Galileo Galilei 1564– 1642

Born in Pisa in 1564, Galileo studied medicine at the university there. Showing little interest in that discipline, he abandoned it for the study of physics and mathematics. In 1585 he settled in Florence without obtaining any academic qualification. Yet, he gained the esteem of the greatest mathematicians of his day, credited with the discovery of certain principles of inertia, and winning the post of mathematics lecturer at the University of Pisa. After his father’s death, economic difficulties forced Galileo to move to Padua, where he was appointed to a more lucrative position, the chair of mathematics in that city’s university.

During his 18 years in Padua, three children were born to Galileo by his mistress, a young Venetian woman. In 1610 he returned to Florence, where he obtained a better economic situation enabling him to dedicate more time to research—but at the expense of the freedom he had enjoyed in the territory of the powerful Venetian Republic.  (The Library of Original Sources, Vol. VI, 1915)

A step leading to the confrontation between Galileo and the church occurred back in the 13th century, and involved Catholic authority Thomas Aquinas (1225-74). Aquinas had a profound respect for Aristotle, whom he referred to as The Philosopher. Aquinas struggled for five years to fuse Aristotle’s philosophy with church teaching. By the time of Galileo, says Wade Rowland in his book Galileo’s Mistake: A New Look at the Epic Confrontation Between Galileo and the Church, “the hybridized Aristotle in the theology of Aquinas had become bedrock dogma of the Church of Rome.” In those days there was no scientific community as such. Education was largely in the hands of the church. The authority on religion and science was often one and the same.

The next step became the confrontation between the church and Galileo. Even before his involvement with astronomy, Galileo had written a treatise on motion. It challenged many assumptions made by the revered Aristotle. However, it was Galileo’s steadfast promotion of the heliocentric concept and his assertion that it harmonizes with Scripture that led to his trial by the Inquisition in 1633.

In his defence, Galileo affirmed his strong faith in the Bible as the inspired Word of God. He also argued that the Scriptures were written for ordinary people and that Biblical references to the apparent movement of the sun were not to be interpreted literally. His arguments were futile. Because Galileo rejected an interpretation of Scripture based on Greek philosophy, he stood condemned! Not until 1992 did the Catholic Church officially admit to error in its judgment of Galileo.

Galileo’s drive to read from the “Book of Nature,” led him to the work of the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus. In 1543, Copernicus had published a book, De RevolutionibusCoelestibus (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres), divided into six parts. Listed below are some of the key ideas appearing in his book.

● The Earth is one of many “travellers” whose movements are governed by the sun sitting on its royal throne.’

● The planets are orbiting the sun in the same direction. The Earth is one of them, spinning on its own axis once a day and orbiting the sun once every year.

● Arranged in order of distance from the sun, Mercury is closest, followed by Venus, Earth and its moon, Mars, Jupiter, and finally Saturn.

As early as the end of the 16th century, Galileo embraced the Copernican theory, which states that the earth revolves around the sun and not vice versa. This is also called the heliocentric (or sun-centred) system. In1610, after using his telescope to discover previously unknown celestial bodies, Galileo became convinced that the heliocentric theory best explained his observations.

As a Bible student, he also reasoned on verses such as Proverbs 8:26,29: Nec dum terram fecerat,et flumina, et cardines orbis terrae’ (Latin Vulgate), variously rendered in English: ‘when he decreed the foundations of the earth’ (NWT), ‘he had not yet made the earth, nor the rivers, nor the poles of the world…when he balanced the foundations of the earth’ (Douay), ‘nor yet had he created the earth, or the rivers, or the hinges for the globe of the earth’ . In his own words: ’If (enlightened scholars) admit the rotation of the earth, they might understand its poles, surely cardines, or ‘hinges’, are ascribed to the earth in vain if it be not to turn upon them’ (The Authority of Scripture, 1614).

The Galileo Affair, as many call it, has raised doubts, questions, and controversy that still echo today, some 370 years later. The case has left an indelible mark on the history of religion and science. Why has the Galileo case made news again in our modern era? Does it really symbolize a “fracture between science and religion,” as one writer termed it?

Galileo is considered by many to be the “father of modern science.” One of the very first men to study the skies by means of a telescope, Galileo interpreted what he saw as support for a notion that was still hotly disputed in his day: The earth revolves around the sun and therefore our planet is not the centre of the universe. No wonder that Galileo is sometimes seen as the founder of the modern experimental method!

As an astronomer, he discovered, among other things, that Jupiter has moons, that the Milky Way is composed of stars, that the moon has mountains, and that Venus has moonlike phases. As a physicist, he studied the laws governing both the pendulum and falling objects. He invented such instruments as the geometric compass, a kind of slide rule. Using information received from Holland, he made the telescope that opened the universe before him.

According to the Grande Dizionario Enciclopedico, Galileo wanted to do more than just make such discoveries. He wanted to convince “the highest-ranking personages of the day (princes and cardinals)” that the Copernican theory was true. He optimistically hoped that with the help of influential friends, he could overcome the church’s objections and even win its support.

In 1611, Galileo travelled to Rome, where he met high-ranking clergymen. He used his telescope to show them his astronomical discoveries. But by 1616, Galileo found himself under official scrutiny, and former supporters deserted him.

Theologians of the Roman Inquisition labelled the heliocentric thesis “philosophically foolish and absurd and formally heretical, since in many places it expressly contradicts the sentences of the Holy Scriptures according to their literal meaning, the common exposition, and the sense of the Holy Fathers and doctors of theology.” However, the official accounts were noticeably lacking in concrete examples.

