Galileo Galilei, 1564 - 1642

Galileo Galilei


by David F. Coppedge

A 68-year old scientist, in ill health, hauled off to Rome to stand trial before the Inquisition. Forced, under threat of torture and imprisonment, to renounce his scientific writings, which are declared to be heretical and against church dogma. Put under house arrest, he is heard sobbing uncontrollably: “The injustice of the sentence tormented him so that he did not sleep for several nights, but could be heard crying out, babbling and rambling in distraction” (Sobel, p. 298). Undeniable facts of history, forming an open and shut case for religious intolerance of science, right?

Any history of science must deal with the Galileo affair. In many circles it is an icon of science vs religion. Fortunately, in recent years scholars having been taking fresh looks at the circumstances of Galileo’s trial and realizing there are complexities that dramatically change the conventional interpretation. A recent PBS documentary admitted that the usual slant is quite incorrect. Astronomer and historian Owen Gingerich—often one to debunk historical inaccuracies—has researched the incident and challenges the science vs religion spin. And a recent (1999) new historical biography by Dava Sobel, Galileo’s Daughter (an award-winning, captivating, original work we highly recommend) sheds refreshing new light on the life, times, and legacy of this giant of early science, Galileo Galilei.

Our purpose here is not to exonerate the Catholic Church, which is surely culpable for the injustice done to Galileo (for which the Pope formally apologized in 1992). And we condemn all the injustices of the Inquisition, not just this one. But a quick look at some of the factors involved in the heresy trial will show how the conventional spin is often greatly misinterpreted:

  • Galileo was a personal friend of both major popes that ruled during his lifetime.
  • Galileo enjoyed a wide popularity and high reputation by many, if not most, within the Catholic Church. He had many friends in high places that had no problem at all with his views or with those of Copernicus.
  • His book that was condemned in the trial, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Systems of the World, had received the official imprimatur of the church, and had been approved by the official Roman censor, Father Niccolo Riccardi. Galileo readily made all suggested alterations, which did not alter anything of substance.
  • Pope Urban VIII had been a lifelong friend of Galileo and had said of him, “We embrace with paternal love this great man whose fame shines in the heavens and goes on Earth far and wide.” He praised Galileo for his uprightness and virtue. Before and after he had become pope, Galileo enjoyed personal, cordial contact with him; in early years prior to becoming pope, he [then Cardinal Barberini] wrote to him, “I pray the Lord God to preserve you, because men of great value like you deserve to live a long time to the benefit of the public.” Pope Urban VIII did not condemn Copernicanism or Galileo’s arguing for it, he only urged that Galileo treat it as hypothesis and not limit God’s inscrutability. Also, correcting another popular misconception, the Pope never invoked infallibility in the affair, which was not even a Catholic doctrine at the time.
  • Copernicanism at the time of Galileo was fairly new, and did not have the observational support it has today. It lacked the essential extension by Kepler and Newton. Many found Copernicanism interesting and useful, but others clung to the traditional Ptolemaic view because it seemed more intuitively obvious, and because it had such a long reputation of utility.
  • Pope Urban VIII was in a bad mood at the time of the trial. The papacy had gone to his head, and he had spent fortunes on self-aggrandizement. In addition, he was accused of being soft on heretics by not acting stronger against the Reformers. The Thirty Years War was giving him great stress. Galileo’s Dialogue came at a very inopportune time. The pope trusted what others said about it, without reading it himself. He was led to believe, contrary to the facts, that Galileo had double-crossed him by going against explicit orders. These factors tended to make him inflexible against his former friend.
  • The trial represented a brief portion near the end of Galileo’s long and productive life, during which he gained wide fame for his discoveries and his books across Europe, and within the Catholic church. Contrary to popular perceptions, most churchmen, including Pope Urban VIII, were delighted with Galileo’s discoveries with the telescope.
  • In 1616, there was an anti-Copernican edict under Pope Paul V which came just short of calling Copernicanism heretical and banning the book; Galileo acquiesced by holding to it as opinion or hypothesis and not fact. Though foolish by today’s standards, the Edict did not seriously hamper his scientific work and writing, until accusations flew again seventeen years later.
  • During and after the period of house arrest in Rome, and when he was allowed to return home to Arcetri, Galileo continued to do scientific experiments and publish with relative freedom.

