The Jesuits and Galileo: Fidelity to Tradition and the Adventure of Discovery

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Fr. George V. Coyne, S. J., Director of the Vatican Observatory from 1978 to 2006, writes: “This paper investigates the tensions within the Society of Jesus, especially at the Roman College, at the time of Galileo and how they were resolved or not in a spirit of accommodation which was maturing at that time and which has entered into the Jesuit bloodstream. Jesuits at the Roman College confirmed Galileo’s earth-shaking observations, reported in his Sidereus Nuntius. Aristotle’s physics was crumbling. Would Aristotelian philosophy, which was at the service of theology, also collapse? Controversies over the nature of sunspots and of comets held implications for the very foundations of Christian belief. Some Jesuits saw the threat and faced it with an astute view into the future; others, though pioneers as scientists, could not face the larger implications of the scientific revolution to which they contributed with Galileo. Much of what occurred can be attributed to the strong personalities of the individual Jesuit antagonists, and Cardinal Robert Bellarmine will prove to be one of the most important of those personages.”

A version of this essay appeared in Forum Italicum: A Journal of Italian Studies, Volume 49, Issue 1, 2015.

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