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Galileo Galilei   


This article clears up some of the misinformation that still swirls around the Galileo case. Among other things it shows that the Jesuits were not the ones responsible for his condemnation, that Galileo was not forced to recant his convictions against his will, that the Church’s doctrine of infallibility was not involved and that the Galileo case did not hinder the general progress of science.

Galileo Galilei

I prefer my biography straight. But it is the fashion today to present the lives of both saints and sinners in fictional guise. Why? Because it enables the author to invent at will incidents that never could have happened, and put in the mouths of his characters words they never could have uttered. If perchance you object to the travesty of facts and ideas, the author answers insolently that he makes no pretense of writing a biography strictly so-called, but a novel that allows one a much broader canvas.

The Hungarian novelist, Zsolt de Harsanyi, is the latest sinner in this matter. His book, The Star-Gazer, ably translated by Paul Tabor, tells the life story of Galileo, the famous sixteenth century physicist and astronomer.

His portrait of Galileo, drawn to the life, is certainly not a flattering one. The man was conceited, contentious, self-opinionated, obstinate, tricky, and given overmuch to wine and women. The scientist exaggerated the importance of his discoveries, failed to furnish a single proof of the heliocentric theory, and wrote bitter tirades against any layman or cleric who dared dispute his views.

We are indeed aware that Galileo never married, and that he had three illegitimate children. But the writer evidently draws upon his imagination when he speaks of his contacts with immoral widows, seamstresses and tavern strumpets to show “the heathenish life of a seventeenth-century believer.” The gross sensuality of the scene describing Galileo’s seduction of his moron mistress, Marina Gamba of Venice, is certainly to be deplored.

Many statements of supposed fact must be set aside as window dressing, viz., that the Spanish Inquisitor Torquemada wanted to burn Christopher Columbus at the stake; that Giordano Bruno created a new metaphysics; that Pope Paul V. prompted the assassination of the Servite, Paolo Sarpi of Venice; that St. Robert Bellarmine and Archbishop Piccolomini of Siena were both willing deliberately to lie if anyone dared repeat their private conversations. Some long discredited legends appear without comment, such as Henry IV.’s “Paris is worth a Mass,” or Galileo’s “E pur si muove.”

The condemnation of Galileo has given rise to many objections against the Church by controversialists of the past three centuries. They ask: How could the Catholic Church condemn Galileo as a heretic for holding a scientific theory now universally held to be true? Does not this condemnation prove that the Catholic Church is hostile to science? Did not the decrees of the Index (1616) and the Inquisition (1633) prove that the Church encouraged hypocrisy and was guilty of the worst form of intolerance? Were not the Jesuits to blame? Why did the friendly Cardinal Barberini turn against Galileo so bitterly when he became Pope Urban VIII?

We will answer these questions after we have set forth as briefly as possible the facts in the case.

Galileo was born at Pisa, February 18, 1564. His father sent him, a boy of seventeen, to the University of Pisa to study medicine, but he devoted himself instead to mathematics and natural science. He soon made a name for himself by his many inventions and his many original treatises on physics. He discovered the isochronism of the pendulum, while watching the swinging of the sanctuary lamp in the cathedral; he invented the hydrostatic balance to ascertain the weight of any two metals in an alloy; he invented a thermometer and a geometric compass, besides increasing the magnifying power of Lippershey’s telescope over thirtyfold. He wrote a unique treatise on the center of gravity in solids, proved by actual experiments that bodies of different weights fall with the same velocity, and showed that the path of a projectile is a parabola. His marked ability won him a chair of physics and mathematics at Pisa (1589-92), and at Padua (1592-1610). At both universities he taught in the beginning the Ptolemaic theory, abandoning it finally in 1597, as we learn from his letters to Mazzoni and Kepler.

The Copernican theory had been defended as an hypothesis by Nicole Oresme of Paris in 1350, by Nicholas de Cusa of Basle in 1445, and by Copernicus of Nuremberg in 1543. Corpernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium coelestium was dedicated to Pope Paul III., and by him was well received owing to Osiander’s clever preface. Had Galileo followed the prudent example of these scholars, and “kept out of the sacristy” as his friends warned him, he would undoubtedly have escaped all censure.

In 1610 he published his Siderius Nuncius, which described the mountains and valleys of the moon, the group of stars known as the Milky Way, the four satellites of Jupiter. Before the end of the year he discovered the triple form of Saturn, the phases of Venus, and the spots on the sun. As a reward the Venetian Senate gave him a life professorship, and the Grand Duke of Tuscany made him the court’s mathematician extraordinary.

