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The dispute between Galileo and the Catholic Church Parts 1 & 2


The Galileo affair is essentially a human drama played out by a cast of flawed and finite characters. It has the plausible pretext of being a loftier dispute involving science, philosophy, theology, and society. But in the main, it is a clash of souls, some less noble than others. There is a subtle irony to the fact that Galileo and Shakespeare were born in the same year. The world's pre-eminent playwright would have found the Galileo dispute much to his liking, and had he given it a script would doubtlessly have assigned the impersonal ideals a place of secondary significance.

The dispute between Galileo and the Catholic Church is both complex and controversial. It is complex because it involves a host of delicate issues and a multitude of volatile personalities. It is controversial because its interpreters invariably attach deeply felt positive or negative evaluations to these issues and personalities. There should be no mystery, consequently, why misrepresentations abound.

Bertold Brecht's play, Galileo,(1) whose cast calls for a "Fat Prelate," a "Furious Monk," and an "Old Cardinal"; paintings depicting the subjection of Galileo to various forms of humiliation that never took place;(2) and certain television dramatizations that pander to popular prejudice,(3) are typical one-sided misrepresentations that take the part of Galileo against a presumed authoritarian hierarchy. We find this same tendency to be commonplace even among certain books that pass for scholarly studies. In a book entitled Man on Trial, for example, the author views the trial of Galileo as "the climax of the onslaught of organized religion against scientific progress."(4) Another author erroneously contends that Galileo "rigorously demonstrated the Copernican system."(5)

In Carl Sagan's popular picture book on astronomy, Cosmos, the author tells us that Galileo was unable to convince the Catholic hierarchy that there are mountains on the Moon and that Jupiter has moons of its own.(6) The historical fact is the polar opposite of what Sagan contends. Jesuit astronomers of the Roman College confirmed Galileo's telescopic observations and subsequently honored Galileo with a full day of ceremonies. And while Galileo was in Rome for these plaudits, he was given a hero's welcome by cardinals, prelates, and other dignitaries of the Church including Pope Paul V.

It has been known for quite some time now that the majority of Church intellectuals supported Galileo, and that the clearest and strongest opposition to him came from secular agencies. This fact, however, is not sufficiently well known to the public at large.

This paper is an attempt to examine the pertinent ideas, issues, and personalities in the Galileo affair and by trying to understand these, shed some light on what was at the very heart of the dispute between Galileo and the Catholic Church.

No thinker is so bold and innovative that he thinks and works independently of his predecessors. Galileo, his creativity notwithstanding, stood on the shoulders of thinkers who came before him. His indebtedness to one particular school of thought — Pythagoreanism — is immense. "It was only just," as Giorgio de Santillana has remarked, "that Galileo's natural philosophy should have been denounced by his opponents as "the Pythagorean doctrine."(7) Galileo himself does not shy away from referring to his thought by its proper name, the "Pythagorean philosphy."

Indebted to Pythagoreans

By Pythagoreanism, what is meant here is the philosophy which accepts three fundamental assumptions about the world: 1) that the sun is at the center of a universe which is organized in the most simple and harmonious way possible; 2) that the planets move in circular paths, the circle being a form of perfection; 3) that the truth of things is to be found in number, and therefore the truth of nature is revealed through the science of mathematics.

It was not before his sixtieth year that Galileo dared to make his Pythagorean convictions fully known. By that time, however, they were buttressed by thirty-five years of careful investigation. He was now convinced that the Pythagorean supposition was not merely an hypothesis but corresponded to a state of fact.(8) He had affirmed the Pythagorean astronomical model which demanded planets that made perfect circles around the sun. But now he was willing to go further and affirmed a Pythagorean philosophy of nature. His Pythagorean assumptions concerning nature and number are clearly represented in the following well known passage from his masterpiece, Dialogues and Mathematical Demonstrations Concerning Two New Sciences:

Philosophy is written in that great book which ever lies before our eyes — I mean the universe — but we cannot understand it if we do not first learn the language and grasp the symbols, in which it is written. This book is written in the mathematical language, and the symbols are triangles, circles, and other geometric figures, without whose help it is impossible to comprehend a single word of it; without which one wanders in vain through a dark labyrinth. (9)

Put simply, Galileo's world was one of pure quantity. It was not the world of Aristotle; for Aristotle and his followers, quantity was only one of ten predicaments and not the most important. Nor was it congruent with the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. It was a world of matter in motion, knowable to the mathematician and alien to the man of ordinary sense perception. Concerning this world the senses perceive, he writes:

Hence I think that tastes, odors, colors, and so on are no more than mere names as far as the object in which we place them is concerned, and that they reside only in the consciousness. Hence if the-living creature were removed, all these qualities would be wiped away and annihilated. (10)

This perfect dichotomy of Galileo's between the world of mathematics and the world of sense qualities is tantamount to a divorce of science from philosophy and a radical depreciation of the latter. It is essentially Pythagorean as well as anti-Incarnational.

Galileo's conflict with the Church — which resulted in confrontations with the Vatican on two separate occasions — would never have taken place if it were not for his unyielding insistence on trying to prove that the helio-centric theory proposed by Copernicus was a true physical system. Underlying this conflict was a philosophical one between a Pythagorean view that finds truth in idealized mathematics, and a Christian-Incarnational view which affirms the unity of mind and matter, form and substance.

