Galileo Revisited, Part II
Andrew Schuman and Robert CousinsView comments
Galileo’s 1633 trial before the Roman Inquisition endures in popular culture as the climactic moment when science and reason clashed with organized religion, giving birth to the modern era of rationalism. We imagine Galileo standing before his robed judges, methodically explaining his scientific proof for the earth’s motion and perhaps even inviting them to look through his telescope. His prosecutors, meanwhile, fire back at him obscure Bible verses that indicate the Earth’s fixed place in the universe. They condemn Galileo as a heretic, he is forced to recant his scientifically verified views under threat of torture and he ends his days under house arrest, despondent and in disgrace.1
This version of events, entertaining as it may be, is in fact little more than a romantic misconception. Galileo was never tortured, put in chains or imprisoned. Instead he was treated with great courtesy, spending most of his time in Rome at the home of the Tuscan ambassador.
Indeed, Galileo’s trial is perhaps the most profoundly misunderstood episode in his life. It simply was not the epic battle between belief systems that it is popularly made out to be. Rather, it was the result of a technicality, a misunderstanding about what Galileo was and was not permitted to say in his 1632 work Dialogue On the Two Chief World Systems. The trial was also caught up in the personal conflict between Galileo and his old student and friend, Pope Urban VIII, at a time of intense political pressure for the Pontiff and his Church.
Let us first review the immediate background of the trial. In the spring of 1632, Galileo published the Dialogue—a book that pitted the sun-centered view of the cosmos against the earth-centered view—which immediately began to evoke accusations of heresy. Ever since 1616, the Roman Catholic Church had prohibited all books advocating Copernicanism. As evidence for the earth’s motion swelled during the allegedly neutral dialogue, it gave every impression that the purpose of the book was to render geo-centrism illogical.2 In addition to apparently violating Church regulations, Galileo had injudiciously placed Pope Urban VIII’s own opinion on the matter—that human intellect could not discern the true causes of celestial phenomena—in the mouth of the buffoonish character Simplicio. In this way Galileo managed to alienate and insult his longtime friend and ally. What’s more, the insult came at the height of the Thirty Years’ War when the Pope could ill afford more dissension. Thus when the Florentine Inquisitor summoned him to Rome in October 1632, under threat of imprisonment, Galileo had no choice but to comply.
Galileo appeared in Rome in February of the next year. Unlike usual procedure, he was not arrested upon arrival, but rather allowed to stay in the home of the Tuscan ambassador. Despite growing apprehension about his trial, Galileo nonetheless was pleasantly surprised by his accommodations, and wrote to a friend shortly after his arrival that: “...this seems to be the beginning of a procedure which is very gentle and kind, and completely unlike the threatened ropes, chains and prisons, etc.”3
However, Galileo’s first impression was not entirely accurate. Within a few days of his arrival, the Pope ordered him not to speak to anyone; for the next month and a half Galileo was not allowed to leave the ambassador’s quarters or entertain visitors.4 During this time Galileo heard nothing official about the preparations for his trial, but nevertheless slowly gleaned from friends that “the greatest difficulty seems to lie in the claim by these Lords that in the year 1616 Mr. Galilei received an injunction not to dispute about or discuss [Copernicanism].”5
Galileo’s trial was to be conducted under the auspices of the Roman Inquisition, which consisted of ten Cardinals appointed by the Pope and charged with safeguarding Catholic dogma. The usual trial procedure was for the Prosecutor of the Holy Office, a primarily legal official, to formulate the charges against the defendant and conduct interrogations prior to the trial. Then he was to submit an official summary of the proceedings to the Cardinals, who then would vote on the charges and submit their decision to the Pope for approval.6
On April 12, 1633, Galileo stood before the Prosecutor of the Holy Office, Fr. Vincenzo Maculano, for the first round of questioning. Father Maculano began with the standard question of whether Galileo knew why he had been summoned by the Holy Office. Galileo responded that he suspected it was because of his book, the Dialogue, since the printer had been ordered to “not issue any more of these books” as well as to “send the original manuscript...to the Holy Office in Rome.”7
Father Maculano focused his later questions on Galileo’s disagreement with Cardinal Bellarmine, former Master of Controversial Questions and twelve years deceased, over the topic of Copernicanism in 1616. This was the conflict which ultimately led to the decree by the Congregation of the Holy Index which declared Copernicanism “foolish and absurd in philosophy” and “formally heretical.”8 Although Galileo was never mentioned by name in this decree, or publically punished and charged with holding a heretical view, he was personally given a warning by Cardinal Bellarmine not to advance Copernicanism in the future.
