The Catholic Church and Galileo, was it a war on science?

Science vs. The Church: The Galileo Controversy

In most accounts, the conflict between Galileo and the Inquisition is presented as a battle between scientific progress and blind religious dogmatism -- Galileo is presented as brave crusader for truth and science, unjustly persecuted and imprisoned by the tyrannical Roman Catholic Church for the "crime" of being right. This view is fundamentally flawed by its failure to consider the historical background of the case: at the time, Galileo's work was a radical and highly controversial new theory, not an accepted scientific fact. The Church's actions represented an affirmation of the accepted scientific wisdom of the times against a new idea with some disturbing philosophical and theological implications, rather than a rejection of science.

Sscientific and political environment of early seventeenth-century Europe

If we seek to understand and interpret the actions of the Inquisition, we must examine them within the context of the scientific and political environment of early seventeenth-century Europe. To someone living in the modern age, it seems utterly inconceivable that any sane person could have ever believed that the earth stood immovable at the very center of the universe, surrounded by perfect crystal spheres upon which rode the sun, the moon, the planets and the stars. We have been raised with the knowledge that our earth is but one of nine planets orbiting the Sun, a G2 class yellow dwarf star located on the edge of the Orion Arm of the Milky Way galaxy (Fisher 2000) , and consequently we accept it as obvious fact even though most of us have never personally seen the astronomical or mathematical evidence that proves it to be so. This tends to blind us to the fact that the people of Galileo's day accepted the Ptolemaic system as fact for the exact same reason we accept the Copernican today -- because it is what they were taught, what all the experts of the day believed, and what all the available data supported (if they could understand it, which was not usually the case). Let us, then, consider Italy in the year 1610.

Nearly a hundred years since Martin Luther pinned his famous ninety-five theses to the door of the Wittenburg Cathedral, the Roman Catholic Church was still reeling from the theological and political effects of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Although still a powerful socioeconomic force, the Church possessed but a shadow of the influence it once wielded -- even in its homeland of Italy, the reins of power were held by the governments of the individual city-states, not by Rome (Gilbert 1992, Ch. 3). Predictably enough, the Vatican guarded its remaining power jealously, using the Congregation of the Holy Roman and Universal Inquisition, better known as the Roman Inquisition or the Holy Office, to enforce Catholic orthodoxy by banning books and prosecuting heretics. It was this body that tried and convicted Galileo in 1633, handing down the infamous sentence:

We pronounce, judge, and declare, that you, the said Galileo, have rendered yourself vehemently suspected by this Holy Office of heresy, that is, of having believed and held the doctrine (which is false and contrary to the Holy and Divine Scriptures) that the sun is the center of the world, and that it does not move from east to west, and that the earth does move, and is not the center of the world; also, that an opinion can be held and supported as probable, after it has been declared and finally decreed contrary to the Holy Scripture, and, consequently, that you have incurred all the censures and penalties enjoined and promulgated in the sacred canons and other general and particular constituents against delinquents of this description. From which it is Our pleasure that you be absolved, provided that with a sincere heart and unfeigned faith, in Our presence, you abjure, curse, and detest, the said error and heresies, and every other error and heresy contrary to the Catholic and Apostolic Church of Rome (Halsall 1999) .

Galileo's first run-in with the Inquisition

Galileo's first run-in with the Inquisition occurred in 1616, almost twenty years before his conviction. On December 20, 1614, an ambitious young Dominican priest by the name of Tommaso Caccini attacked Galileo from the pulpit with a scathing sermon in which the hotheaded Caccini called mathematicians in general (and Galileo in particular), "practioners of diabolical arts...enemies of true religion" . Soon thereafter another Dominican, Niccolae Lorini, wrote a letter to the Holy Office condemning Galileo for heresy, substantiating it with an doctored copy of Galileo's Letter to Castelli (Sobel 1999, pg. 66-67). Galileo responded by sending a true copy of Letter to Castelli to Archbishop Piero Dini, and the case was summarily dismissed by the Consultor of the Holy Office. Caccini then took it upon himself to travel to Rome in a second attempt to bring the wrath of the Church down upon the controversial scientist: appearing before the Holy Office on March 20, 1615, he gave a deposition which historian Giorgio de Santillana describes as "such an interminable mass of twists and innuendoes and double talk that a summary does no justice to it" (as cited in Linder 2002) . Unconvinced, the Inquisition reiterated its decision to drop all charges against Galileo.

Angered by the accusations against him, Galileo took the opportunity to send a copy of his newly published Treatise on the Tides to Cardinal Alessandro Orsini, requesting that Orsini forward the paper to Pope Paul V. Galileo then travelled to Rome himself and sought an audience with the Pope in order to make his case for the Copernican system in person. The move backfired, as the Pope decided to take the opportunity to have the Inquisition rule once and for all on whether or not the Copernican doctrine should be officially condemned as heretical.