But the conflict was not between a progressive scientist and a backward clergy, or between a blameless individual and an authoritarian Church. In fact, as we shall argue, Galileo's attempt to validate an essentially Pythagorean description of the universe owes more of its driving force to his own vanity and personal ambitions, than to the impersonal forces that motivate a disinterested scientist. The Church, on the other hand, did not initiate an aggressive attack against Galileo as much as it was forced into a position of having to defend its own integrity.

Whereas Galileo's Pythagorean outlook put him at odds with Rome, it put him in harmony with Copernicus, for the latter also worked under the spell of Pythagoreanism.(11) In order to gain a better understanding of Galileo's fierce loyalty to Copernicus' system, it is helpful to know something about the common commitment both these great scientists had to the Pythagorean idealization of the world.

Copernicus's friend and teacher during the six years he stayed in Italy was a mathematician-astronomer by the name of Dominicus Maria da Novara. Novara was a free critic of the geo-centric system of Ptolemy principally because he was thoroughly caught up with the Platonic Pythagorean current of his time and felt that this cumbrous system, with its "deferent circles" and innumerable "epicycles," violated the postulate that the astronomical universe is an orderly mathematical harmony.(12) Through the influence of Novara, Copernicus developed his interest in the early Pythagoreans, who almost alone among the ancients had ventured to theorize about a non-geocentric astronomy.

One important aspect of Copernicus's own Pythagorean thinking was his assumption of simplicity. Applied to nature it meant that nature always operated in the most mathematically simple and elegant manner possible. This thinking was in accord with a number of accepted maxims which were prevalent at the time: "Natura simplicitatem amat." "Amat illa unitatem." "Natura semper quod potest per faciliora, non agit per ambages (windings) difficiles."

Drew from predecessors

Copernicus held that a sphere moves in a circular pattern because the motion of a body naturally and spontaneously follows from its geometric form. "For the motion of a sphere," he writes, "is to turn in a circle; by this very act expressing its form."(13) "The mind shudders," at the alternative, he adds, "because it would be unworthy to suppose such a thing in a Creation constituted in the best possible way."

Scholars have accused Copernicus of having an obsession with circularity and sphericity, and of constructing a heliocentric system that is justified by aesthetic judgment alone.(14) Sir Francis Bacon firmly rejected Copernicanism when he said: "I shall not stand upon that piece of mathematical elegance." Even Galileo had to admit that Copernicus's naive preoccupation with simplicity was the insouciance of genius. It was no doubt Copernicus's absolute Pythagorean faith that led him to believe that his theory was not merely an abstract model of mathematical simplicity and elegance, but a true physical system.

At any rate, Copernicus presented the world with a new picture of the universe in which he dared to attribute to the earth a diurnal motion on its axis and an annual revolution around the sun, because such a model was one of greater mathematical simplicity than the one provided by Ptolemy. He could accept the metaphysical implications of his system because of the widespread Platonic-Pythagorean conception of the universe suggested to his mind by the preceding developments in the science of mathematics.

Although Copernicus himself was hesitant to publish his work and waited until he was 70 and in the last year of his life before he consented to its publication, he had received strong support and encouragement from other officials in the Church. In 1533, Pope Clement VII had listened to a lecture on the Copernican theory and was greatly impressed. A few years later Cardinal Schönberg, a scholar who had distinguished himself in all branches of learning, wrote to Copernicus that he had learned with great admiration about the Polish mathematician's "having created a new theory of the universe according to which the Earth moves and the sun occupies the basic and central position . . . Therefore, learned man, without wishing to be opportune, I beg you most emphatically to communicate your discovery to the learned world."(15) In the Preface of his book, Copernicus acknowledges his indebtedness to his many friends and colleagues who encouraged him to publish his revolutionary findings, including Tiedeman Giese, Bishop of Culm who "spurred me on by added reproaches into publishing this book and letting come to light a work which I had kept hidden among my things for not merely nine years, but for almost four times nine years." Copernicus dedicated his work to Pope Paul III, Clement VII's successor.

Galileo's world of quantity

Contrary to the legend, the Church did not initially oppose the helio-centric theory. In fact, the opposite was true. Without the patronage and encouragement of the clergy — from the local bishop to clergymen who occupied influential positions with the Vatican — Copernicus's book would never have been published.

The simplicity, mathematical elegance, and Platonic-Pythagorean quality of Copernicus's work appealed very strongly to Galileo, and he adopted the heliocentric system in his twenties. Yet, just as his Polish mentor delayed publishing his work for fear of being "laughed at and hissed off the stage," so too, Galileo, for fear of being ridiculed, kept his convictions to himself until he was nearly fifty. During the interim, he defended the geocentric model of Ptolemy in his lectures, repudiating the earth's motion by means of the traditional arguments. For example, he taught that the earth did not move, for if it did, the clouds would be left behind.(16)

In general, Galileo's deceptiveness has created no end of difficulties for his interpreters. One scholar has made the comment that perhaps, "All the pronouncements of Galileo have to be taken cum grano salis."(17) Many of Galileo's dissimulations were no doubt rooted in prudence. Nevertheless, those whose ridicule he feared were not members of the clergy, but his own lay colleagues who occupied chairs of astronomy and philosophy at Bologna, Pisa, Padua, and elsewhere. The risk of ecclesiastical censure during the first fifty years of his life never occurred to him. On his own account, Galileo regarded the Jesuits of the Roman College, who were the leading astronomers of the day, as "modern-minded humanists, friends of science and discovery."(18)

In 1610, Galileo's life took a dramatic turn. The telescope was invented in Holland two years before by an optician named Hans Lippershey. Upon learning of this invention, Galileo built his own telescope with vastly improved magnifying power (though the most powerful telescope he built magnified objects only thirty-three times). He published a booklet, Sidereus Nuncius (The Starry Messenger)(19) in which he recorded his observations. He reported seeing a moon with a surface just like that of the earth, "with huge prominences, deep valleys, and chasms"; stars "so numerous as almost to surpass belief"; and most momentous of all, four moons orbiting the planet Jupiter.