Since Bellarmine delivered this warning to Galileo verbally, no official record of his exact words was filed. However, when Father Maculano searched through the files of the Holy Office for a record of the meeting, he found an unsigned document from 1616 which read that Bellarmine had forbidden Galileo to “hold, teach or defend [Copernicanism] in any way, either verbally or in writing.”9
If this were the case, then Galileo’s writing of the Dialogue would be indefensible. Even if he tried to argue that he did not defend Copernicanism in his book, he most certainly taught the theory. From Father Maculano’s view, the case was open-and-shut. Instead of pitting scientific reasoning against religious authority, this case pivoted on the simple question: had Galileo violated the injunction against advocating Copernicanism?
However, as Maculano continued to question Galileo about the 1616 controversy and injunction, a different story emerged. Unlike the document found in the files of the Holy Office, Galileo claimed that Bellarmine had not prohibited him from teaching about Copernicanism, only from advocating that Copernicanism was absolutely true. He said Bellarmine had told him that “Copernicus’ theory could be held suppositionally, as Copernicus himself held it.” Only when Copernicanism was taken as a literal description of the universe could “the opinion be neither held nor defended.”10
In other words, Galileo could hold Copernicanism as a theory, but could not assert that it was an actual description of the objective universe. In support of this claim, Galileo quoted from a letter by Cardinal Bellarmine applauding him for “proceeding prudently by limiting [himself] to speaking suppositionally and not absolutely.”11 Given Galileo’s account of Bellarmine’s injunction, a hypothetical discussion of Copernicanism, such as in the Dialogue, would be acceptable.
Galileo further supported his position by furnishing a certificate that he had received from Cardinal Bellarmine only a few months after the 1616 decree. It confirmed that Galileo had not been forced to renounce “any opinion or doctrine which he held,” and instead stated that Copernicanism taken in the absolute sense could not be “defended or held.”12
This document contained no mention of the much stronger injunction not to “teach … in any way whatever, verbally or in writing” that was found in the document from the Holy Office files. When asked if he remembered the stronger wording, Galileo responded: “Regarding the two other phrases...not to teach and in any way whatever, I did not retain them in my memory, I think because they are not contained in the said certificate.”13
Indeed, Galileo’s certificate appeared more genuine, bearing the signature of the late Cardinal, whereas Maculano’s document was unsigned. With no way to establish which document took precedence, the first round of questioning ended. The trial appeared to have reached an impasse.14
For the next eighteen days, Galileo was sworn to silence and given accommodations in the quarters of the Holy Office. During this time, he was beset with physical pain from old age, but nonetheless acknowledged that his “hope was greater than ever” that the trial might be resolved in a conciliatory manner.15
Maculano, however, was far less at peace. His airtight case against Galileo had been brought to a halt by Galileo’s unexpected certificate, and pressure was beginning to build for a verdict.16 Seeing no way to convict Galileo in court, Maculano asked permission from the Holy Congregation to “treat extrajudiciously with Galileo, in order to render him sensible of his error and bring him, if he recognizes it, to the confession of the same.”17
In essence, Maculano would offer Galileo a deal, a plea bargain of sorts. He would drop all charges of formal heresy if Galileo would admit to inadvertently advancing heretical ideas in the Dialogue.18 This way both parties could save face: Galileo would be guilty only of inadvertence, and the Inquisition would have duly punished him, albeit lightly.