These are just for starters. Most important, what comes out of the details of the record, is that Galileo was a staunch Catholic Christian his entire life, never wavering on his devout belief in God, creation, and the Bible. In fact, Galileo was afraid that the Church’s reputation would be damaged if they rejected Copernicanism; he took pains to protect the church from foolish and mistaken interpretations. Neither Copernicus nor Galileo ever intended their works to be considered criticism of the Bible and the church. Galileo regretted deeply that his work was twisted and misunderstood as such. He went to great lengths to explain that his science was in no way incompatible with Scripture. Early on, he explained in a long letter to the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, “I think in the first place that it is very pious to say and prudent to affirm that the Holy Bible can never speak untruth – whenever its true meaning is understood.” Much later, after his trial, he wrote to a friend, “I have two sources of perpetual comfort, first, that in my writings there cannot be found the faintest shadow of irreverence towards the Holy Church; and second, the testimony of my own conscience, which only I and God in Heaven thoroughly know. And He knows that in this cause for which I suffer, though many might have spoken with more learning, none, not even the ancient Fathers, have spoken with more piety or with greater zeal for the Church than I.”

So how are we to explain the ugly accusations of the trial? In a word: vengeance. Galileo had a knack for making loyal friends and bitter enemies. His razor-sharp logic and penchant for sarcasm won him admirers and detractors. Some felt he was ramming Copernicanism down the throat of Christendom. In Dialogues, he created characters to debate Copernicanism, and portrayed the protagonists as wise scholars and the antagonists as simpletons (he even named one opponent “Simplicio”). Some of Galileo’s enemies understood him to be mocking them, and this inflamed their passion to get even. Sadly, some of these dishonorable persons wrapped their vice in the cloak of the Church and used their position to cast the debate as Galileo vs the Bible, or Copernicanism vs the Church: leading to trumped up charges of the dreaded H word, heresy. Galileo, in essence, was framed by those who sought his punishment. He was caught up in a maelstrom of colliding currents: politics, personalities, ambitions, new discoveries, wars both physical and theological, suspicions, superstitions and misunderstandings. Unfortunately, Galileo found himself at the center of the vortex, a victim of circumstances partly his fault and mostly beyond his control: a church in conflict with Reformers, just past the Council of Trent and trying to assert its authority, suspicious of those who, like Luther, felt they had the right to interpret the Scriptures for themselves. Galileo knew that his detractors were, out of insecurity, fabricating “a shield for their fallacies out of the mantle of pretended religion and the authority of the Bible” (Sobel, p. 68). The Church was not unanimous in condemning Galileo. Even during the trial, numerous Catholics supported him, and like the archbishop of Siena, despised “those who have control of the sciences, and they have nothing left but to run back to holy ground” (Sobel, p. 286).

It could be argued that, rather than science vs. religion, the debate was not about the Bible at all, but about experimental science vs Greek philosophy. Galileo’s opponents were primarily academics and professors, not churchmen. To complicate matters, the Catholic church itself had compromised Biblical teachings with pagan Greek ideas about nature. Dava Sobel explains that Thomas Aquinas “grafted the fourth-century-B.C. writings of Aristotle onto thirteenth-century Christian doctrine. The compelling works of Saint Thomas Aquinas had reverberated through the Church and the nascent universities of Europe for hundreds of years, helping the word of Aristotle gain the authority of holy writ, long before Galileo began his book about the architecture of the heavens” (Sobel, p. 152). It was Aristotle’s philosophy—not Scripture—that taught the immutability and perfection of the heavenly spheres in contradistinction to the corruption of the earth. Finding blemishes on the moon and spots on the sun violated Aristotelian teachings, but not a word of Scripture. Galileo’s “heresy” was against Aristotle, not the Bible! He wrote, “To prohibit the whole science would be but to censure a hundred passages of Holy Scripture which teach us that the glory and greatness of Almighty God are marvelously discerned in all His works and divinely read in the open book of Heaven.” Galileo believed that “Holy Scripture and Nature are both emanations from the divine word: the former dictated by the Holy Spirit, the latter the observant executrix of God’s commands” (Sobel, p. 64). There was no contradiction between the two, in his view, but he distrusted the fallibility of human interpretation: “Holy Scripture cannot err and the decrees therein contained are absolutely true and inviolable. I should only have added that, though Scripture cannot err, its expounders and interpreters are liable to err in many ways.”

Along this line, although relatively blameless himself, Galileo seems to have started a philosophy of interpretation that, taken too far, would later lead to a form of intellectual schizophrenia: the idea that the Bible is concerned only with spirit, while nature is the exclusive domain of science. In the modern world, this has gone to extremes. Some Christian creationists subscribe to a dual-revelation theory, that nature is just as authoritative a revelation from God as Scripture. This is a half-truth, for the Bible certainly teaches that the works of God declare His glory, but proponents of this view often fail to take into account the fallibility of human interpretation of natural revelation. They tend to accept whatever secular scientists say as authoritative, and mold the Bible to fit it. Secularists and atheists, on the other hand, are sometimes patronizingly willing to let religious people have everything they wish in the spiritual realm, as long as scientists retain their hegemony over the study of nature. Stephen Jay Gould, for instance, proposed a peace accord called “non-overlapping magisteria” (with a play on words from Catholic vocabulary), in which the church gets the art, music and theology, but science gets physics, chemistry and biology. In both these views, dual-revelation and NOMA, inevitably nature winds up devouring the spirit, and Scripture becomes the servant of secular science.

