- The son of a famous musician, Galileo was educated in both mathematics and the arts
- In his Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, Galileo interpreted Sacred Scripture “privately” and this contributed to his trial
- Galileo was brought before Church authorities twice: once in 1616 and once in 1633
- None of the explanations for why Galileo was tried (except the discredited “Galileo myth”) have science versus religion at the core of the Galileo affair
- The idea that the Church is anti-science comes from anti-clerical politicians in Europe and anti-immigrant prejudice in America during the 19th century
Who was Galileo?
Galileo Galilei was born in 1564, the eldest son of a famous traveling lute player (the 16th century version of a rock musician) and member of the minor nobility.
He attended the University of Pisa to study medicine, but fell in love with mathematics though it was not considered a vocation for gentlemen at the time. He left school without a degree, but was soon hired to tutor other students in mathematics.
At that time he also took part in a number of literary and artistic salons where he learned to polish his excellent writing and paint in perspective. Both skills became essential to his success in his later publications.
By his thirties, he moved to Venice to teach at the elite University of Padua.
During his youth, both his father and his teachers emphasized the importance of not following authority but seeking the truth on his own terms. One might say he learned to reject authority by following the authority of those who taught him!
Faced with the necessity of earning enough money to enter his younger siblings into society following the death of their father, he devised an instrument called a compass, which was a combination of drawing tool and calculator, and sold it with some success.
Then, in 1609, he made a series of telescopes with lenses made of Venetian glass. Rather than selling the telescopes to the Venetian government, he gave the telescopes to the government for free; as a result, they doubled his salary at the University.
In the fall of the same year, he turned his telescope to the sky and noted the craters on the Moon, the moons of Jupiter, and the starry nature of the Milky Way. This led to his book Siderius Nuncius which was a sensation throughout Europe.
Following its success he arranged to move back to his native Tuscany to serve as the Court Philosopher and Mathematician (an unusual combination) to the Medici dukes.
Galileo learned from others many of the principles of physics that would figure in his later works. His genius was not inventing these ideas but assimilating them and explaining them in a way that no one before had been able to do.
But controversy also followed Siderius Nuncius, especially due to its support for Nicolas Copernicus’s heliocentric theory. Copernicus had published this theory in 1543, twenty years before Galileo was born. It had not yet been a source of major controversy.
Galileo, however, did not shy from controversy, as it spread the fame and sales of his books. In the process, he cultivated lasting friendships and made bitter enemies.
During this time, he crossed paths with many influential people in the institutional Church. He visited Rome on several occasions, joining the world’s first scientific society there “The Academy of the Lynxes” and becoming friends with cardinals and his fellow Tuscan, Pope Urban VIII.
He remained headquartered in Tuscany, serving several generations of Medici dukes. Eventually he purchased a villa in the hills south of Florence; there, he turned his attention to writing books on the philosophy of science.
In 1632, Galileo, in his late sixties at the time and on good terms with Pope Urban, published the Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems—Ptolemaic and Copernican. Shortly thereafter, the Tuscan ambassador to Rome wrote a letter describing how Urban “exploded into anger” over the book and said he had been “deceived” by Galileo.
The ambassador said that when he had asked the Pope what was the difficulty, Urban answered violently that Galileo should know, since it was something Urban had discussed with Galileo in person. Exactly what infuriated the Pope is not known.
In 1633 Galileo was tried by the Inquisition and convicted of “vehement suspicion of heresy”. He lived out his remaining years at his home in Tuscany, under house arrest. Despite his arrest and advanced age, he continued his scientific work.
At the age of 74 in 1638, he even published an important book on physics, Discourse on Two New Sciences.
He died in his home in 1642.
Galileo and the Church: Some Context
Martin Luther’s break with Rome in 1517 set the stage for one of the principal controversies to surface in the conflict of the Church with Galileo: the interpretation of Sacred Scripture.
In the 4th Session of the Council of Trent, the reformation council, the Catholic Church in opposition to Luther solemnly declared that Scripture could not be interpreted privately but only by the official Church:
Furthermore, to control petulant spirits, the Council decrees that . . . no one, relying on his own judgment and distorting the Sacred Scriptures according to his own conceptions, shall dare to interpret them according to his own conceptions, shall dare to interpret them contrary to that sense which Holy Mother Church . . . has held and does.
In 1613, over lunch at the palace of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, the Duke’s mother, Christina, became alarmed by the possibility that the Scriptures might be contradicted by private observations, such as those made by Galileo supporting a sun-centered universe.