Galileo named the circumjovial moons the "Medicean Stars" to honor Cosimo II de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany to whom he dedicated the Nuncius. This gesture proved to be politically astute. Four months after the booklet's publication, Cosimo appointed Galileo as the chief mathematician and philosopher to the Grand Duke of Tuscany at the handsome salary of 1,000 florins a year. Galileo was now financially secure for life.

Politically astute

The Church rallied to his support. The Jesuits of the Roman College held a day of ceremonies in his honor. Pope Paul V received him in a long audience and showed him benevolence. He was well received by other dignitaries of the Church. Cardinal Francesco Mari del Monte, one of Galileo's patrons, stated in a letter: "If we were still living under the ancient Republic of Rome, I verily believe that there would be a column on the Capital erected in Galileo's honor."(20) Galileo described his reception in a letter to his friend Salviati: "I have been received and feted by many illustrious cardinals, prelates, and princes of this city, who wanted to see the things I have observed and were much pleased."(21)

Galileo's telescopic observations offered an empirical refutation of the claim that all celestial bodies revolved around the earth. They did not, however, nor did anything else he observed through the telescope, confirm the Copernican system. Nonetheless, the publication of Nuncius gave Galileo the fame and prestige he needed to risk making known his long held allegiance to the Copernican system. His heightened fame and new boldness, however, moved other colleagues of his, mostly non-clerics, to bitter jealousy. They were so dazzled by what the telescope revealed that some of them, like the illustrious philosopher Cremonini, refused on principle, to look through it. In a letter to his esteemed friend, Kepler, Galileo writes about this matter as follows:

Oh, my dear Kepler, how I wish we could have one hearty laugh together! Here at Padua is the principal professor of philosophy whom I have repeatedly and urgently requested to look at the moon and planets through my glass which he pertinaciously refuses to do. Why are you not here? What shouts of laughter we should have at this glorious folly! And to hear the professor of philosophy at Pisa labouring before the Grand Duke with logical arguments, as if with magical incantations, to charm the new planets out of the sky.(22)

The elite of Jesuit astronomers in various parts of Europe not only confirmed Galileo's empirical discoveries, but they improved on them. In addition, the Dutch mathematician-astronomer Christian Huygens discovered a satellite of Saturn and clarified Galileo's earlier observation of the peculiar configuration of that planet by announcing the presence of its surrounding ring. Galileo was victorious. His discoveries and genius were hailed throughout Europe. He now felt bold enough to go beyond merely endorsing the Copernican system. He began denigrating anyone who opposed it, referring to them as "mental pygmies" (homunciones), "dumb mooncalves" (hebetes et pene stolidos), and "hardly deserving to be called human beings."(23)

Galileo's triumphant attachment to the helio-centric theory of Copernicus was not exactly reasonable. Although the Jupiter moons proved Ptolemy wrong, they did not prove Copernicus right. There existed alternative explanations of planetary movements. The great Danish astronomer, Tycho de Brahe, introduced an intermediate theory which, from a mathematical standpoint, was just as satisfactory as the Copernican system. De Brahe proposed a model in which the planets revolved around the sun and, together with the sun, revolved around a stationary earth. The general tendency among astronomers from about 1630 to 1687 was to prefer this model of explanation. In 1672 a scientist has as many as seven models to choose from.(24) But Galileo refused to consider even for a moment the possible legitimacy of the Tychonic "third system." To him it was a gratuitous red herring brought in at the last moment.(25) Nor was Galileo willing to consider the possibility that planets moved in patterns other than circles, although this notion had been brought to his attention. In his Nuncius he rejects even an oval motion that is nearly straight since it "seems unthinkable and quite inconsistent with the appearances."(26) Galileo's theory demanded circles as a physical reality.

The Copernican paradigm presented a major problem to scientists in the 17th century. If the earth did travel around the sun, as Copernicus claimed, the fixed stars ought to reveal an annual parallax (stellar displacement) due to the 186,000,000 mile difference in the position of the earth every six months. This question was not settled until Bessel's discovery of such a parallax in 1838. In Galileo's time, the absence of any visible stellar parallax implied that the stars were at a distance from the earth so immense as to be dismissed by all but a few as too astonishing to believe.(27)

Science and Scripture clash

Meanwhile, Galileo's enemies had decided upon a new strategy with which they would attempt to topple him from his pedestal. Led by Lodovico delle Colombe, the "Pigeon-League,"(28) as Galileo contemptuously called them, sought to engage Galileo in a conflict between science and scripture. They endeavored to create a scandal surrounding the person of Galileo and thus compel the Roman authorities, who were reluctant to act on the grounds of theory, to act in the interest of restoring the good of public order. Colombe, who knew he was no match for Galileo on an intellectual level and had already been embarrassed in a dual of wits with him, was intent on defaming Galileo any way he could.