In a letter to Prince Cesi of Rome Galileo wrote that his discovery of the sun spots utterly demolished Aristotle’s theory about the incorruptibility of the heavenly bodies, and that the Copernican theory alone was objectively true.

In March, 1611, he paid his first visit to Rome, and was cordially received by Paul V., and many Cardinals of his Court — Farnese, Del Monte, and Barberini, the future Urban VIII. Angered at this kindly reception a Florentine noble, Francesco Sizzi, published his Dianoia Astronomica and declared that Galileo’s theory expressly contradicted the Scriptures. The same charge was repeated by the Dominican Tommaso Caccini, preaching on Josue in the Church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence.

Galileo, against the sound advice of his friends, answered this charge in a letter to one of his pupils, the Benedictine Father Castelli. In it he gave his interpretation of the various texts of the Bible (Josue ix. 12, 13; Eccles. i. 4, 5; Eccli. xliii. 26; Psalm xviii. 6, 7; xci. 1; ciii. 5), which the followers of Aristotle adduced against his theory, and laid down certain rules of exegesis to guide both scientist and theologian in discussing natural phenomena. Most of this letter today would be considered perfectly orthodox; that the Bible, accommodating itself to the average intelligence of man, often speaks, and rightly so, according to appearances, and uses terms that are not intended to express the absolute truth; that the Holy Spirit has no notion of teaching us through the Bible whether the sun moves or does not move; that the Bible cannot err but its interpreters may if they slavishly follow the literal sense; that the command of Josue was not addressed to the sun, etc.

A very sensible and orthodox letter which with the exception of a few statements might well have come from the pen of Pope Leo XIII. But the theologians of the seventeenth century were indignant at Galileo’s presumption in questioning the views of Aristotle and his impudence in teaching them how to interpret the Bible. One of their number, the Dominican Father Lorini sent the Castelli letter to the prefect of the Congregation of the Index, Cardinal Sfondrati, with a letter of his own calling attention to the so-called errors of Galileo.

Two other works defending the Copernican theory appeared at this time, Father Zuniga’s Commentary on Job and Foscarini’s The System of the World. Believing that the faith was at stake, and forgetting the wise teaching of St. Augustine and St. Thomas, the Congregation of the Index censured the following propositions:


  1. The sun is the center of the world, and altogether immovable;

  2. The earth is not the center of the world, nor immovable, but has a diurnal motion of rotation.

The first proposition was declared “absurd and false philosophically and formally heretical, in as much as it contradicted many passages of the Holy Scriptures, according to the sense of the text, and the common interpretation and opinion of the holy Fathers and the learned theologians.”

The second proposition received the same censure in philosophy, and theologically was declared to be at least “erroneous in faith.”

Pope Paul V. then ordered Cardinal Bellarmine to summon Galileo to appear at his palace, and to promise “not to teach, defend or discuss his doctrine or opinions.” He submitted at once, and as a result the decree made no mention either of his name or of his writings. This delicacy on the part of the Roman authorities was not relished by Galileo’s opponents, so they spread a false report that he had been forced to abjure his opinions, and had been given a penance. In a written statement Cardinal Bellarmine branded both these statements as false.

Pope Urban VIII

Galileo’s friend Cardinal Barberini was elected Pope, August 6, 1623, under the name of Urban VIII. From that moment Galileo fondly hoped that he would obtain a reversal of the Index decree. He wrote his II Saggiatore (The Assayor) in answer to an attack by the Jesuit, Horace Grassi, and dedicated it to the Pope who read it with pleasure. It was a skillfully veiled defense of the Copernican theory, but Galileo managed to hide this fact from the Pope and the censor, Riccardi, who gave him an imprimatur. He declared that as the Copernican theory had been condemned by the ecclesiastical authorities and the Ptolemaic theory was contrary to reason, scholars were bound to look for a new theory.

In 1624 Galileo made another visit to Rome. The Pope gave him six long audiences, promised a yearly pension to his son, and presented him with a gold and a silver medal. He also wrote to Ferdinand of Tuscany praising Galileo for his scientific genius and his ardent piety.

Had Galileo possessed a modicum of common sense, he would have been content to let matters rest. But his head was turned by the Pope’s great kindliness, and his mind embittered by the many accusations of heresy made against him. He forgot that Pope Urban in a private audience had assured him that he would never accept the Copernican theory; he forgot his promise to Cardinal Bellarmine.

In 1632 he published a clean-cut defense of the Copernican theory in his famous Dialogo dei due massimi sistemi del mondo. Two of his friends, Sagredo of Venice and Salviati of Florence, take the part of interlocutors in the book defending Galileo’s views, while an imaginary philosopher, Simplicio (imbecile) defends the Ptolemaic theory in a manner to make it appear absurd.

