. In 1610 he returned to Florence, where he obtained a better economic situation enabling him to dedicate more time to research​—but at the expense of the freedom he had enjoyed in the territory of the Venetian Republic. The grand duke of Tuscany appointed him “first philosopher and mathematician.” Galileo died in Florence in 1642 while living under house arrest as a result of his condemnation by the Inquisition.

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From the book The Library of Original Sources, Volume VI, 1915

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Galileo’s telescope, which helped him to confirm that the earth is not the center of the universe

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Scala/Art Resource, NY

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The geocentric (earth-centered) system

The heliocentric (sun-centered) system

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Background: © 1998 Visual Language

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Picture: From the book The Historian’s History of the World