Colombe had been the first to use the Bible as a weapon directly against Galileo.(29) He had circulated in manuscript form his treatise, Against the Motion of the Earth, in which he cited several texts from Scripture that apparently contradicted the Copernican system. One such text, Joshua 10:12-13, used time and again, became closely identified with the controversy. Thus, Joshua, after defeating the Philistines, commanded the sun to stand still, which implied that the sun usually moves. Colombe prevailed upon a Dominican priest, Tommaso Caccini to join the fray. Goaded on by Colombe's "Pigeon-League," Caccini delivered a sermon on December 20, 1614 in Santa Maria Novella in Florence in which he strongly denounced Galileo and his followers and condemned the idea of a moving earth. He cited the Joshua passage to illustrate the contradiction that he believed existed between Scripture and Copernicanism.

Caccini's behavior, as scholars have pointed out, "stands out in contrast to that of nearly all the other churchmen involved" in the Galileo controversy.(30) Moreover, it was excessive and irrational. He had called for banishing "mathematicians" (in a very loose usage of the term) from Christian states. Father Maraffi, a.Preacher-General of the Dominicans — and a fervid promoter of the Copernican cause — wrote a letter of apology to Galileo. "Unfortunately," he wrote, "1 have to answer for all the idiocies [bestialità] that thirty or forty thousand brothers may and do actually commit."(31) He had also made it clear to his Dominican subjects that he would not tolerate this kind of barbarity: "We should not open the door for every impertinent individual to come out with what is dictated to him by the rage of others and by his own madness and ignorance."(32) But perhaps the severest rebuke came from Caccini's own brother, Matteo. In letters addressed to his brother, Matteo writes: "It was a silly thing [for Tommaso] to get himself embroiled in this business by these pigeons [colombil ... What idiocy is this of being set abellowing at the prompting of those nasty pigeons . . . This performance of yours makes no sense in heaven and earth . . . I who am no theologian can tell you what I am telling you, that you have behaved like a dreadful fool."(33)

Caccini's sermon brought the controversy between Scripture, Copernicanism, and Galileo out into the open for the first time. Galileo responded by writing a letter in which he argued that nothing he held was in conflict with Scripture. Accordingly, he reasoned that Scripture deals with natural matters in such a cursory and allusive way that it appears as though it wants to remind us that its proper concern is not about them but about the soul of man. It is willing to adjust its language about Nature to the simple minds of ordinary people.(34) He argued that it is not the business of Scripture to validate science, and defended this point by quoting Cardinal Baronius who had remarked that, "The Holy Ghost intended to teach us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go."(35)

But the trap set for Galileo proved effective. He insisted that the Copernican system had been proved beyond doubt and that the Church must reinterpret scriptural passages that contradicted it. This set the stage for a confrontation with Rome, although the Church did everything it could to prevent it.

The dispute between Galileo and the Catholic Church
Part II

The official view of the Church was represented by its highest theological authority at that time: the famous Jesuit theologian, Robert Cardinal Bellarmine. In a famous letter, Bellarmine stated as follows:

I say that if there were a true demonstration that the sun was in the center of the universe and the earth in the third sphere, and that the sun did not go around the earth but the earth went around the sun, then it would be necessary to use careful consideration in explaining the Scriptures that seemed contrary, and we should rather have to say that we do not understand them than to say that something is false which had been proven. (36)

Bellarmine's letter reflects an informed and open mind. If the Copernican system were to be proven, then, rather than contradict science, the Church should reinterpret Scripture. But the proof was still wanting. And until such a proof appeared, as Bellarmine went on to say, to speak of the Copernican system as an established truth "is a very dangerous attitude." This cautionary note not only represented the mind of the Church, but also that of the responsible body of empirical scientists of the day. In fact, as Alfred North Whitehead and others have pointed out,(37) it was never a case of Galileo being right and the Inquisition being wrong on a scientific point. Galileo's formulation of the universe was not more true than that of the Inquisition, nor was the geo-centric system espoused by the Inquisition more true than the heliocentric one.

To be fair, it should also be pointed out that Bellarmine erred when he required a proof of the Copernican system as a condition for interpreting certain Scriptural passages — such as the Joshua text — in an allusive or non-literal manner. It is a curious paradox, as a scholar on the life and work of Bellarmine has remarked, that, "As a piece of Scriptural exegesis Galileo's theological letters are much superior to Bellarmine's, while as an essay on scientific method Bellarmine's letter is far sounder and more modern in its views than Galileo's."(38)

But Galileo was unwilling to wait until a proof could be discovered. He hurried off to Rome in the hope of winning support from Church authorities. While there, he displayed his talent for polemics by audaciously ridiculing opponents of the Copernican theory time and again in lively debates. But the Jesuits of the Roman College remained unimpressed. There was still the third system of Tycho de Brahe that had not yet been scientifically supplanted. They understood well that unqualified support for the helio-centric theory was impossible until de Brahe's system had been disproven.