On April 27, Maculano visited Galileo in his private quarters at the Holy Office to negotiate a compromise. After hours of “exchanging innumerable arguments and answers,” Galileo agreed to the deal, admitting to Maculano that he “had erred and gone too far in his book.” 19 Once the deal was settled, Galileo expressed relief and thankfulness towards Maculano, grateful that he would leave the whole affair with little more than a slap on the wrist. Maculano too was glad, stating: “the case . . . may now be settled without difficulty. The Tribunal will maintain its reputation; the culprit can be treated with benignity.”20
A few days later a second court session was called and Galileo confessed his errors: he had simply gotten carried away and accidentally made a weak argument look strong.21 “My error then was, and I confess it, one of vain ambition, pure ignorance and inadvertence.”22 Maculano in turn proposed a relatively light sentence for Galileo; although the specifics are not known, it was likely akin to “inadvertence” or “rashness.”23
The next step was for Galileo to present before the court a formal defense of his innocence. So, ten days later, Galileo appeared again and presented the original copy of Bellarmine’s certificate as well as a brief written defense of his actions. Echoing his previous confession, Galileo asserted that the errors found in his book were “not introduced through the cunning of an insincere intention,” but rather through the “satisfaction of appearing clever beyond the average among popular writers” by making the weaker argument appear strong.24 Having finished his part of the plea bargain, Galileo only needed to wait for Maculano to uphold his end of the agreement. Leaving the session Galileo was optimistic, even confident, about the outcome of the trial.25
The officials of the Holy Office then prepared a summary of the trial, which was delivered to the ten cardinals of the Holy Congregation, and ultimately to the Pope, for judgment.26 Likely there was disagreement among the members of the Congregation regarding the sentence; Galileo heard nothing from them for more than a month.27
However, when the sentence was presented to Pope Urban VIII, he balked at letting Galileo off with a slap on the wrist. Faced with increasing pressure from Spain to contribute more to the war effort, and amidst growing accusations of weakness as a leader, Urban was determined to make an example of Galileo.28 Furthermore, there was the matter of Galileo’s handling of the Pope’s request that he include in his book a disclaimer on the tides, a request that Galileo managed to meet in a way that embarrassed the Pope, a serious scientist and theologian in his own right.
The Pope ignored the plea bargain and decided to use Galileo’s confession against him as evidence of vehement suspicion of heresy, a sentence only one degree below formal heresy.29 On June 16, the Pope issued a public decree that “Galileo is to be interrogated with regard to his intention, even with the threat of torture, and, if he sustains [answers in a satisfactory manner], he is to abjure de vehementi [i.e., vehement suspicion of heresy].”30 With this the case was effectively settled. Galileo would be arrested, interrogated and convicted of vehement suspicion of heresy.31
Although we do not know when Galileo first heard of the decree, he must have been stunned. The plea bargain had been disregarded, and now he was being called to trial again. On June 21, Galileo was rearrested and brought to court. When asked if he held Copernicanism in the absolute sense, Galileo responded that he had adhered to that view when he was young, but ever since the Decree of 1616, “assured by the prudence of the authorities, all my uncertainty stopped.”32 Having answered satisfactorily, Galileo was deemed guilty of “vehement suspicion of heresy,” but innocent of formal heresy.33
On June 22, 1633, Galileo listened as the Congregation of the Holy Office read its verdict:
We say, pronounce, sentence, and declare that you, the abovementioned Galileo...vehemently suspected of heresy, namely of having held and believed a doctrine which is false and contrary to Holy Scripture: that the sun is the center of the world and does not move from east to west, and the earth moves and is not the center of the world.34
Galileo’s sentence was also read: he was confined to house arrest for the rest of his life, the Dialogue was officially banned and he had to recite the seven penitential psalms weekly for the next three years. He was given the opportunity to receive forgiveness from the Holy Office if he read with a sincere heart the abjuration statement that had been prepared for him in advance.35 Thus, kneeling before his judges, Galileo declared:
With a sincere heart and unfeigned faith I abjure, curse and detest the above mentioned errors and heresies...and I swear that in the future I will never again say or assert, orally or in writing, anything which might cause a similar suspicion about me.36
With this image, we are transported to the modern day. Despite the popular understanding of Galileo’s trial as the epitome of the struggle between science and religion, the two disciplines actually were not in conflict with each other. Instead we find that the case pivoted on an internal technicality: had Galileo violated the injunction of 1616? Given the contradiction between Maculano’s document and Galileo’s certificate, it was impossible to know the specifics of the 1616 injunction. Galileo could not, therefore, be proved to have violated the decree.