A panel of eleven Qualifiers (expert theologians) of the Holy Office carefully examined the issue and unanimously concluded that:

  1. The proposition that the sun is in the center of the world and immovable from its place is absurd, philosophically false, and formally heretical; because it is expressly contrary to Holy Scriptures.
  2. The proposition that the earth is not the center of the world, nor immovable, but that it moves, and also with a diurnal action, is also absurd, philosophically false, and, theologically considered, at least erroneous in faith (Halsall 1999).

Declaration that Copernican astronomy was contrary to the Bible

On the strength of this report, the Inquisition issued an official proclamation declaring that Copernican astronomy was contrary to the Bible and therefore could not be supported as factual. It also censored Copernicus' book De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolution of the Spheres) and several books written in support of it; the publication of De Revolutionibus and of Diego de Zuniga's On Job was suspended until several specified corrections were made, and a book by Paolo Antonio Foscarini which attempted to reconcile the Bible with the Copernican system was banned outright. Galileo was admonished not to support the theories of Copernicus since those views had now been officially declared to be in error, but he was not punished (in order to protect Galileo's reputation, Cardinal Robert Bellarmino issued him papers certifying that he had not been charged by the Inquisition) and his Sunspot Letters were not prohibited even though they strongly supported the Copernican theory. (Sobel 1999, pg. 79) and officially commanding him not to "hold or defend" the views of Copernicus.

Pope Urban VII

Defeated but not crushed, Galileo returned to Florence and bided his time. When his friend and supporter Cardinal Maffeo Barberini became Pope Urban VIII in 1623, Galileo visited him in Rome and petitioned him to revoke the 1616 decree. Fearing that it would undermine the authority of the Church, the Pope did not formally lift the injunction -- instead, he gave Galileo permission to write about the Ptolemaic and Copernican systems on the condition that he do so in noncommittal terms, presenting Copernicanism as a hypothetical mathematical construct rather than as fact (DeMarco 1986) . Galileo promptly began working on Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, which was published in February of 1932 with the full imprimatur (approval) of the Church censors. Although the Dialogue was technically noncommittal as the Pope had required, it was clear to all that Galileo wholeheartedly supported the Copernican system. Enraged by what he saw as a blatant betrayal of his trust in Galileo, Urban turned matters over to the Inquisition.

Two misconceptions about Galileo's trial

There are two lingering misconceptions about Galileo's trial: that the charges of heresy were patently ludicrous because he was obviously correct in supporting the Copernican system, and that he was tortured and forced to recant his beliefs. We believe that the first misconception can be largely attributed to the way the history of science is presented in many high school and even college textbooks. By presenting the advancement of scientific knowledge as a more or less linear progression from successful theory to successful theory, they inadvertently imply that science is never fundamentally wrong, that it always proceeds from the truth to a better understanding of the truth. The fact is that the progress of scientific research is more like a tree being pruned; myriad theories develop at every point, only to be disproved and set aside as new experimental evidence is gathered. Consequently, the fact that a theory is eventually proven right does not establish that it was clearly correct at the time it was first promulgated.

With the evidence available in Galileo's time, there really was no reason to support the Copernican theory over the Ptolemaic, other than the fact that it was a good deal more simple. The modified Ptolemaic system proposed by Tycho Brahe -- which had Earth fixed in the center of the universe, the Sun revolving around the Earth, and the other planets revolving about the Sun -- fit the astronomical data of the day just as well as the Copernican model championed by Galileo, and had the important advantage of not contradicting every tenet of natural philosophy held at the time. Furthermore, there appeared to be a good deal of strong evidence against the Copernican view. For example, the apparent positions of the stars should have shifted as the Earth moved through its orbit, but no such parallaxes were observed (Koestler 1964) . As it turns out, this was because the telescopes of the day weren't powerful enough -- but at the time, it seemed an insurmountable contradiction. In siding with the geocentric thesis, the Church was accepting the view held by the vast majority of scientists and philosophers -- not stubbornly and dogmatically rejecting an overwhelming case for heliocentrism as is commonly believed. Koestler succinctly summed up the situation in The Greatest Scandal in Christendom , saying "...not only tradition, prejudice and naive `commonsense', but also the scientific evidence available at the time, spoke against the Copernican theory."

Fr. Mateo of writes:

Galileo actually taught that the sun was at the center of the universe, not just the solar system; later evidence showed that the sun also orbits the center of the Milky Way galaxy; it thus would have been bad if the Church had given an unqualified endorsement to Galileo's theory, for his specific form of the theory turned out to be false.