Dr. Brahe's system not disproved

Galileo's over-eagerness to vindicate the Copernican system was only too evident. The Tuscan Ambassador made the observation that Galileo "is passionately involved in this quarrel so that he will be ensnarled in it and get himself into danger ... For he is vehement and all impassioned in his affair."(39)

As a result of Galileo's importunity, the Holy Office finally issued a decree in 1616 declaring "the Pythagorean doctrine of the motion of the earth" to be "false and altogether opposed to Holy Scripture." Galileo's name was not mentioned in the decree, nor were his works prohibited. The incident ended on a decorous note with Pope Paul V gracefully receiving Galileo in a long audience in which the Pope assured Galileo that any rumors and calumny directed against him would be ignored by the Vatican.

Protestantism had not been so gracious toward Kepler when this great astronomer professed his intellectual sympathies for the Copernican system. Having been persecuted by the Protestant Faculty at Tubingen, Kepler actually took refuge with the Jesuits in 1596.(40) Luther had summarily dismissed Copernicus as "that fool." And Melancthon had condemned Copernicanism as "dishonest" and "pernicious."(41)

But the conflict between Galileo and the Church of Rome had not been put to rest and would flare up seventeen years later. In the meantime, Galileo set to work in an obsessive attempt to find scientific confirmation of Copernicus' theory. There can be no doubt as to what Galileo's intent was. He confided to a friend in 1629: "I have taken up work again on the Dialogue of the Ebb and Flow of the Sea ... I trust, a most ample confirmation of the Copernican system."(42) The result was the Dialogue on the Two Great World Systems in which he contrasted the Ptolemaic and Copernican systems, though he curiously omitted any discussion of the newer systems of Kepler and de Brahe. In this work, its author juxtaposes masterly expositions with hollow rhetoric and the deliberate falsification of facts.

Most importantly, however, Galileo thought he had discovered the important proof of the earth's motion he had been looking for. Rejecting Kepler's correct notion that the moon causes the alternation of the tides, Galileo argued that the seas "swapped over" once a day as a direct consequence of the earth's motion. Accordingly, the tides were caused, so to speak, by the shaking of the vessel that contained them." This monumental error, inconsistent even with his own principles of dynamics, is unworthy of his genius and can only be understood as the effect of will being momentarily stronger than intellect, of vanity being more evident than a humble openness to truth. Arthur Koestler is unsparing in his criticism of Galileo's theory of the tides as it is presented in the Dialogue:

There can be no doubt that Galileo's theory of the tides was based on unconscious deception; but ... there can also be little doubt that the sunspot argument was a deliberate attempt to confuse and mislead ... We have seen that scholars have always been prone to manias and obsessions, and inclined to cheat about details; but impostures like Galileo's are rare in the annals of science. (44)

But there were other indiscretions that Galileo committed. Perhaps the most significant and damaging involves a series of abrasive dealings he had with Jesuit astronomers. In The Assayer, Galileo writes:

Others, not wanting to agree with my ideas, advance ridiculous and impossible opinions against me; and some, overwhelmed and convinced by my arguments, attempted to rob me of that glory which was mine, pretending not to have seen my writings and trying to represent themselves as the original discoverers of these impressive marvels. (45)

The Jesuit astronomer Christopher Scheiner took this remark to be unjustly aimed at him. Scheiner had published his observations of sunspots under a pseudonym on October 21, 1611, but had stated that he first noticed some spots on the sun seven or eight months before he began to record them. The first mention of sunspots by Galileo appears in a letter dated October 1, 1611. In his Dialogue, Galileo claimed for himself the honor of being the first to discover sunspots:

Harken then to this great new wonder. The first discoverer of the solar spots ... was our Lincean academician [Galileo] and he discovered them in the year 1610. (46)

Scheiner contended forcefully that the honor belonged to himself. A great bitterness arose between these two astronomers about who really discovered the sunspots first, with each accusing the other of dishonesty. The dispute was a pointless one, however, since the honor belongs to Johann Fabricius of Wittenberg, whose booklet printed in the summer of 1611 seems to have escaped the attention of the disputants. Nonetheless, it did much to antagonize Scheiner and other Jesuits, which resulted in Galileo losing a great deal of Jesuit support.

Another incident, which further alienated the Jesuits from Galileo, involved the Jesuit mathematician-astronomer Horatio Grassi in a dispute over comets. Galileo's polemical refutation of Grassi in The Assayer was devastating. In fact, the whole of The Assayer was nothing more or less than an unremitting, sarcastic lampoon against Fr. Grassi. It left Grassi pulverized in the public eye. His fellow Jesuits ordered him to lie low and not attempt to answer Galileo. The following passage offers a fair indication of how unmerciful Galileo was toward his astronomical colleague:

Let Sarsi [the imperfect anagram for Grassi) see from this how superficial his philosophizing is except in appearance. But let him not think he can reply with additional limitations, distinctions, logical technicalities, philosophical jargon, and other idle words, for I assure him that in sustaining one error, he will commit a hundred others that are more serious, and produce always greater follies in his camp . . . (47)

The frequency and sharpness of such remarks played an important role in causing many Jesuits to withdraw their support of Galileo, which he later needed very badly. Fr. Grienberger, another Jesuit astronomer, was to say in 1634, the year of Galileo's second confrontation with the Holy Office, that, "Galileo should have known how to keep the affections of the fathers of the Roman College. If he had, he would still be living gloriously in the world, he would not have fallen into trouble, he would be able to write on any subject he wished, even the rotation of the earth."(48) This remark may be over-stated. Nonetheless, there is no over-stating the point in saying that Galileo's unnecessary alienation of the Jesuits proved to be costly to him.

Pope Urban VIII

Galileo was to alienate another person — more important than any of the others — that was to seal his doom. This was Pope Urban VIII. Before ascending to the papal throne, Maffeo Barberini had been Galileo's most ardent admirer. He had written an ode in honor of Galileo and, as Pope, gave him a testimonial extolling the virtues "of this great man, whose fame shines in the heavens and goes on earth far and wide." The year after he became Pope, he showered Galileo with gifts and favors.

A penchant for alienation

Urban had suggested to Galileo a line of reasoning which would allow him to speak favorably of the Copernican system without at the same time claiming it to be true. The reasoning is logically impeccable and asserts, in effect, that if a given theory is consistent with certain facts, it is possible that a totally different theory, perhaps known only to God, could be consistent with the same facts.(49) In other words, one cannot affirm the antecedent of a hypothetical proposition by affirming the consequent. The fact that the ground is wet can be accounted for by rain or by someone watering the lawn. The same logic applies to contemporary physics for, on a macroscopic level, both Newtonian Physics and Einsteinian Relativity explain physical motion equally well. The Pope's position was eminently orthodox. Robert Grosseteste had provided its epistemological basis in the thirteenth century.

At the close of his Dialogue, Galileo had the temerity or the imprudence to put the Pope's words in the mouth of Simplicio, the dunce — modelled after Lodovico delle Colombe — who had been shown up again and again throughout the book as a simpleton whose brain is cobwebbed with Aristotelian cosmology. It was as if Galileo had stuck his tongue out at the Pope in public. The Jesuits whom Galileo had alienated made certain that the Pope was aware of this passage and what it implied.(50) They also advised him that the Dialogue was an endorsement of Copernicanism, which, in their opinion, was a doctrine far more dangerous than anything of Luther's or Calvin's.(51)

There were also certain irregularities and deceptions involved in securing the Imprimatur for the Dialogue. As a result, the Pope discharged one of the men involved, Monsignor Ciampoli, the papal secretary.

Urban was deeply hurt by Galileo's conduct and regarded it as a personal betrayal. He never forgave him. He opposed Galileo's leaving Arcetri in 1636 to receive treatment for his eye, and even after Galileo's death, Urban balked at allowing his old friend to have a monument erected in his honor.

Human flaw caused bitterness

Urban VIII, like Galileo, was a Florentine. And also like his compatriot, he was outgoing, ambitious, fiery, and impatient of opposition. He had a great deal in common with Galileo even on an intellectual level. As Cardinal Barberini, he once wrote to Galileo, who was sick at the time, and expressed his genuine affection for both the person and the work of that great scientist: "I write because men like you are of great value, deserve to live a long time for the public benefit, and I am also motivated by the particular interest and affection which I have for you and by my constant approbation of you and your work."(52)

But, like Galileo, Urban was not without vanity. When he was informed that certain notables wished to erect a monument in his honor he replied, fully mindful of the fact that this special honor was usually done for Popes only after their deaths: "Let them. I am not an ordinary Pope either." Urban's vanity was a fact well known. One eminent scholar and expert on the Galileo dispute has written of the radical change in conduct that took place when Cardinal Barberini took the name Urban VIII:

Once in power, his latent pride and vanity were to break forth without restraint, and with them his natural temper, quick to anger and suspicions. (53)

It may very well have been the presence of this human flaw in both Urban and Galileo that accounted for, more than anything else, the bitter disputes, the rancor, the suspicions, the vindictiveness, and the final humiliating showdown in the trial of 1633.

The Inquisition summoned Galileo to Rome in 1632, the same year the Dialogue was published. Galileo delayed the meeting because of ill health until the following year. He was well treated. He never spent a day of his life in a prison cell, nor was he tortured or ever in fear of being tortured. While the proceedings continued, he and his valet occupied a five room apartment in the Holy Office overlooking the Vatican Gardens, while the Tuscan Ambassador's major domo looked after his food and wine.

It was the intent of the Inquisition to make Galileo recant and to show that not even so illustrious a personage as Galileo could mock the Pope and his theologians with impunity. Galileo, oddly enough, pleaded that his Dialogue was actually an attempt to refute the Copernican theory, despite the fact that innumerable passages clearly indicated the contrary. Apparently, as some scholars have concluded, Galileo realized the game was up, and lost his nerve.(54)

Finally, he was asked to recite a prepared statement clearing himself from the suspicion of heresy and denouncing the doctrine of the earth's motion. He knelt before the ten Cardinals and recited a text that, presumably, no one believed.

There followed a peaceful period of nearly ten years during which time Galileo wrote his masterpiece, the Dialogue Concerning Two New Sciences. This work summed up his life's work on motion, acceleration, and gravity, and furnished the basis for the three laws of motion laid down by Sir Isaac Newton in 1687. Whitehead has made the comment that, "The worst that happened [in that age] to men of science was that Galileo suffered an honorable detention and a mild reproof, before dying peacefully in his bed."(55) Another commentator has made the remark that, "It is probably true that no one had ever been treated so gently."(56)

Intelligent opinion concerning the nature of the dispute between Galileo and the Church has ranged over a wide variety of plausible theories. And the disagreements among scholars who have studied the life and times of Galileo in depth are strong and sharp. Was it a conflict between authority and freedom, or between science and Scripture? Was it fundamentally a tension between the Church and the secularization of society? Was it a clash between science and society, between science and the Church, or between the Church and philosophy? No doubt each of these conflicts played its part. At the same time, however, none of them was sufficient in itself to bring the dispute to the unfortunate denouement that history records. Each conflict created its own problem while helping to fuel the mounting controversy. Yet reason could have prevented any one of them from contributing to the cause célèbre had vanity and personal ambition not interfered with the exercise of that higher faculty.

