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What happened in the Galileo Affair?

People have used events in the church’s history to attack her credibility for centuries. Modernity, with its emphasis on science and technology, turns frequently to the story of Galileo in presenting the belief that science and faith are incompatible. False narratives concerning the Galileo Affair are rampant. The Enlightenment thinker Voltaire (1694–1778) viewed the Italian scientist as a celebrity, martyred by the evil church on the altar of intellectual freedom.

Understanding the church’s relationship with Galileo and the condemnation of his teachings requires an appreciation of the historical context of the time. Christendom was cleaved in the 16th century by the revolution begun in German territory through the writings of Martin Luther. The initial theological revolution turned into a political one and by the 17th century, Europe was engulfed in a violent spasm of bloodshed. In this context, the church was highly sensitive to any attack against the official interpretation of Scripture, which was a favorite tactic of Protestant thinkers.

At the beginning of the 16th century, most intellectuals believed in the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic view of the universe that placed the earth at the center (geo-centric). However, debate raged on the topic when the Polish scientist Nicholas Copernicus (1473–1543) proposed the heliocentric theory with the sun at the center. Catholic and Protestant thinkers argued against the Copernican theory, as it seemed to contradict certain passages of Scripture (e.g. Jos 10:12–14; Ps 92:1). Galileo (1564–1642) firmly believed in the accuracy of Copernicus’ theory and thought he could prove it scientifically. In reality, Friedrich Bessel, using stellar parallax, scientifically proved the heliocentric theory in 1838. Galileo began his study of the universe and published several works on his observations. Convinced of Copernicus’ theory, Galileo traveled to Rome in 1615 to receive church approval for it. In his discussions with Cardinal Alessandro Orsini (1592–1626), Galileo posited his theory that the presence of the ocean tides proved the heliocentric theory arguing they would not exist if the earth did not move around the sun. When Cardinal Orsini discussed Galileo’s petition with Pope Paul V (reign 1605–21), the pope referred the question to the Roman Inquisition.

The Inquisition met in 1616 to discuss propositions related to the heliocentric theory and its apparent contradiction with current interpretation of Scripture, which supported the geocentric view. Although the question at hand was related to the interpretation of Scripture, it was truly a scientific inquiry and not within the competency of the Inquisition. However, due to the sensitivity of the church at the time to attacks on her teaching and interpretation of Scripture, the inquisitors believed they needed to pass judgment. They ruled that the Copernican theory was at odds with passages of Scripture and therefore erroneous. Robert Cardinal Bellarmine (1542–1621) informed Galileo of the ruling but reassured the scientist that he could privately research and study the heliocentric theory but could not teach or advocate it in public.

Galileo obeyed the Inquisition’s injunction for 15 years while continuing his research. In 1632, he published the book, “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems” in which he argued for the truth of the heliocentric theory in a way that mocked those who supported the geocentric view. Since the work violated the church’s prohibition on publicly supporting Copernicus’ theory, the Inquisition summoned Galileo to Rome. Contrary to established procedures and in deference to his age and fame, Galileo stayed in a five-room suite at the Tuscan embassy with a servant at his disposal rather than in an ecclesiastical jail. During his four meetings with the inquisitors, Galileo admitted his book went too far and he denied belief in the Copernican theory. He even offered to publish an addition to the Dialogue that disproved the theory. In the summer of 1633, the Inquisition passed judgment on Galileo. He was required publicly to recant belief in the heliocentric theory (which he did). Galileo received a three-year prison sentence, which was immediately commuted (he lived under limited house arrest in Rome first and then in his own house in Florence), and given the penance of reciting the seven penitential psalms once a week for three years; he petitioned and received approval for his daughter, a Carmelite nun, to say the penance for him.

Galileo was never physically harmed during his time before the Inquisition and was convicted of disobedience not heresy. Hoping to end the consternation associated with the Galileo Affair, Pope John Paul II convoked a commission to study the case. A report was issued in 1992 in which the commission recognized the Inquisition’s ruling was a “subjective error in judgment” but understandable given the “historical and cultural framework” of the time since the Copernican theory, “in fact not yet definitively proven” seemed to “undermine Catholic tradition.”

In the end, the Galileo Affair was a tragedy of mistakes with plenty of blame on both sides. Galileo’s case does not prove the incompatibility of faith and science, as many in modernity advocate. It does illustrate the complexities of human emotions and relationships. Galileo should receive blame for his role in pushing the church into a corner in an effort to support a theory not yet definitively proven and the Inquisition should have recognized the issue was beyond its sphere of competence. It is best to remember the words of the priest-scientist Stanley Jaki (1924–2009), who wrote that, “Revelation is about the way of going to heaven and not about the way the heavens go.”

Weidenkopf is an adjunct professor at Christendom Graduate School of Theology in Alexandria. 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020