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The Case of Galileo Gailei

By Rev. Fr. Gabriel Lavery, CMRI

At a recent Fatima Conference at Mount St. Michael, I had the great pleasure of listening to a talk by Dr. Leonard Giblin, a Catholic scientist. It was refreshing to hear him explain in part of his lecture the true history behind the case of Galileo, an unfortunate event often used to attack the Catholic Church. It interested me so much that I decided to research it further.

Most people have been taught that Galileo was unjustly condemned by the Catholic Church for his scientific views on the solar system, and that this was due to an opposition to and ignorance of science on the part of the Church. Some even say he was tortured and imprisoned. The true facts of the case of Galileo, however, do not in any way support the view that the Catholic Church is opposed to true science.

A number of non-Catholic authors who have been honest enough to research the case do not agree with this attack on the Church. One in particular, Sherwood Taylor, became a Catholic as a result of his research. [1] So what is the true history of the case of Galileo?

The Heliocentric Theory

Galileo did not discover that the earth goes around the sun, nor did he prove it. At his time there were two theories about the universe, the most common of which was the geocentric theory based on Aristotle and Ptolemy. This theory taught that the earth was the center of the universe around which the sun and other bodies revolved. The other theory was the heliocentric or Copernican theory which held that the sun was the center of the universe and that day and night were due to the rotation of the earth. This theory was named after a Catholic canon, Nicolaus Copernicus, who published a book on it 21 years before Galileo was born. Copernicus dedicated his book to Pope Paul III with his knowledge.

Long before Galileo was born the heliocentric theory was freely taught in the Italian universities. In 1533, Albert Widmanstadt lectured on it before Pope Clement VII. The popes were well aware of this teaching and were in no way opposed to it. Many other Catholics also began to teach it. If the Catholic Church wanted to condemn Copernicanism, she had plenty of opportunities to do so before Galileo’s time.

The first opposition to the theory came from the Protestants, including Luther, Melanchthon and Calvin, who were violently opposed to it. Luther called Copernicus a madman because, as Luther said, Josue in the Old Testament stopped the sun, not the earth. Johannes Kepler, a contemporary of Galileo, wrote a work supporting the Copernican theory. In 1596, the Protestant Faculty of the University of Tubingen unanimously condemned Kepler’s book as damnable heresy, because they believed it was contrary to Scripture. As a result he was forced to flee his country. He went to the Jesuits and was given a teaching position in astronomy in a Catholic university by the pope himself. [2]

Galileo’s Reception in Rome

As for Galileo, he was well received by members of the Catholic clergy. In 1611, he traveled to Rome and was enthusiastically received and befriended by many cardinals and other clerics, including Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, who had the opportunity to look through Galileo’s telescope during a banquet held in honor of the astronomer. [3] Galileo had a long private audience with Pope Paul V, who assured him of his good will. [4] Cardinal del Monte wrote to the Grand Duke of Tuscany: “During his stay here Galileo has given the greatest satisfaction… I verily believe that were we living under the ancient Roman republic, a column would have been erected on the Capitol in his honor.” Galileo himself wrote of this visit: “Everybody is showing me wonderful kindness, especially the Jesuit Fathers.” [5]

After all this honor, what could have resulted in such serious trouble just five years later? It seems there are four reasons for his trouble: 1) His uncontrolled temper. 2) His demand that the hypothesis be accepted as fact. 3) His meddling in the Scriptures. 4) His disrespect for the authorities of the Church.

Galileo was a bit of a hothead who loved to ridicule his opponents. He wished to force his theory on all others even though he well knew that he did not have conclusive proof of it. In his work, The Assayer, he attacked a Jesuit in these words:

“You cannot help it, Signor Sarsi, that it was granted to me alone to discover all the new phenomena in the sky and nothing to anybody else. This is the truth which neither malice nor envy can suppress.” [6] Fr. Antonio Querengo, who heard Galileo speak said, “He turns the laugh against all his opponents…and answers their objections in such a way as to make them look perfectly ridiculous.” [7] Piero Guicciardini, the Tuscan ambassador to Rome, wrote in a letter dated March 4, 1616:

“Galileo sets more store by his own opinion than by the advice of his friends… [The] cardinals of the Holy Office, have endeavoured to pacify him and persuade him not to stir up this affair but, if he wished to hold his opinion, to hold it quietly, without using so much violence in his attempts to force others into holding it…. But he gets hotly excited about these views of his, and has an extremely passionate temper, with little patience and prudence to keep it in control. It is this irritability that makes the skies of Rome very dangerous for him.” [8]

It is obvious that such an attitude would arouse his enemies.