The book was published in Venice without the corrections of the censor, Msgr. Riccardi, although his imprimatur had been granted on that condition. The Pope was naturally angry at the trickery and palpable dishonesty of Galileo, and deprived the censor of his office. He was especially indignant because he recognized one of his own arguments in the mouth of the ridiculous fool, Simplicio. When Galileo learned this from friends at Rome, he at once wrote the Pope’s nephew. Cardinal Barberini, that he never dreamed of ridiculing the Pope in his book. The Pope did not believe him, and from that moment made up his mind that this obstinate scientist must be taught a lesson in obedience. Years later Galileo wrote that this false surmise of the Pope was “the prime cause of all my troubles.”

In 1632, the Inquisition finally took over the case, and in four interrogatories — March 12th, April 30th. May 10th and June 21st, questioned Galileo on both fact and intention: (1) Had he taught in the Dialogo the condemned theory? (2) Had he held the condemned theory as true?

The Inquisition decided against him on both points. It declared him “vehemently suspected of heresy,” inasmuch as he had held and believed a doctrine “false and contrary to the Holy Scripture.” They made him read and sign an act of abjuration in which he declared himself rightly suspected of heresy; they forbade the publication of the Dialogo, condemned him to the prison of the Holy Office, and imposed as penance the Seven Penitential Psalms to be said once a week for three years.

No scholar today believes the fable that Galileo at this meeting stamped his feet in anger, and cried out: “E pur si muove”—”but it does move.” The records of the trial prove that he was submissive throughout, and most anxious to curry favor with his judges. This ridiculous statement was first ascribed to Galileo by the unreliable, gossipy Abbe Irailh in the third volume of his Querelles Litteraires (Paris, 1761).

The only modern author who holds that Galileo was tortured is Wohlwill: Ist Galileo gefoltert warden? (1887). The acts of the trial which Wohlwill did not possess in their entirety are utterly silent on the matter; moreover he escaped torture because of his age. Wohlwill was misled by his incorrect rendering of “esame rigoroso.”

The horrible prisons invented by ignorant controversialists turn out to be the palace of the Grand Duke’s Ambassador, Niccolini, at Rome; the residence of his friend Archbishop Piccolomini at Venice, and his own villa of Arcetri near Florence.

All the efforts, however, of his many friends to have the penalty of imprisonment remitted were of no avail. For ten years he continued his scientific studies, giving the world his ablest work on physics (Discorsi et Demonstrationi). He was visited by scholars from all over the world, and he kept up a very large correspondence. He became blind in 1638, and this, together with the continual nagging of his opponents, embittered his last days. He edified all about him by his faithful performance of every religious duty. He died January 8, 1642, the Pope sending him the Apostolic Benediction.

In the correspondence school of the Catholic Unity League Library —which means fifteen thousand letters a year—the Galileo case is met with continually. It proves, the outsiders write, that the Catholic Church is not infallible; that she is hostile to natural science; that she is terribly intolerant whenever she holds the reins of power.

Infallibility does not enter the problem at all. According to the Vatican Council the Pope is infallible when he speaks ex cathedra, i.e., as supreme teacher of the Universal Church; when he defines a doctrine; when he treats of faith or morals, or philosophical truths or philosophical facts essential to the preservation of the content of revelation; when he clearly manifests his intention to bind the Universal Church.

In the Galileo case not one of these four conditions were verified. Both decrees of 1616 and 1633 were disciplinary, the first ordering Galileo not to defend the Copernican theory, the second condemning him for having broken the promise exacted of him by Cardinal Bellarmine. It is true indeed that the reasons which prompted the Pope and the Cardinals to act in both instances were doctrinal, but these reasons never form an integral part of the decree. Even in an infallible decision they may be considered erroneous.

Vacandard in his Etudes de Critique et d’Histoire (Vol. 1., p. 359), writes: “In a definition ex cathedra it is the Pope who speaks in person. He may, if he choose, ask the views of the Congregation, but their opinion is regarded only as a mere consultation; the sentence, properly speaking, is his work.”

In the trials of 1616 and 1633, the Popes order, but the Congregations act; it is they who pronounce the sentence. If, therefore, infallibility be an incommunicable prerogative, it is clear that their decisions cannot be infallible.

That these were not infallible pronouncements was recognized by many scholars and theologians of the time. Bellarmine, Caramuel, Descartes, Fromont, Gassendi, Riccioli, Tanner and others.