A clash of souls

Galileo's caustic tongue and acid pen made him many a life-long enemy and even converted supportive colleagues into vindictive foes. The devastating sarcasm with which he frequently ridiculed the arguments and the character of his opponents created more bitterness than they shed light. Concerning his arch-rival, Colombe, Galileo remarked that Aristotle made many blunders, "Though neither so many nor so silly as does this author every time he opens his mouth on the subject."(57) Referring to the "Pigeon-League," he once stated that he had "an idea for an emblem those pedants could put on their shingle: A fireplace with a stuffed flue, and the smoke curling back to fill the house in which are assembled people to whom dark comes before evening."(58) De Santillana avers that Galileo's marginal jottings on his copy of a work by Fr. Grassi were so violent that, "The expletives alone would make a vocabulary of good Tuscan abuse."(59)

The Galileo affair is essentially a human drama played out by a cast of flawed and finite characters. It has the plausible pretext of being a loftier dispute involving science, philosophy, theology, and society. But in the main, it is a clash of souls, some less noble than others. There is a subtle irony to the fact that Galileo and Shakespeare were born in the same year. The world's pre-eminent playwright would have found the Galileo dispute much to his liking, and had he given it a script would doubtlessly have assigned the impersonal ideals a place of secondary significance.

Toward the end of his life, at age seventy-three, Galileo wrote a letter to Elia Diodati, his publishing liaison in France, in which he stated:

Alas, your friend and servant Galileo has been for the last month hopelessly blind; so that this heaven, this earth, this universe, which I, by marvelous discoveries and clear demonstrations, have enlarged a hundred thousand times beyond the belief of the wise men of bygone ages, henceforward for me is shrunk into such small space as is filled by my own bodily sensations ... (60)

These words are not the ramblings of senescence, they accurately represent the man Galileo. They summarize his long life compressed into a single, brief paragraph. Here is faithfully recorded the friendship, self-pity, pride, boastfulness, exaggeration, scientific genius, and literary elegance. All these things were entwined within the same man. Galileo could never have been simply one thing or another. However extraordinary and powerful his genius, he never allowed it to eclipse his humanness. He was never less than an intricate complexity of powerful and well-developed tendencies. And this explains why the Galileo dispute can never be properly understood in impersonal terms. "One may understand the cosmos, but never the ego; the self is more distant than any star."(61) To no other person in human history could these words of G.K. Chesterton better apply.



  1. Jerome J. Langford, O.P., Galileo, Science and the Church (New York: Desclee, 1966), p. 151.

  2. Colin Ronan, Galileo (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1974), p. 217.

  3. Such as Steve Allen's shallow and one-sided portrayal of Galileo in his series "The Meeting of Minds."

  4. Gerald Dickler, Man on Trial (Garden City: Doubleday, 1962), p. 61.

  5. A. Fouille, Historia general de la filosofia (Santiago de Chile, 1955), p. 274.

  6. Carl Sagan, Cosmos (New York: Random House, 1980), p. 141.

  7. Giorgio de Santillana, The Origins of Scientific Thought (New York: New American Library, 1961), p. 65. The author is referring to the decree by the Holy Office issued against Galileo in 1616. See Santillana's The Age of Adventure (New York: New American Library, 1962), p. 228: "Galileo, the so-called empiricist, is in fact an unyielding scientific rationalist."

  8. Giorgio de Santillana, The Crime of Galileo (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955), p. 71.

  9. Opere Complete di Galileo Galilei (Firenza, 1842, Vol. 1V, p. 171). See R.G. Collingwood, The Idea of Nature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1960), p. 94: ". . . Galileo, the true father of modern science, restated the Pythagorean-Platonic standpoint in his own words by proclaiming that the book of nature is a book written by God in the language of mathematics."

  10. Galileo, "The Assayer," trans. S. Drake in Theories and Opinions of Galileo (New York: Doubleday, 1957), p. 274.

  11. According to Rheticus, a pupil of Copernicus, it was by his master following "Plato and the Pythagoreans, the greatest mathematicians of that divine age that [he) thought that in order to determine the cause of the phenomena, circular motions have to be ascribed to the spherical earth." Quoted in Alexander Koyré, From the Closed World to the Ignite Universe (New York: Harper and Row, 1957), p. 28-9.

  12. Dorothy Stimson, The Gradual Acceptance of the Copernican Theory of the Universe (New York, 1917), p. 25.

  13. Nicholas Copernicus, On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres, Book 1.

  14. Herbert Butterfield, The Origins of Modern Science (New York: The Free Press, 1957), p. 44.

  15. Quoted by Arthur Koestler in "The Greatest Scandal in Christendom," The Critic, Oct.-Nov., 1964, p. 16.

  16. The proof of this claim is found in a surviving manuscript copy of a lecture of Galileo, dated 1601, Trattato della Sfera (Opere, Ediz. Nationale: Florence, 1929-30, Vol. II, pp. 203-55.