In 1606, in his work Trattato della Sfera, Galileo held the geocentric theory as not only useful, but indisputably true. Just a few years later he was demanding that the opposite view (the heliocentric) be held by all, despite the fact that he could not prove his hypothesis. In fact, Galileo erroneously believed that the tides were proof of the earth’s rotation. He ignored Kepler’s discovery that the tides were actually due to the attraction of the moon. All of this was only fuel for his opponents.

The third area of trouble for Galileo was the Scripture question. As Fr. Devivier, S.J., has pointed out, it seems that Galileo’s opponents were the first to bring up the subject. We have already seen how the Protestants condemned the heliocentric theory as contrary to Scripture. Galileo’s opponents did the same. Unfortunately Galileo was only too happy to take up the challenge… in his argumentative way. Instead of sticking to scientific arguments, he attempted to support his hypothesis with quotes from the books of Job and Josue. These attempts of his are still preserved in his own manuscripts.

Both sides to the debate should have followed St. Augustine’s wise advice:

“We do not read in the Gospel that the Lord said: I send you the Paraclete to teach you how the sun and the moon go. He wished to make Christians, not mathematicians.” [9]

St. Augustine also warned against reading hastily our own opinions into the Scriptures and fighting for them as if they were the teaching of the Bible. [10] Galileo himself, in his Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, said, “The Bible was not written to teach us astronomy.” In the same letter he quoted Cardinal Baronius: “The intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how to go to Heaven, not how the heavens go.” [11]

The controversy over Scripture was due to certain passages that speak of the sun moving. For example, in the book of Josue we read:

“And the sun and moon stood still, till the people revenged themselves of their enemies….So the sun stood still in the midst of the heaven, and hastened not to go down the space of one day. There was not before nor after so long a day…” [12]

Both Catholics and non-Catholics at the time understood this passage literally as meaning that the sun revolves around the earth. Of course, there really was no difficulty. As Leo XIII said in his encyclical, Providentissimus Deus:

“There can never, indeed, be any real discrepancy between the theologian and the physicist, as long as each confines himself within his own lines, and both are careful, as St. Augustine warns us, ‘not to make rash assertions, or to assert what is not known as known.’”

He also points out that, in scientific matters, the Scriptures “described and dealt with things in more or less figurative language, or in terms which were commonly used at the time, and which in many instances are in daily use at this day, even by the most eminent men of science.” Even today, we do not speak of beautiful earth spins, but of beautiful sunrises and sunsets.

Unfortunately, the eleven consultors of the Holy Office felt that science was overstepping its bounds and treading on the territory of theology. Consequently, they condemned the Copernican theory as heretical. It is easy to see, however, that they did not do so because of a hatred of science, but from a desire to safeguard the Scriptures.

Compare this to a similar situation today: We often hear scientists saying that the earth is billions of years old. There are many scientists who reject this hypothesis as unscientific. Also, many Protestants reject this hypothesis because they claim it is contrary to Scripture. They demand a literal interpretation of Scripture in these scientific matters. It often seems like they use the Bible as a scientific textbook. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, has left Catholics to believe the earth is as old as they like. It is a scientific question. The only thing Scripture definitely teaches is that at some point God created it.

Nevertheless, many Catholics and Protestants oppose the “billions of years old” hypothesis. Why? Is it because they hate science? Of course not. But they realize that the reason the hypothesis is promoted is to support evolution. And, of course, evolution is used by atheists to deny creation, the existence of God, and anything spiritual. Why should they be forced to accept an unproven hypothesis?