We can see the seeds, but not the fruit, of this false dichotomy in Galileo. Quoting Baronio, he believed the Bible was a book about how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go. He warned against literal interpretations of Scripture that would have us, for instance, picturing God with hands and feet and eyes, and human and bodily emotions. He said, “I believe that the intention of Holy Writ was to persuade men of the truths necessary for salvation, such as neither science nor any other means could render credible, but only the voice of the Holy Spirit. But I do not think it necessary to believe that the same God who gave us our senses, our speech, our intellect, would have put aside the use of these, to teach us instead such things as with their help we could find out for ourselves, particularly in the case of these sciences of which there is not the smallest mention in the Scriptures; and above all, in astronomy, of which so little notice is taken that the names of none of the planets are mentioned. Surely if the intention of the sacred scribes had been to teach people astronomy, they would not have passed over the subject so completely.” (Sobel, p. 65). This statement is sensible as far as it goes, but there appears to be a hidden assumption: that the mind of unregenerate man is capable of discovering truth on its own. It may be practical in regard to repeatable, observable phenomena like falling bodies and motions of planets, but what about the origin of universe, the origin of the life, and the origin of the soul? There is no subject under heaven today that modern science does not feel it has authority to explain by natural causes, even prayer and sexual mores. Reductionist science even goes so far as to explain love as the sum total of neurotransmitter reactions in the physical brain. Modern science has usurped the spiritual world; it has gone far beyond Galileo’s principle, and so we must watch his statements with awareness of where, in hindsight, an idea can go astray. Nevertheless, Galileo himself attempted to explain Biblical passages like Joshua’s long day as real events, not allegories. He accepted the creation account in Genesis as literally true.

Galileo’s scientific achievements are so well known as to require little elaboration here. First to turn a telescope to the heavens; discoverer of sunspots, lunar craters, stars within the Milky Way, the phases of Venus, and the four large satellites of Jupiter (named the Galilean satellites in his honor); staunch proponent of experiment over authority, discoverer of laws of falling bodies (in the process disproving Aristotle’s contention that heavier bodies fall faster), popularizer and publisher, mathematician, his work is of monumental importance in the history of science. Einstein perhaps overstates the case that he was the “father of modern physics–indeed of modern science altogether,” because of his insistence on experiment over logical deductions. Galileo was a giant, for sure—but a giant among giants. His Protestant contemporaries Johannes Kepler and Francis Bacon similarly espoused the same values of experimental science over authority. And they were building on giants before them, medieval Christian philosophers who viewed nature as the rational work of a transcendent God, worthy and capable of being explored by men created in His image (see Roger Bacon and Roger Grosseteste, for instance).

In keeping with our theme, Galileo considered his faith a driving force behind his science. According to Sobel, “The Dialogue resumed his importuning that truths about Nature be allowed to emerge through science. Such truths, he still believed, could only glorify the Word and deeds of God.” He was thankful to God for enabling him to see farther than any man before him. In the euphoria of discovery during those nights turning the telescope toward the heavens for the first time, he expressed, “I render infinite thanks to God for being so kind as to make me alone the first observer of marvels kept hidden in obscurity for all previous centuries” (Sobel, p. 6).

For a delightful and enlightening read, we recommend Dava Sobel’s excellent book Galileo’s Daughter, (Penguin Books, 1999). It has the unique amenity of a newly-translated collection of letters from Suor Maria Celeste, his daughter who spent her life in poverty as a nun. The biography is woven around these sweet letters from his devoted and deeply spiritual child. Around these intimate, innocent epistles, Sobel masterfully limns the spirit of the times, the superstitions as well as the achievements, the nobility and notoriety of numerous persons that came into contact with Galileo during his long and productive 75 years, which could have continued many more had his body kept up with his tireless mind. Through many original quotes and sources, Sobel illustrates how the Galileo affair was far different than the simplistic portrait of science vs religion. And she gives the book a surprising and poignant ending.

Dava Sobel says that “Galileo remained a good Catholic who believed in the power of prayer and endeavored always to conform his duty as a scientist with the destiny of his soul.‘Whatever the course of our lives,’ Galileo wrote, “we should receive them as the highest gift from the hand of God, in which equally reposed the power to do nothing whatever for us. Indeed, we should accept misfortune not only in thanks, but in infinite gratitude to Providence, which by such means detaches us from an excessive love for Earthly things and elevates our minds to the celestial and divine.’” (Sobel, p. 12).

In 2002, the Galileo spacecraft completed its 12-year orbital reconnaissance of Jupiter and its Galilean satellites, the “little solar system” that overturned Greek dogma and opened a heavens far more wondrous than even the wise old bearded scientist himself could have imagined.