  17. Koyré, p. 98.

  18. See William Wallace, Galileo and His Sources (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984). The author studies two early manuscripts of Galileo which are the results of lectures by Jesuits at the Collegio Romano, and shows how the materials in these lectures contributed to the evolution of Galileo's thought.

  19. Kepler understood the title as meaning: the "messenger of stars." This mistranslation was generally accepted until it was corrected in 1948 in a new edition of the Nuncius as The Message of the Stars. The traditional title, The Starry Messenger, is nonetheless appropriate even though technically incorrect: Se non è vero, è ben trovato.

  20. Quoted in Koestler, p. 16.

  21. Letter to Filippo Salviati, quoted in de Santillana, 1955, p. 23.

  22. Letter to Kepler, 1610, quoted in Oliver Lodge, Pioneers of Science (London, 1913), Ch. 4. The second philosopher to whom Galileo refers in this passage is Giulio Libri, a philosopher who taught at Pisa and at Padua during Galileo's service at those universities. Another colleague who refused to look through the telescope is Sizzi who held that the discovery of an additional planet would destroy the seven-day week which is based on the existence of seven and only seven planets. See James Christian, Philosophy (San Francisco: Rinehart Press, 1973), p. 419, from Sizzi's Dianola astronomica.

  23. De Santillana, 1955, p. 247. These remarks were brought out in the trial of Galileo in 1633 by Melchior Inchofer, one of the experts for the prosecution.

  24. Butterfield, p. 83

  25. De Santillana, 1955, p. 37.

  26. Galileo, The Starry Messenger, trans. S. Drake, 1957, p. 58. Kepler had discovered the elliptical patterns of the planets in the previous year and published his findings in Astronomia Nova.

  27. E. A. Burst, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science (New York: Doubleday, 1954), pp. 37-8.

  28. De Santillana, 1955, p. 21. Since colombi (masculine) means "pigeons," Galileo and his followers called the Peripatetic coalition formed by Lodovico, the "Pigeon-League."

  29. See J. Brodrick, Robert Bellarmine: Saint and Scholar (Westminster: Newman, 1961), p. 346.

  30. Langford, p. 55, f.n.8.

  31. Di Santillana, 1955, p. 45.

  32. Ibid., P. 283.

  33. See A. Ricci-Riccardi, Galileo e Fra Tommaso Caccini: Una corresponza inedita (1902).

  34. Letter to Castelli (Dec. 13, 1613): "Holy Scripture and nature proceed equally from the divine Word, the former as it were dictated by the Holy Spirit, the latter as a very faithful executor of God's orders."

  35. Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina (National Edition of the Works of Galileo, Vol. V, p. 315): "Holy Scripture can never lie, provided its true meaning is understood, which — I do not think it can be denied — is often hidden and very different from what a simple interpretation of the words seems to indicate."

  36. Letter of Cardinal Bellarmine to Foscarini.

  37. Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York: New American Library, 1963), p. 163.

  38. Brodrick, The Life and Work of Blessed Robert Francis, Cardinal Bellarmine, SJ., 1928, Vol. 11, p. 360.

  39. Koestler, p. 20.

  40. Butterfield, p. 69. The first opposition to the helio-centric theory came from Luther and Melancthon and other Protestant theologians. They produced scathing condemnations of Copernicus' work. Luther called Copernicus "an ass who wants to pervert the whole of astronomy and deny what is said in the book of Joshua, only to make a show of ingenuity and attract attention."

  41. P. Melancthon, "Initia doctrinae physicae," Corpus Reformatorum, ed. Bretschneider, XIII, p. 216.

  42. Letter to Diodati (Oct. 29, 1629).

  43. Butterfield, p. 82.

  44. Arthur Koestler, The Sleepwalkers (New York: Macmillan, 1959), p. 478.

  45. Galileo, "The Assayer," p. 232.

  46. Galileo, Dialogue on the Great World Systems, trans. de Santillana (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1953), p. 354.

  47. Galileo, "The Assayer," p. 269.

  48. Opere, XVI, 117.

  49. Quoted in full in de Santillana, 1955, pp. 165-6.

  50. Ronan, p. 195.

  51. Ibid., pp. 196-8.

  52. Opere, XI, 216.

  53. De Santillana, 1955, p. 161.

  54. Koestler, 1964, p. 20.

  55. Whitehead, p. 10.

  56. Ronan, p. 223.

  57. Opere, iii:l, 253-4.

  58. Galileo, 1957, p. 21.

  59. De Santillana, 1955, p. 152.

  60. Letter to Diodati (1637).

  61. G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Garden City: Doubleday, 1957), p. 54.


Donald DeMarco. "The dispute between Galileo and the Catholic Church." The Homiletic & Pastoral Review CI, no. 3 (May 1986 & June 1986): 23-51; 53-59.

This article is reprinted with permission from The Homiletic & Pastoral Review. All rights reserved. To subscribe phone: (800) 651-1531 or write: Homiletic & Pastoral Review PO Box 591120 San Francisco, CA 94159-1120


Donald DeMarco is Professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, CT and Professor Emeritus at St. Jerome's University in Waterloo Ontario. He has written hundreds of articles for various scholarly and popular journals, and is the author of twenty books, including The Heart of Virtue, The Many Faces of Virtue, Virtue's Alphabet: From Amiability to Zeal and Architects Of The Culture Of Death. Donald DeMarco is on the Advisory Board of The Catholic Educator's Resource Center.

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