Galileo met with Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, considered the greatest Catholic theologian of the day and known as “the hammer of the heretics.” Bellarmine had formally admonished Galileo to stop promoting his opinions on the sun-centred system.

Galileo tried to act prudently, but he did not renounce his support of the Copernican thesis. Seventeen years later, in 1633, Galileo appeared before the Inquisition court. Cardinal Bellarmine was dead, but now Galileo’s main opposition came from Pope Urban VIII, who had in the past been favourable. Writers have called this trial one of the most famous and unjust in antiquity, even ranking it along with the trials of Socrates and Jesus Christ.

What provoked the trial? Galileo had written a book entitled Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. In effect, it advocated heliocentrism. The author was directed to present himself to the court in 1632, but Galileo delayed, being ill and almost 70 years old. He made the trip to Rome the following year, after being threatened with bonds and forced transportation. By order of the pope, he was interrogated and even threatened with torture.

Whether this sick old man was actually tortured is a matter of controversy. As recorded in his conviction sentence, Galileo was subjected to “rigorous examination.” According to Italo Mereu, a historian of Italian law, in his book History of Intolerance in Europe, that phrase was the technical expression of the day used to describe torture. A number of scholars agree with that interpretation.

At any rate, Galileo stood before the members of the Inquisition on June 22, 1633. Although Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems was first published under Catholic license in 1632, papal enthusiasm soon waned. Galileo was summoned to appear before the Inquisition a second time. The charge of suspicion of heresy required that the church authorization to publish the book be explained first, and it was asserted that Galileo fraudulently concealed the earlier ban on teaching Copernicanism. Since Dialogue compared astronomical systems, including that of Copernicus, it was asserted that it violated the ban.

He was found guilty of “having held and believed false doctrine, contrary to the Holy and Divine Scriptures, that the Sun…does not move from east to west and that the Earth moves and is not the centre of the world.”

Galileo did not want to become a martyr, so he was forced to recant. After his sentence was read, the elderly scientist, kneeling and dressed as a penitent, solemnly pronounced: “I do abjure, curse, and detest the said errors and heresies [the Copernican theory] and in general all and any other error, heresy, or sect contrary to the Holy Church.”

There is a popular tradition—unconfirmed by solid evidence—that after abjuring, Galileo stamped his foot and exclaimed in protest: “And yet it does move!”  Commentators claim that the humiliation of renouncing his discoveries anguished the scientist until his death. He had been condemned to jail, but his sentence was commuted to perpetual house arrest in Florence. As blindness descended upon him, he lived in near seclusion. Galileo died in 1642 as a result of his condemnation by the Inquisition.

Many have concluded that Galileo’s example proves that science and religion are hopelessly incompatible. In effect, over the centuries the Galileo case has alienated people from a balanced understanding of scriptural intent. The history of the Inquisition convinced many that religion is by nature a threat to scientific progress. Is that really so?

Pope Urban VIII and the theologians of the Roman Inquisition did in fact condemn the Copernican theory, claiming that it was contrary to the Bible. Galileo’s adversaries referred to Joshua’s statement, “Sun, stand thou still,” which, according to their reading, was to be understood literally. (Joshua 10:12, Authorised Version) But does the Bible really contradict the Copernican theory?  An honest appraisal will admit that a statement about the sun standing still in the sky is not meant as a scientific analysis but as a simple observation about how things appeared from the standpoint of human eyewitnesses. Astronomers, too, often speak of the rising and setting of the sun, planets, and stars. They do not mean that these heavenly bodies literally revolve around the earth but, rather, that they appear to move across our sky. This is Galileo’s premise. Grasping this fundamental truth would later benefit Einstein in developing his General Theory of Relativity.

The contradiction lay between science and an obviously incorrect interpretation of Scripture. That was how Galileo understood the matter. He wrote to a pupil: “Even though Scripture cannot err, its interpreters and expositors can, in various ways. One of these, very serious and very frequent, would be when they always want to stop at the purely literal sense… it is piously spoken that the Scriptures cannot lie…One taking the sense too literally might pervert the truth and conceive blasphemies, and give God feet and hands, eyes, and human affections such as anger, repentance, forgetfulness or ignorance, whereas these expressions are employed merely to accommodate the truth (at the level of) the mental capacity of the unlearned. Anyone familiar with the Bible would have to agree.

Galileo went further. He claimed that two books, the Bible and the book of nature, were written by the same Author and could not contradict each other. He added, though, that a person could not “with certainty assert that all interpreters speak under divine inspiration.” This implicit criticism of the church’s official interpretation was likely considered a provocation, leading the Roman Inquisition to condemn the scientist. He had written: ‘Surely it is harmful to souls to make it a heresy to believe what is proved. It would be an open contempt of a hundred scriptural texts which teach us that the glory and the greatness of Almighty God are admirably discerned in all his works, and divinely read in the book of the heavens’. Biographer L. Geymonat points out in his book Galileo Galilei: “Narrow-minded theologians who wanted to limit science on the basis of biblical reasoning would do nothing but cast discredit upon the Bible itself.”

The fact is that the heliocentric theory was not criticized by theologians alone. Pope Urban VIII, who played a prominent role in the case, rigidly insisted that Galileo refrain from undermining the centuries-old church teaching that the earth is the centre of the universe. That teaching came, not from the Bible, but from the Greek philosopher Aristotle.