As others had noted, a sun-centered universe appeared to contradict Aristotelian natural philosophy in the eyes of the Church. This philosophy was fundamental to Catholic theology at the time. If Aristotelian natural philosophy was wrong, was Catholic theology undermined as well?
Since Galileo was supported financially by the Grand Duke and Duchess, her concerns in particular were of acute interest to him. Although he was not present, he heard about this episode from his friend, Benedetto Castelli.
Galileo hastened to write a long letter to Castelli in which he addressed the relationship between science and the Bible. In it Galileo stated what has become a cornerstone of the Catholic Church’s teaching:
I would believe that the authority of Holy Writ had only the aim of persuading men of those articles and propositions which, being necessary for our salvation and overriding all human reason, could not be made credible by any other science, or by other means than the mouth of the Holy Ghost itself.
But I do not think it necessary that the same God who has given us our senses, reason, and intelligence wished us to abandon their use, giving us by some other means the information that we could gain through them – and especially in matters of which only a minimal part, and in partial conclusions, is to be read in Scripture.
Galileo was encouraged and supported in his thinking about Scripture by the publication of a letter by the Carmelite theologian, Antonio Foscarini, which favored Copernicanism and introduced detailed principles of the interpretation of Scripture.
The renowned Jesuit Cardinal, Robert Bellarmine, responded to arguments of Foscarini:
. . . I say that if there were a true demonstration that the sun is at the center of the world and the earth in the third heaven, and that the sun does not circle the earth but the earth circles the sun, then one would have to proceed with great care in explaining the Scriptures that appear contrary; and say rather that we do not understand them than that what is demonstrated is false.
But I will not believe that there is such a demonstration, until it is shown me.
However, Bellarmine was ultimately convinced that there would never be a demonstration of Copernicanism and that the Scriptures taught an earth-centered universe.
In June 1615 Galileo completed his masterful “Letter to Christina of Lorraine” in which he essentially proposed what the Catholic Church would eventually teach, that the Books of Scripture must be interpreted by scholars according to the literary form, language and culture of each book and author.
His treatment is summed up in his statement:
. . . I heard from an ecclesiastical person in a very eminent position [Cardinal Baronio], namely that the intention of the Holy Spirit is to teach us how one goes to heaven and not how heaven goes.
In the end, however, the Church’s Congregation of the Index declared in 1616 that putting the sun at the center of the world is “false” and contrary to scripture. Galileo had appeared to interpret Sacred Scripture privately and this held consequences in his trial.
There were actually two different episodes in which Galileo was brought before Church authorities: one in 1616 and the other in 1633.
After Galileo published his first telescopic observations in 1610, a series of books argued for and against Galileo’s ideas on theological grounds. He had as many defenders as detractors among the theologians.
In 1615, a consultant to the Holy Office reported that Galileo’s views did not contain any significant errors and, indeed, conformed essentially to Catholic doctrine.
Nonetheless, the Holy Office continued to examine Galileo’s writings. In 1616, a committee of eleven consultants reported their unanimous opinion that the heliocentric theory is “philosophically absurd and formally heretical”.
Note, this was the first time—more than seventy years after its publication—that any official group of theologians made this judgment about the Copernican system.
Pope Paul V ordered Cardinal Bellarmine to warn Galileo to abandon his Copernican views. Bellarmine called Galileo to his home and gave him the warning, then reported to the Holy Office that Galileo had acquiesced.
After his visit with Bellarmine, Galileo wrote from Rome to the Tuscan secretary that he had had a friendly audience of three-quarters of an hour with the Pope, who received him warmly and reassured him. Likewise, Bellarmine himself prepared a document absolving Galileo of any heresy.
In 1623, Galileo’s fellow Tuscan, Matteo Barberini, was elected Pope Urban VIII. Galileo was warmly received by the new Pope and other Church officials; a friend told him that the Pope had said that the Church had not condemned the Copernican system as heretical, only rash.
Galileo soon began working on his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. Though the dialogue was set up as if it were a balanced account, it was clear even in a casual reading that the Copernican view was strongly favored.
Galileo completed the Dialogue in 1630. By June he had obtained a written endorsement of his book from the chief Roman censor. But an outbreak of the plague and other delays developed, which ultimately led Galileo to decide to publish his book in Florence instead of Rome. After more than a year of negotiations between Rome and Florence, the Dialogue was finally published in Florence in 1632.
But a number of issues quickly arose and so Galileo was summoned to Rome.