Galileo’s situation is very similar. He could not prove his hypothesis scientifically. Many scientists opposed him, including the renowned Lutheran astronomer, Tycho Brahe. Lord Bacon, hailed by Protestants as the Father of Modern Science, was also unconvinced. Besides being bad science, many people, Catholic and non-Catholic, felt the theory was an attack on the Scriptures. We can hardly blame the Holy Office for clinging to the common interpretation of Scripture until it should be proven otherwise. They were quite willing to have heliocentrism taught as a hypothesis. During Galileo’s life, in 1623, the Jesuit astronomer, Gossi, remarked:

“When a scientific demonstration of the earth’s movement shall be brought forward, it will then be fitting to interpret Scripture otherwise than has hitherto been done.” [13]

Until then, Galileo was told by his good friend, Archbishop Piero Dini, that he could write whatever he wanted “provided he kept out of the sacristy.” [14]

The fourth area of trouble for Galileo was his disrespect for authority. We have already seen how inconsiderately he treated his opponents. In his Dialogues, written in 1632, he “exhibited the bad taste of attacking those among his opponents who had shown the greatest kindness to him. The Pope in particular thought that he was designated in these dialogues by the ridiculous character Simplicio [Simpleton].” [15]

Chronology of Events

Now that we have seen the causes of Galileo’s trouble, we are prepared to discuss the events in chronological order. Galileo came under the notice of the Holy Office on three separate occasions.

The first trouble was in 1615. A letter of Galileo’s was sent to the Holy Office, but two words of it had been changed by some enemy of Galileo’s. When the letter was examined, these were the only two words that the Holy Office found objectionable. But, even then, nothing was done about it, which shows the caution of the Holy Office.

Galileo’s second trouble came in 1616. On December 7, 1615, he came to Rome with the idea of waging war on his opponents.16 They were not about to sit back and watch as he ridiculed them. Two propositions of Galileo’s were submitted to the Holy Office for examination. On February 24, 1616, the eleven consultors of the Holy Office reported their decision to the cardinals of the Holy Office.

The first proposition examined stated that the sun was the center of the world and was devoid of motion. This was condemned as “foolish and absurd philosophically, and formally heretical, inasmuch as it expressly contradicts the doctrines of Holy Scripture in many places…” The second proposition was that the earth is not the center of the world, but moves. This was condemned as “at least erroneous in the faith.”

The eight cardinals of the Holy Office, including St. Robert Bellarmine, did not accept these decisions exactly as they stood. [17] Instead, on March 5 they issued a decree which neither used the word “heretical” nor mentioned Galileo by name. None of his books were condemned by name or put on the Index. The Book of Revolutions by Copernicus was condemned, but only until it could be revised to state the heliocentric theory as a hypothesis, not as proven fact. Galileo was privately warned to abandon the condemned propositions, though he was apparently not forbidden to teach them as a mere hypothesis. [18]

On March 11, Galileo had a long audience with Pope Paul V. In a letter written the following day, Galileo says, “I told his Holiness the reason for my coming to Rome…and made known to him the malice of my persecutors and some of their calumnies against me. He answered that he was well aware of my uprightness and sincerity of mind, and when I gave evidence of being still somewhat anxious about the future, owing to my fear of being pursued with implacable hate by my enemies, he consoled me and said that I might put away all care, because I was held in so much esteem both by himself and by the whole congregation of cardinals that they would not lightly lend their ears to calumnious reports. During his life-time, he continued, I might feel quite secure, and before I took my departure he assured me several times that he bore me the greatest goodwill and was ready to show his affection and favour towards me on all occasions.” [19]

Nevertheless, Galileo’s enemies spread a false report about the event. Galileo appealed to Cardinal Bellarmine, who made the following certificate for him, signed May 26, 1616:

“We, Robert, Cardinal Bellarmine, having heard that Signor Galileo Galilei has been calumniously reported to have abjured in our hand, and moreover to have been punished with a salutary penance, and having been asked to make known the truth as to this, declare that the said Signor Galileo has not abjured in our hand, nor in the hand of anybody else here in Rome, nor, so far as we are aware, in any place whatever, any opinion or doctrine held by him; neither has any penance, salutary or otherwise, been imposed upon him.” [20]

The whole matter was not at all a defeat for Galileo. He was allowed to continue his studies and teaching, and did so for sixteen years. Unfortunately, he did not give up his determination to force his theory on others, nor his attacks on his opponents. In 1632 he stirred up trouble again by publishing his Dialogues. In it he attacked even those who had shown great kindness to him, including Pope Urban VIII, who had given him a life pension. [21]

This got him into trouble with the Holy Office again. In 1633 a document from the Vatican archives, dated February 26, 1616, was brought out as proof that Galileo had promised not to teach his theory. He was accused of violating this promise. There is reason to believe the document was forged some years earlier. [22] It does not agree with St. Robert Bellarmine’s letter stating that Galileo had not retracted, nor does it fit with a protocol of the Holy Office dated March 3, 1616. Galileo brought forth the certificate of Cardinal Bellarmine in his defense, but it was apparently not enough to convince the judges. Cardinal Bellarmine had passed away by this time, and so could not speak on behalf of Galileo. On June 22, 1633, Galileo was condemned as having violated his promise of 1616.