But our objectors add: At least you must admit that the Galileo condemnation proves that the Catholic Church is hostile to science.

It proves nothing of the kind. The scientists of the day were as bitter against Galileo as the theologians. The majority of scientists in the seventeenth century believed firmly in the Ptolemaic theory, and were convinced, and rightly, too, that Galileo had not brought forward a single proof for his views. The theologians who condemned him rejected his views as scientifically false as well as dogmatically heretical. Blame them if you will for believing too strongly in a current scientific theory, but do not accuse them of any hostility to science.

Some have asserted that the condemnation of Galileo hindered the progress of scientific studies in Europe. That these Roman decrees retarded for a time the special researches that were one day to make the Copernican theory morally certain, we willingly admit. But to say that they hindered the general progress of science is absolutely false, for the Italy of that period swarmed with scientists and scientific academies.

De Jaugey writes in the Le Proces de Galilee (p. 112): At Florence Prince Leopoldo de’ Medici, later on Cardinal, founded the Accademia del Cimento, to foster the natural sciences, especially the study of astronomy. This institution counted among its members Rinaldi, Oliva and Borelli. At Bologna, a pontifical city, were two famous mathematicians, Ricci and Montalbani; the Jesuit Grimaldi who discovered the diffraction of light; Cassini, who later on was to make the Paris Observatory famous; Castelli, Davisi, and a number of other scholars. At Rome, Cassini discovered the satellites of Saturn, Megalotti studied the comets, and Plati made his remarkable discoveries on the eclipses of the sun.

Some non-Catholics are honest and well-informed enough to admit that the Catholic Church’s doctrine of infallibility is not involved, and that she is in no way hostile to science. But they maintain nevertheless that she encouraged hypocrisy by compelling Galileo to abjure his own convictions, and made an egregious blunder by stamping his theory heretical.

If we are to judge by the official documents Galileo was not called upon to abjure what he believed to be certain. He wrote letter after letter to his friends stating that he would rather pluck out his eyes than give scandal; that he would not resist his superiors and injure his soul by holding against them an opinion, which seemed to him evident and worthy of credence. At the 1633 trial he strongly maintained that after 1616 he had never proposed the Copernican theory as objectively true.

And yet despite these positive statements we must admit that they contradict the general tone of his writings and his conversations with friends. How reconcile this evident contradiction? Was he an unwilling martyr for the truth?

The Abbe Vacandard writes (Etudes de Critique. Vol. I, page 363): “This is a question very hard to answer. We think it presumptious for any one to assert that Galileo’s solemn disavowal of his writings was insincere. We have good reason, however, to think that his mind was not always calm when he thought of his condemnation. It seems very probable that at times his mind reverted to the opinions which had been condemned. It is reported that his friend the Archbishop of Siena assured him that he had been unjustly treated by the Congregation, and that one day his ideas would prevail. Such a suggestion was calculated to make him feel bitter against his opponents, and to manifest this bitterness at least in secret.”

In fact we have some notes of his discovered a few years ago in the library of the Seminary of Padua (Ms. 352), which puts this beyond the shadow of a doubt. “These notes prove,” says De Vregille (Dict. Apol. Vol. II. Col. 181) that despite his docility, he had not lost faith in his genius and his discoveries. They do not, however, prove that he regretted his abjuration. He was, moreover, excusable, for the interior assent required of him by the Roman decrees was neither complete nor absolute, but was based solely on motives of prudence.”

We must not forget that while Galileo thought that he had demonstrated his theory, there is no scholar today who admits that he did. The only three scientific arguments he used: the movement of the solar spots, the phenomenon of the tides, and the phases of Venus, either proved nothing in favor of the Copernican theory, or were in absolute contradiction to the facts.

It has been frequently alleged that the Jesuits were chiefly responsible for Galileo’s condemnation. W. G. Ward wrote in The Dublin Review (1865, p. 405), that Bellarmine was the chief opponent of Galileo in 1616 (Bellarmine was dead at the time of the second trial in 1633) and Wegg-Prosser repeats the charge (Galileo and his Judges, p. 38). What are the facts? Galileo counted many Jesuits among his best friends — Bellarmine, Clavius, Grienberger, Guldin, von Maelcote —and his opponents were chiefly Grassi and Scheiner. The Jesuits, we must remember, were bound to defend Aristotle in view of the order issued by their fiftieth General Congregation of 1593.