In early 1633, Galileo made a formal presentation of his defense, including Bellarmine’s certificate from 1616 that he was not a heretic. Nevertheless, the Pope insisted that Galileo be tried and on June 22, 1633, Galileo was found guilty of “vehement suspicion of heresy”.
Only seven of the ten cardinal inquisitors signed the sentence.
Galileo recited in public a formal abjuration: “I abjure, curse, and detest the errors and heresies [of the Copernican system] and in general each and every other error, heresy, and sect contrary to Holy Church”.
The legend that he then whispered, “eppur si muove”—“still it moves”—dates from a hundred years after the event.
The actual heresies in question were never specified.
Why Did Galileo Have Troubles?
A number of short-hand explanations have been proposed for Galileo’s eventual troubles, what has been called a “tragic conflict of worldviews”. The issue of course is to understand how a conflict of worldviews can become tragic.
Unlike the “Galileo Myth”, none of the historical explanations have science versus religion at the core of the Galileo affair.
The “Galileo myth” promotes the prejudice that the Church is always afraid of new ideas. But the Church invented the University system where new ideas are promoted, debated, and promulgated. Not to mention, the Copernican system was first promoted by the Church, and continued to be debated long after the Galileo trial.
If you read both Galileo and his opponents, you find that even though his basic idea that the Earth moves is correct, the proofs that Galileo presented were wrong, and he had no good answers for the objections raised by other scientists of his time.
One proposal is that the Galileo affair was a conflict of strong personalities. It suggests that he made too many personal enemies with his brilliant but sarcastic style. The philosophers were out to get him, so goes this version; or maybe the Jesuits were out to get him and his book personally insulted the Pope.
After the Galileo trial, a prominent Jesuit wrote that if only Galileo had stayed on good terms with the Jesuits rather than attacking them, he wouldn’t have gotten into such trouble. Galileo read this and interpreted it to mean that his trial was the revenge of the Jesuits.
Another issue is that science was only just being invented at the time of Galileo, and it was being invented by Galileo himself and his contemporaries. They equated what we call science with natural philosophy, and philosophy with truth.
But today we know that science only gives a probable description of nature, not a final truth. And fruitful science doesn’t merely “solve” problems, it also provokes the kind of deeper insights that uncover new issues to explore.
Some historians suggest that the Thirty Years War played a crucial role in the Galileo affair. In this war between Spain and the northern German states, the Pope’s position was both precarious and ambiguous.
Spain claimed to support Catholicism against the Protestant Germans, but both the Pope and Catholic France were worried about Spain’s growing power. Throughout, Galileo’s wealthy patrons in Tuscany, the Medici, were keeping a careful neutrality.
Interestingly, the Galileo trial was launched right at the time when the war was at a crisis, so perhaps it was designed as a distraction to keep pressure off the Pope.
In any event, none of the explanations (except the “myth”) have science versus religion at the core of the Galileo affair. So this raises one final question. Why is there still a Galileo myth? Anyone wishing to criticize the Church can find far more serious (and true) faults with it. But clearly, the cachet of “science versus religion” still holds strong.
The Copernican theory is not false, even if it is an oversimplification.
The scientific problems that it seemed to have at the time were eventually resolved by further advances in science. We now know that the Earth does indeed orbit the sun, albeit not in a circle but an ellipse. It took the Vatican two centuries to fully rescind the Congregation’s declaration.
It cannot be denied that Urban VIII clearly abused his power in bringing the Inquisition down on Galileo.
Powerful officials within the Church, for their own reasons having little to do with religion, rejected a scientific idea that turned out to be right. And they maltreated a great scientist who advocated for that idea.
There is little to say in defense of the Church here.
Urban’s behavior, for example, could hardly be excused even had Galileo turned out to be wrong. Nor is it an excuse to note that in Galileo’s time authorities of all sorts regularly used power in the cruellest ways.
But it might at least explain how officials in the Church were tempted to act in such ways. The Church was and is an institution composed of human beings who absorb the culture that surrounds them.
In those days, brutal punishments were handed out for relatively petty crimes. Greater crimes were met with even greater brutality.
Galileo was also human and this meant he did not always act in the best way.
When the German-Protestant astronomer Simon Marius also published discoveries regarding Jupiter’s moons, did Galileo compliment him for his ingenious study that allowed him to show that Jupiter circled the sun? No. Instead, a jealous Galileo was angry that Marius had intruded upon his territory.
And when the Jesuit astronomer Christoph Scheiner published observations of the sun that exceeded Galileo’s, Galileo called him a “brute”, a “pig”, a “malicious ass”, a “rabid dog”, and a “wretched man”—all in one single short paragraph of a letter!