The second misconception, that Galileo was abused and mistreated by the Inquisition, can most likely be traced to the antagonistic relation between science and religion. As historian George Sim Johnson comments, "The case makes for such a neat morality play of enlightened science versus dogmatic obscurantism that historians are seldom tempted to correct the anti-Catholic 'spin' that is usually put on it." Galileo was "imprisoned" (he was not guarded, but simply forbidden to leave without special permission) in a luxurious five-room suite in the Florentine embassy rather than in the jail at the Palace of the Inquisition, and he was never tortured -- he was shown the instruments of torture, a mere formality since his age and infirmity officially exempted him from torture in the first place. Unlike the infamous Spanish Inquisition, the Roman Inquisition operated under strict regulations as to the use of torture:

Interrogation with torture usually was prescribed in two general situations. First, where the evidence clearly indicated guilt which the suspect had denied or was incapable of disproving, and second, when it was deemed that a confession had not been full and sincere, or when it was felt that all of the accomplices had not been named. Those who were spared from torture were pregnant women, or women who had given birth within a forty day period, the elderly, children under fourteen and the physically impaired. Torture was rigidly controlled and restrictions were enforced in Roman practice. The judge could not proceed to interrogation under torture unless the evidence was compelling and the defense had presented its case. Nor did the inquisitor alone decide whether torture was justified. He had to seek the opinion of an advisory council consisting of theologians and lawyers. If torture was to be used, the court had to follow the instructions for torture, issued by the Supreme Tribunal of Rome. Deviations from accepted procedure were not tolerated by Rome (Van Helden 1995).

Contrary to popular belief, the Inquisition did not in fact charge Galileo with heresy -- it charged him with violating the 1616 injunction against supporting the heretical Copernican theory. While the difference may seem purely semantical to a modern-day observer, it was a matter of life and death in Galileo's day -- heresy was a capital crime punishable by burning at the stake, while merely supporting heretical beliefs was a much less serious offense. The case against Galileo was based on the minutes of the Holy Office for February of 1616:

The entry for February 25, 1616:

His Holiness ordered the Most Illustrious Lord Cardinal Bellarmino to summon before him the said Galileo and admonish him to abandon the said opinion; and in case of his refusal to obey, the Father Commissary, in the presence of a notary and witnesses, is to issue him an injunction to abstain altogether from teaching or defending this doctrine and opinion and even from discussing it; and further, if he should not acquiescence, he is to be imprisoned (as cited in Sobel 1999, pg. 249) .

The entry for February 26, 1616:

In the Palace and residence of Cardinal Bellarmino, Galileo being called and being in the presence of the Cardinal and of the Reverend Father Michelangelo Seghizzi of Lodi, of the Order of Preachers, Commissary General of the Holy Office, the Cardinal admonished the said Galileo of the error of the above-mentioned opinion and warned him to abandon it; and immediately and without delay, the said Cardinal being still present, the said Commissary gave Galileo a precept and ordered him in the name of His Holiness the Pope and the whole body of the Holy Office to the effect that the said opinion that the Sun is the center of the universal and the Earth moves must be entirely abandoned, nor might he from then on in any way hold, teach or defend it by word or in writing,; otherwise the Holy Office would proceed against him (as cited in both Linder 2002 and Sobel 1999, pg. 250) .

That February 26 entry is now believed to be a forgery inserted into the minutes by Galileo's enemies. Its placement on the back of the previous day's entry rather than on a new page is inconsistent with every other entry in the files, and it also contradicts the February 25th entry by stating that the injunction was issued immediately after Bellarmine's admonition, instead of if Galileo did not accept Bellarmine's admonition (which he did, according to Linder, Cardinal Oregius was also present at the meeting and reported that Galileo "remained silent with all his science and thus showed that no less praiseworthy than his mind was his pious disposition."

Had he concentrated his defense on the forged injunction, Galileo might have gone free. Instead, he argued that Dialogues was actually a refutation of the Copernican view, stating in his defense that "...I did not consider that in writing it I was acting contrary to, far les disobeying, the command not to hold, defend, or teach that opinion, but rather that I was refuting the opinion. ...I have neither maintained nor defended in that book the opinion that the Earth moves and that the Sun is stationary but have rather demonstrated the opposite of the Copernican opinion and shown that the arguments of Copernicus are weak and inconclusive." (as cited in Sobel 1999, pg. 251). Predictably enough, the Holy Office was unconvinced by that line of defense, voting seven to none (with three abstentions) to declare Galileo guilty of "vehement suspicion of heresy" and sentence him to formal imprisonment for an indefinite period and reciting the seven penitential psalms once a week for three years. Thanks to the influence of Cardinal Barberini, Galileo's imprisonment was softened to house arrest at the Tuscan Embassy; six days later, he was remanded to the custody of his friend Archbishop Piccolomini of Sienna.