As for Bellarmine he was to the end a firm believer in the Ptolemaic theory, basing his opinion on the traditional interpretation of Josue and other Old Testament texts. By a strange paradox Galileo in his letter to Castelli showed himself a better Scriptural expert than Bellarmine, whereas Bellarmine, echoing Grienberger in his denial of Galileo’s so-called proofs, proved himself a better scientist. Not of course that his lectures on astronomy were anything but naive and unscientific, as his biographer, Father Brodrick admits (The Life and Works of Cardinal Bellarmine. Vol. II., pp. 326-373).

The Jesuits were as a body most friendly to Galileo up to 1624. After that they were not so cordial. But to say they engineered his condemnation is untrue. They had no special influence with Popes Paul V. and Urban VIII., nor with the members of the Holy Office. The Dominicans were far more active against him in both trials, which was perfectly natural considering their official position as members of the Holy Office.

In a word the condemnation of Galileo was due chiefly to the vast majority of the theologians of the day who urged the Holy See to condemn a scientist who attacked their favorite Aristotle, and ventured to teach them how to interpret the Scriptures.

Their pride had been hurt by the many bitter attacks of Galileo, who had in private conversations and public print styled them stupid and ignorant. Their dread of the private interpretation of the Scriptures — so harmful in Germany and England — had made them overcautious. Their egregious blunder consisted in branding a scientific theory as heretical, when at best they should have considered it as unproved. They were right in maintaining the general law of exegesis that Biblical texts are to be taken in their literal sense, unless there exist good reasons to the contrary. They were wrong in forgetting the wise teaching of St. Augustine and St. Thomas that in describing the phenomena of nature the Bible speaks according to appearances.

In a sense the condemnation of Galileo was providential. It proved for all time that fallible bodies like the Roman Congregation ought not to dub a scientific theory heretical, and it prevented them from making a similar mistake for over three centuries. It proved also that whenever there is apparent contradiction between the truths of science and the truths of faith, either the scientist is wrong in advancing a mere hypothesis as a fact, or that the theologian errs in mistaking his personal opinions for the teaching of the Gospel.

Pastor concludes his brief but able study of the case with the wise words: “There has been no second Galileo case” (History of the Popes. Vol. XXIX., p. 62).


  1. The Star-Gazer: A Novel of the Life of Galileo. By Zsolt de Harsanyi. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. $2.75.


Aubanel, Galilee et l’Eglise (Avignon, 1910);
Berti, Il Processo di Galileo Galilei (Rome, 1876);
Bourquard, Galilee, son proces, sa condemnation, et les congregations romaines (Paris, 1886);
Brodrick, The Life and Works of Cardinal Bellarmine. Vol. II., pp. 326-373 (London, 1928);
Carli and Favaro, Bibliografia Galileiana, 1568-1905 (Rome, 1896) L’Epinois, La Question de Galilee (Paris, 1879);
Idem, Il Processo Originale di Galileo Galilei (Rome, 1878);
Agnes Mary Clerke, in Encyclopaedia Britannica, s. v. Galileo; Fahie, Galileo; His Life and Works (London, 1903);
Favaro, Galileo e L’inquisizione (Florence, 1907);
Funk, Zur Galileifrage (Paderborn, 1899);
Von Gebler, Die Acten des Galileischen Processes (Stuttgart, 1877);
Idem, Galileo and the Roman Curia (London, 1879);
Grisar, Galileistudien (Ratisbon, 1882);
DeJaugey, Le Proces de Galilei et la Theologie (Paris, 1888);
Muller, Der Galilei Process (Fribourg, 1909);
Muller, Galileo Galilei, und das Kopernikanische Weltsystem (Fribourg, 1909);
Olney, The Private Life of Galileo (London, 1870);
Pastor, History of the Popes. Vol. XXV., pp. 285-301; Vol. XXIX., pp. 42-62);
Pieralisi, Novi Observazioni sopra il Processo di Galileo (Rome, 1875);
Idem, Urbano VIII e Galileo Galilei (Rome, 1878);
Reusch, Le Proces de Galilee et les Jesuites (Bonn, 1879);
Vacandard, Etudes de Critiques et d’Histoire Religieuses. Vol. 1., pp. 295-393;
Idem, in Dictionnaire de Theologie Catholique. Vol. VI. Col. 1058-1094;
DeVregille, in Dictionnaire Apologetique de la Foi Catholique. Vol. II. Col. 147-192;
Wegg-Prosser, Galileo and his Judges (London, 1889);
Wohlwill, Galileo und sein Kampf fur Kopernikanische Lehre (Hamburg, 1909).


Conway, Bertrand L. “Galileo Galilei.” In The Catholic World (New York: The Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle, May, 1940): 162-169

Copyright © 1940 The Catholic World



Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved