“Scientifically untenable and theologically heretical.” That is how a committee of consultants for the Roman Inquisition assessed the heliocentric theory four hundred years ago today, on February 24, 1616—or, that is how the historian Maurice Finocchiaro paraphrases their assessment. Well, there is an interesting story about exactly what it was the consultants said.
Read various secondary sources and you will find differing translations of the consultants’ report, which was in Latin. For example, Finocchiaro translates the part of the report in which the consultants assess the heliocentric proposition that the sun is the immobile center of the world as
All said that this proposition is foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture, according to the literal meaning of the words and according to the common interpretation and understanding of the Holy Fathers and the doctors of theology.
But another highly regarded historian, Albert van Helden, translates this as
All declared the said proposition to be foolish and absurd in philosophy and formally heretical, because it expressly contradicts the doctrine of the Holy Scripture in many passages, both in their literal meaning and according to the general interpretation of the Fathers and the Doctors of the Church.
The big difference here is the punctuation. “Foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts” means one thing, and “foolish and absurd in philosophy and formally heretical, since it explicitly contradicts” means something else. This could be something out of Eats, Shoots & Leaves. To borrow Finocchiaro’s words, the second phrasing “conveys the impression that biblical contradiction is being given as a reason for ascribing both philosophical-scientific falsehood and theological heresy.” Finocchiaro points this out while discussing how in the original document there is in fact a semicolon following “philosophy,” not just a comma.
Read various secondary sources that give the original Latin and, guess what? They differ on the punctuation of the Latin! Some agree with Finocchiaro regarding the semicolon. Others do not.
In science, we get data to answer a question. A while back I decided to get my own data. As part of some research I was working on, I wanted to see the original document, to determine if the semicolon was really there. But a published image of it seemed to be impossible to find. So I e-mailed the Vatican Secret Archives, where the original lives, and they sent me a digital copy for a small fee. And here it is:*
This statement was a pretty big event in the history of science, and so perhaps you expected, as did I, this document to look formal, clear, and imposing, as would befit an Important Proclamation. Instead it looks very ordinary, the script is not so clear, and the writer uses a lot of abbreviation. It looks less like an Important Proclamation than like hastily scrawled meeting notes. But Finocchiaro was right. There is a semi-colon after “philosophy.”
Thus the consultants’ assessment was this: heliocentrism is scientifically untenable; and, since it contradicts the literal sense of scripture, it is theologically heretical (I am borrowing Finocchiaro’s words again).
So why would it be so hard to figure out just what was said on February 24, 1616? Because the Inquisition issued no formal condemnation. The consultants’ report got filed away. Then seventeen years later the report was referred to in the Inquisition’s 1633 judgment against Galileo. That judgment was written in Italian. Then Giovanni Battista Riccioli included a Latin translation of the judgment in his 1651 Almagestum Novum. Riccioli’s translation is punctuated in a manner that does convey the impression that biblical contradiction is being given as a reason for ascribing both philosophical-scientific falsehood and theological heresy.
Riccioli’s translation was widely referenced for two centuries, but it was a Latin translation of an Italian paraphrase of a Latin original. Translating it into English, for example, added a fourth layer of translation. The original statement itself was not published until the mid-19th century. But according to Finocchiaro Riccioli’s version was still influential even after that. I speculate that after a whole two centuries of Riccioli’s version being the standard, the tendency was to interpret the new information in light of the old.
And so, four hundred years after the Inquisition’s consultants made their assessment, you have to look carefully if you want to know exactly what it was that they said.
*For high-resolution color images of the original document, tables illustrating the various versions of the statement provided by secondary sources, and lots of references, see “The Inquisition’s Semicolon: Punctuation, Translation, and Science in the 1616 Condemnation of the Copernican System”—arXiv:1402.6168.