Galileo also made serious scientific errors. While his observations certainly were consistent with the Copernican system, they were not as he claimed “proofs” and the arguments he proposed were in fact incorrect. At times, he blatantly ignored data that contradicted him.
If one wishes to look for blame, there was certainly bad behavior on all sides. Nonetheless, one should be more disappointed in the behavior of Church officials than of Galileo. Not only should the Church officials have known better, they should have been more prudent in exercising their authority.
Church & Science Today
When Bellarmine and Galileo spoke in 1616, the joke is that Galileo was the better theologian, but Bellarmine was the better scientist. Their debate was continued by scientists, both inside and outside of the Church, for another 100 years.
The Church has long been part of the scientific enterprise. Think of all those Catholic hospitals, for example.
Many churchmen were doing science during the time of Galileo and have continued to do so to this day. Among famous Catholic scientists, one can count Volta and Ampere (for which “volts” and “amps” are named), Pasteur and Mendel, Fr. Angelo Secchi (considered the father of astrophysics), and Fr. Georges Lemaître (the first to propose the Big Bang theory).
The idea that the Church is anti-science did not come out of the Galileo era, but it was the invention of anti-clerical politicians in Europe and anti-immigrant prejudice in America during the 19th century. Indeed, the word “scientist” did not even exist until the 19th century.
Before then, people who studied nature were “natural philosophers” and most of them were either noblemen or clergy. After all, who else had the education and free time to study nature?
The “anti-science” prejudice came from the 19th century interpretation that science with its electricity and steam engines (even then, people tended to conflate technology with science) would inevitably solve all human problems, making religion obsolete.
At the same time, exacerbating the situation, the Church was suffering from its own temptation to “Triumphalism” with some church people conflating modern science with the violence of the French Revolution.
Indeed, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
Though faith is above reason, there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason. Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth.
Consequently, methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God. The humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are.
Galileo himself was mentioned with approval by Pope Pius XII in an address to the General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union in 1952, where he concluded his remarks, saying:
As so, friends, above and beyond the deep respect which we entertain for all the sciences and for yours in particular, this is yet another reason why we are moved to pray: may the science of astronomy, founded on the highest and most universal horizons, the ideal of so many great men in the past such as Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton, continue to bear the fruit of marvelous progress and, through to the heartfelt collaborations promoted by such groups as the International Astronomical Union, bring the astronomical vision of the Universe to an ever deeper perfection.
The most detailed description of how the Church views the interaction between religion and science can be found in a 1987 letter written by Pope John Paul II to Fr. George Coyne SJ, director of the Vatican Observatory. In this letter he insisted on the equal value of science and religion:
…both religion and science must preserve their autonomy and their distinctiveness. Religion is not founded on science nor is science an extension of religion. Each should possess its own principles, its pattern of procedures, its diversities of interpretation and its own conclusions.
Science can purify religion from superstition; religion can purify science from false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish.
He also argued that this dialogue was essential to progress within science itself, a theme which Pope Francis would later develop in Laudato Si’:
…science develops best when its concepts and conclusions are integrated into the broader human culture and its concerns for ultimate meaning and value. Scientists… can also come to appreciate for themselves that these discoveries cannot be a genuine substitute for knowledge of the truly ultimate.
The Galileo Myth Today
The Galileo story is complicated; but in the popular mind too often it get boiled down to a false narrative of a solitary hero (he was not alone) with the Truth (he wasn’t completely correct) getting excommunicated (he wasn’t) and burned at the stake (he wasn’t) by a bunch of science deniers who would not even look through a telescope. (In fact, they made and used telescopes as good as Galileo’s.)
Why does the Galileo myth live on? Probably because it is a simple, appealing tale.
But, like all myths, it is false. And, it is not good for science.
Science is the business of the Vatican Observatory. The scapegoat version of the Galileo story promotes the idea of lone heroes and conspiracies in science. It ignores how science really works. It provides an opportunity for imposters to wrap themselves in the cloak of Galileo, rejecting the broader workings of science and claiming that they are the Lone Hero with the Truth.
We would all be better off were the internet not so abuzz with this story. Hopefully this post helps with that. If you want more details, just search our site for “Galileo”. You will find plenty.
More, from the Vatican Observatory Faith and Science Resource Center
This article was adapted from material in the Faith and Science Resource Center, such as that found in the links below, with additional material by Guy Consolmagno and Christopher Graney.