Four hundred years ago today, on Thursday May 26, 1616, Galileo visited Cardinal Bellarmine and asked him for a testimonial against “slanderers”. St Robert Bellarmine obliged, writing a statement in his own hand:
We, Robert Cardinal Bellarmine, have heard that Mr. Galileo Galilei is being slandered or alleged to have abjured in our hands and also to have been given salutary penances for this. Having been sought about the truth of the matter, we say that the above-mentioned Galileo has not abjured in our hands, or in the hands of others here in Rome, or anywhere else that we know, any opinion or doctrine of his; nor has he received any penances, salutary or otherwise. On the contrary, he has only been notified of the declaration made by the Holy Father and published by the Sacred Congregation of the Index, whose content is that the doctrine attributed to Copernicus (that the earth moves around the sun and the sun stands at the center of the world without moving from east to west) is contrary to Holy Scripture and therefore cannot be defended or held. In witness whereof we have written and signed this with our own hands, on this 26th day of May 1616.
(Favaro, XIX, 348; trans. Finocchiaro, p. 153)
This document will become very important 16 years later, when Galileo gets into trouble with the Holy Office for the second time under a different Pope and in a very different context. Looking at the events of 1616, however, one may be quite perplexed. On the one hand there is Paul V personally assuring Galileo of his high opinion and St Robert giving him a personal testimonial in writing. On the other hand, there is the Decree of the Index condemning Copernicus. Historians are still debating what exactly happened in 1616 (for a typology of approaches, see the excellent paper by Olaf Pedersen).
Everybody agrees, however, that the immediate cause (some say it just an occasion or a pretext) of the condemnation of 1616 was Galileo’s enthusiastic and persistent campaign in favor of heliocentrism, and against scholasticism, to the point that there was a loud backlash in Florence, especially among certain Black Friars, but also at the Florentine Court, and even among the Medicis themselves. Had Galileo quietly published one or two scholarly works, Rome would not have interfered. Remember that Copernicus published his De Revolutionibus in 1543, and Rome did nothing. Also recall that Kepler published his Astronomia Nova in 1609. It was not only heliocentric, but it introduced elliptical orbits! Kepler was the Imperial Mathematician (he was quite vain about the title), and the Emperor was the nominal secular head of Christendom. Yet, Church authorities took no notice. So what made 1616 different? It was the commotion and it was Italy.
In my view, the primary goal of the Holy Office and Paul V was to calm things down. Rome was re-active, not pro-active: as usual. She had no interest in taking sides (at this point) in the intricacies of the Florentine intellectual scene and high society. Remember that the authorities in Rome saw the issue as turmoil in Florence that could not be solved locally because of the high standing of the protagonists. Galileo was a personal protégé of the Grand Duke. Had he been lees important, local Tuscan authorities would have dealt with him.
In fact, even though Galileo was a Florentine courtier, it is very likely nothing would have happened had he been discreet. This very sentiment was repeatedly advocated by Piero Guicciardini, the Florentine Ambassador in Rome:
Galileo has relied more on his own counsel than on that of his friends. The Lord Cardinal del Monte and myself, and also several cardinals from the Holy Office, had tried to persuade him to be quiet and not to go irritating this issue. If he wanted to hold this Copernican opinion, he was told, let him hold it quietly and not spend so much effort in trying to have others share it. Everyone fears that his coming here may be very prejudicial and that, instead of justifying himself and succeeding, he may end up with an affront. (Letter of March 4, 1616, to Cosimo II; Favaro, XII, 214-242; tans. Santillana, p. 119)
Similar frustration was common at the time, and in the years to come. The Imperial physician and astronomer Giovanni Remo Quietano wrote to Kepler about Foscarini that he had “spread [heliocentrism] among the people publicly writing in Italian” and that “Galileo handled his cause too rigorously in Rome” (Favaro, XII, 481). Johannes Kepler spoke of “inappropriateness of some [Foscarini and Galileo] who have treated of astronomical truths in places where they should not be treated and with improper methods” (Paschini, p. 354).
Rome wanted to calm things down, quietly earning credit by being seen as the peacemaker. Since Augustus, Rome’s true power lay in being perceived as an impartial arbiter and peace broker. As long as people appealed to her judgment (Acts 25) Rome held her sway. That is why Rome went out of her way to keep the proceedings prudently quiet. Let me stress that the only public act was the anti-Copernican Decree. Galileo’s enemies probably saw it as a (partial) vindication of their position but Galileo himself left Rome (somewhat) satisfied after the assurances of Paul V on March 11, and St Robert on May 26. From Paul V’s point of view, this was an achievement. And the affair was put to rest for 16 years.
I would like to conclude with a theological remark. As my learned confrere and friend, Bernard Sesboüé (member of the International theological commission in 1980-86) often remarks (this book is fascinating and easy to read), the Magisterium wears the robes of timelessness but it speaks to the people of God in its own time. As a result, the same turn of phrase which at a given time expresses the Treasure of Faith admirably, bringing the faithful closer to God and making their hearts burn (Lk 24:32), may become an hindrance and scandal a few centuries later. The Magisterium can never be abstractly objective and academic: its first responsibility is the salvation of souls (as they would say in 1616) or pastoral (as we say in 2016). I do not see how the Holy Office could have handled Galileo better in 1616 (I reserve my judgment about the events of 1632-33). Paul V and St Robert Bellarmine went out of their way to assure Galileo that they did not doubt his personal integrity while trying to convince him that discretion was called for.