THE GALILEO MYTH PART II
POPE URBAN VIII ST.ROBERT BELLARMINE
The Galileo Myth
… Continued from Foundation January 2008 p.12.
IT WAS NOT UNTIL FOUR YEARS LATER that trouble arose, the ecclesiastical authorities taking alarm at the persistence with which Galileo proclaimed the truth of the Copernican doctrine. That their opposition was grounded, as is constantly assumed, upon a fear lest men should be enlightened by the diffusion of scientific truth, it is obviously absurd to maintain. On the contrary, they were firmly convinced, with Bacon and others, that the new teaching was radically false and unscientific, while it is now truly admitted that Galileo himself had no sufficient proof of what he so vehemently advocated, and Professor Huxley after examining the case avowed his opinion that the opponents of Galileo “had rather the best of it”.
But what, more than all, raised alarm was anxiety for the credit of Holy Scripture, the letter of which was then universally believed to be the supreme authority in matters of science, as in all others. When therefore it spoke of the sun staying his course at the prayer of Joshua, or the earth as being ever immovable, it was assumed that the doctrine of Copernicus and Galileo was anti-Scriptural; and therefore heretical. It is evident that, since the days of Copernicus himself, the Reformation controversy had done much to attach suspicion to novel interpretations of the Bible, which was not lessened by the endeavours of Galileo and his ally Foscarini to find positive arguments for Copernicanism in the inspired volume.
In these circumstances, Galileo, hearing that some had denounced his doctrine as anti-Scriptural, presented himself at Rome in December, 1615, and was courteously received. He was presently interrogated before the Inquisition, which after consultation declared the system he upheld to be scientifically false, and anti-Scriptural or heretical, and that he must renounce it. This he obediently did, promising to teach it no more. Then followed a decree of the Congregation of the Index dated 5 March 1616, prohibiting various heretical works to which were added any advocating the Copernican system. In this decree no mention is made of Galileo, or of any of his works. Neither is the name of the pope introduced, though there is no doubt that he fully approved the decision, having presided at the session of the Inquisition, wherein the matter was discussed and decided. It must not be forgotten that, while there was as yet no sufficient proof of the Copernican system, no objection was made to its being taught as an hypothesis which explained all phenomena in a simpler manner than the Ptolemaic, and might for all practical purposes be adopted by astronomers. What was objected to was the assertion that Copernicanism was in fact true, “which appears to contradict Scripture”. It is clear, moreover, that the authors of the judgment themselves did not consider it to be absolutely final and irreversible, for Cardinal Bellarmine, the most influential member of the Sacred College, writing to Foscarini, after urging that he and Galileo should be content to show that their system explains all celestial phenomena -- an unexceptional proposition, and one sufficient for all practical purposes -- but should not categorically assert what seemed to contradict the Bible, thus continued:
I say that if a real proof be found that the sun is fixed and does not revolve round the earth, but the earth round the sun, then it will be necessary, very carefully, to proceed to the explanation of the passages of Scripture which appear to be contrary, and we should rather say that we have misunderstood these than pronounce that to be false which is demonstrated.
Galileo seems, says von Gebler, to have treated the decree of the Inquisition pretty coolly, speaking with satisfaction of the trifling changes prescribed in the work of Copernicus. He left Rome, however, with the evident intention of violating the promise extracted from him. Nevertheless, when in 1624 he again visited Rome, he met with what is rightly described as “a noble and generous reception”. The pope now reigning, Urban VIII, had, as Cardinal Barberini, been his friend and had opposed his condemnation in 1616. He conferred on his visitor a pension, to which as a foreigner in Rome Galileo had no claim, and which, says Brewster, must be regarded as an endowment of Science itself. But to Galileo’s disappointment Urban would not annul the former judgment of the Inquisition.
After his return to Florence, Galileo set himself to compose the work which revived and aggravated all former animosities, namely a dialogue in which a Ptolemist is utterly routed and confounded by two Copernicans. This was published in 1632, and, being plainly inconsistent with his former promise, was taken by the Roman authorities as a direct challenge. He was therefore again cited before the Inquisition, and again failed to display the courage of his opinions, declaring that since his former trial in 1616 he had never held the Copernican theory. Such a declaration, naturally was not taken very seriously, and in spite of it he was condemned as “vehemently suspected of heresy” to incarceration at the pleasure of the tribunal and to recite the Seven Penitential Psalms once a week for three years.
As his Protestant biographer, von Gebler, tells us, “One glance at the truest historical source for the famous trial, would convince any one that Galileo spent altogether twenty-two days in the buildings of the Holy Office (i.e. the Inquisition), and even then not in a prison cell with barred windows, but in the handsome and commodious apartment of an official of the Inquisition.” For the rest, he was allowed to use as his places of confinement the houses of friends, always comfortable and usually luxurious. It is wholly untrue that he was -- as is constantly stated -- either tortured or blinded by his persecutors -- though in 1637, five years before his death, he became totally blind -- or that he was refused burial in consecrated ground. On the contrary, although the pope (Urban VIII) did not allow a monument to be erected over his tomb, he sent his special blessing to the dying man, who was interred not only in consecrated ground, but within the church of Santa Croce at Florence.
This in brief, is the history of this famous “conflict between ecclesiastical authority and science”, to which special theological importance has been attached in connection with the question of papal infallibility. Can it be said that either Paul V or Urban VIII so committed himself to the doctrine of geocentricism as to impose it upon the Church as an article of faith, and so to teach as pope what is now acknowledged to be untrue? That both these pontiffs were convinced anti-Copernicans cannot be doubted, nor that they believed the Copernican system to be unscriptural and desired its suppression. The question is, however, whether either of them condemned the doctrine ex cathedra. This, it is clear, they never did. As to the decree of 1616, we have seen that it was issued by the Congregation of the Index, which can raise no difficulty in regard of infallibility, this tribunal absolutely lacking the power to make a dogmatic decree. Nor is the case altered by the fact that the pope approved the Congregation’s decision in forma communi, that is to say, to the extent needful for the purpose intended, namely to prohibit the circulation of writings which were judged harmful. The pope and his assessors may have been wrong in such a judgment, but this does not alter the character of the administrative pronouncement. Nor does it convert it into a decree ex cathedra.
As to the second trial in 1633, this was concerned not so much with the doctrine as with the person of Galileo, and his manifest breach of contract in not abstaining from the active propaganda of Copernican doctrines. The administrative sentence, passed upon him in consequence, clearly implied a condemnation of Copernicanism, but it made no formal decree on the subject, and did not receive the pope’s signature.
Galileo was convicted once for teaching a true something he could not prove, which seemed to impugn Sacred Scripture; he was convicted again for defying his original sentence.
Science was not on trial, but Galileo and he failed to prove his assertions and again, victim of his own argumentative bombast, he failed a second time. He was never mistreated - indeed treated in a deferential manner. The Church and Churchmen continued its previous and ongoing support of genuine science.
The pity for Galileo was that he was right but he didn’t know how to prove it, and that his personality traits led him into truly unscientific and unnecessary conflicts.
Thesearticles compiled with reference to the CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA and other sources first appeared in the January and February 2008 issues of FOUNDATION.