His “imprisonment” during and after the trial is hardly deserving of the name. “He himself declares, in a letter dated 1634, that he suffered nothing, either in his person or his honor.” [23] He was detained in luxurious palaces and given excellent treatment. He says, “As to my health, I am well, thanks to God and to the exquisite attentions of the Ambassador and his lady, who are most anxious to procure for me the greatest comfort.” [24] At the palace of the Ambassador, he was permitted to come and go as he pleased and receive visits from his friends. After his condemnation, he spent the remainder of his life in his villa at Arcetri, near Florence, “where he continued his scientific studies and received the visits of the learned and of the great personages of his time. He received a life-pension from the Papal treasury, and died, as he had lived, a very religious man, in the year 1642.” [25]

It is evident from all this that the case of Galileo has been badly misrepresented by those bent on attacking the Catholic Church. Although the Holy Office erred in condemning the theory as heretical, it was in no way due to hatred of science. The eleven consultors merely wished to protect the Scriptures from new interpretations which were based on unproven scientific theories. They were justified in believing such arbitrary interpretations to be dangerous, especially at a time when Protestants were perpetrating the most grievous outrages against the Bible by changing and deleting passages and even whole books just to make it fit their own whims. Many of the clergy, even those who were opposed to the theory, treated Galileo with respect and great kindness. If he had returned this consideration instead of bitterly attacking them, he would have had no trouble with the Holy Office.

In spite of his critical attitude toward his opponents, Galileo found no reason to reject his Catholic Faith. He remained Catholic to his death. His two daughters became nuns, and his body now lies in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, marked with a magnificent monument.

If the Catholic Church were the enemy of true science, certainly there would be many examples over the past 2000 years to prove it. Why do her enemies constantly harp on this one occasion? No doubt it is because it is the only one they can find. Yet we have shown that even this one occasion proves nothing. The Holy Office is not infallible. Galileo’s case is rather a proof of God’s protection over the Church since, at a time when the majority of people in the world, Catholic, Protestant and atheist, opposed Galileo, the Church did not condemn his teaching in any document protected by infallibility. Pope Pius XII, in an address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, listed Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler, among others, as “famous and distinguished investigators of the physical world that surrounds us.”


[1] Brodrick, James. Robert Bellarmine — Saint and Scholar, p. 367, footnote 1. West minister, Maryland: Newman Press, 1961.
[2] Devivier, W. Christian Apologetics, trans. Sasia, Vol. II, p. 281 ff. Also Cf. Windle, B. C. A. The Church and Science, 3rd edition, p. 28. London: Catholic Trust Society, 1924.
[3] Brodrick, p. 342 f.
[4] Brodrick, p. 342.
[5] Brodrick, p. 346.
[6] Brodrick, p. 363.
[7] Brodrick, p. 370.
[8] Brodrick, pp. 370-371.
[9] Bandas, Rev. Rudolph G., Biblical Questions, p. 51. Milwaukee: Bruce, 1935.
[10] Bandas, p. 51.
[11] Brodrick, p. 354-355.
[12] Jos. 10, 12-14.
[13] Devivier, p. 278-279.
[14] Brodrick, p. 373.
[15] Devivier, p. 282-283.
[16] Brodrick, p. 369 ff.
[17] Brodrick, p. 373.
[18] Brodrick, p. 373 ff.
[19] Favaro, Opere di Galileo, n. 1189. Cf. Brodrick, p. 375.
[20] Brodrick, p. 376.
[21] Devivier, p. 282-283; p. 293.
[22] Brodrick, p. 373-374; p. 376-377.
[23] Devivier, p. 289.
[24] Devivier, p. 288.
[25]Devivier, p. 289.
[26]Address at the Inauguration of the Seventh Year of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Feb. 22, 1943. Cf. Chinigo, Michael. The Pope Speaks: The Teachings of Pope Pius XII, p. 153. New York: Pantheon Books, 1957.

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