Many people would question the Church's reasons for getting involved in the matter in the first place; after all, what does astronomy have to do with religion? The answer is that the Church felt that the heliocentric Copernican theory threatened the principle of the inerrancy of the Bible; Catholic theologians felt that passages like Joshua 10:13, which states: "And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies. Is not this written in the book of Jasher? 'So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day.' " (God) clearly implied that the sun moved through the heavens and not the earth. Consequently, the Church considered the Copernican theory to be heretical, although Cardinal Bellarmine also stated in a letter to Paolo Foscarini:

...if there were a true demonstration that the sun was in the center of the universe and the earth in the third sphere, and that the sun did not travel around the earth but the earth circled the sun, then it would be necessary to proceed with great caution in explaining the passages of Scripture which seemed contrary, and we would rather have to say that we did not understand them than to say that something was false which has been demonstrated. But I do not believe that there is any such demonstration; none has been shown to me. It is not the same thing to show that the appearances are saved by assuming that the sun really is in the center and the earth in the heavens. We believe that the first demonstration might exist, but I have grave doubts about the second, and in a case of doubt, one may not depart from the Scriptures as explained by the holy Fathers (Bellarmine 1615).

In effect, what Bellarmine said was that the heliocentric theory might indeed be correct, but until it was conclusively proven it should not be treated as fact since it differed from the current interpretation of the Bible. Treating it as a mathematical model, on the other hand, was perfectly acceptable. This sentiment was echoed in the Pope's instructions to Galileo, and in the fact that the Inquisition did not ban De Revolutionibus even after declaring the Copernican doctrine to be heretical -- they only suspended its publication until nine sentences which postulated the doctrine as fact rather than theory were modified. Foscarini's book, on the other hand, was banned because it attempted to re-interpret the Bible to accommodate the new theory; Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, likewise, only got Galileo into trouble because the Church felt he was intruding on theological matters, and because he gratuitously insulted the Pope by putting the advice the pontiff gave him in the mouth of the dunce Simplicio.

The Galileo affair, a mistake? yes. A war on science? no

Looking back on the events of 1616 and 1633, we might note that the story of Galileo contains all the key elements of a good thrilller -- it is a riveting tale of exciting scientific discoveries and devious political intrigues, of personal feuds and philosophical rivalries, of records forged and lies told. It is important, however, to separate myth from truth: while the conviction of Galileo was certainly an unfortunate miscarriage of justice, it did not represent a showdown between Church and Science. At the very worst, the Church's actions were nothing more than an overly heavy-handed crackdown on an unproven, highly controversial new theory which had some disturbing philosophical and theological implications. A mistake, yes. A war, no.


Bellarmine, Robert (1615). Letter on Galileo's Theories. Retrieved December 18, 2002, from Fordham Univerity, The Modern Internet History Sourcebook:

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Fisher, Mark. (2000). The Sun . Retrieved December 14, 2002, from The Electronic Sky:

Galli, M. & Olsen, T. (2000). 131 Christians Everyone Should Know. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

Galilei, G. (1957). The Starry Messenger. In S. Drake (Ed. and Trans.), "Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo". New York: Anchor Books. (Original work published 1610)

Galilei, G. (1957). Letters On Sunspots. In S. Drake (Ed. and Trans.), "Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo". New York: Anchor Books. (Original work published 1613)

Gilbert, B. (1992). Renaissance and Reformation. Unpublished; retrieved December 12, 2002, from University of Kansas, CARRIE Online Library:

God (date unknown). The Holy Bible, Authorized King James Version. London: Queen's Printer Robert Barker.

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Koestler, Arthur (1964). The Greatest Scandal in Christendom. Reprinted 1969 in Drinkers of Infinity: Essays 1955-1967 . New York: The MacMillan Company.

Johnston, G.S. (Date unknown) The Galileo Affair. Princeton, NJ: Scepter Press. Electronic copy retrieved from Catholic Educator's Resource Center, (

Halsall, P. (1999). The Crime of Galileo: Indictment and Abjuration of 1633. Retrieved December 12, 2002, from Fordham University, The Internet Modern History Sourcebook:

Lessl, T. (2000, June). The Galileo Legend . The New Oxford Review.

Sobel, D. (1999). Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love. New York: Walker & Company.

Van Helden, A. (1995). The Galileo Project. Retrieved December 13, 2002, from Rice University, The Galileo Project:

This article was written by Audrie Dawn posted: here

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