External matters of the day were equally germane to the outcome of the case. The nascent Protestant Reformation brought to the fore the issue of reinterpretation of Scripture. There was much disagreement among Christians in Europe over who could legitimately interpret Scripture and when it was appropriate to do so.
It was not yet determined what level of empirical evidence constituted a scientific “fact.”37 As a result, natural discoveries like Galileo’s telescopic observations further complicated the issue of reinterpreting Scripture. As we saw in the 1616 controversy, Galileo thought he had enough evidence to merit such a reinterpretation, but Cardinal Bellarmine disagreed.
Additionally, mounting political pressure from Catholic rulers in Europe forced Pope Urban VIII to make exaggerated demonstrations of orthodoxy. As a result, he was in no position to authorize the lenient sentence proposed by Fr. Maculano, and so deemed Galileo guilty of vehement suspicion of heresy.
Looking back, it becomes clear that the whole Galileo affair has been blown out of proportion. It was never a conflict between science and religion. Rather, it was a simple trial that was turned into a vehicle for settling political differences completely unrelated to Copernicanism, Galileo and the legal matter at hand.
As for Galileo, he remained a faithful Christian all his life. He lived and died an ardent proponent of the unity of truth, and he believed in the fundamental compatibility of truth observed in nature and in Scripture.
Galileo never promised that reconciling science and faith would be easy. In fact, he warned that “its expounders and interpreters are liable to err in many ways.”38 Nevertheless he always affirmed that there is “no teacher of truth but God, no matter where it comes to light.”39
How science rose from the tumult of the Reformation and Age of Enlightenment and became an independent way of seeing the world, and how religion and science came into conflict, is a story for another day. The lesson of the Galileo affair is that history is often more complex and more nuanced than the caricatures that exist in today’s popular imagination.
Nowadays, with science and religion so often appearing at war, we might do well to look back at Galileo and his complicated times. What we find there will help us understand the interplay of natural science and religion, of empiricism and epistemology, in a time before modern intellectual prejudice had been born. And we would do well to remember a faithful Christian and brilliant scientist who persevered through opposition and personal hardship, “always to conform his duty as a scientist with the destiny of his soul.”40
1. Richard J. Blackwell, Behind the Scenes at Galileo’s Trial (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006) 1.
2. Ibid, 3.
3. Annibale Fantoli, Galileo: For Copernicanism and for the Church Vol.3, trans. George V. Coyne S.J. (Italy: Vatican Observatory Publications, 1994), 396.
4. Fantoli, 395.
5. Ibid, 396.
6. Blackwell, 6-7.
7. Maurice A. Finocchiaro, The Galileo Affair (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989) 256.
8. Fantoli, 199.
9. Blackwell, 10.
10. Finocchiaro, 258-259.
11. Fantoli, 174.
12. Blackwell, 9.
13. Finocchiaro, 260.
14. Blackwell, 13.
15. Fantoli, 407.
16. Blackwell, 13.
17. Fantoli, 408.
18. Blackwell, 14.
19. Ibid, 15.
20. Ibid, 15.
21. Ibid, 16.
22. Ibid, 17.
23. Ibid, 16.
24. Ibid, 17.
25. Ibid, 21.
26. Ibid, 18.
27. Ibid, 29.
28. Lawence M. Principe, “Galileo’s Trial.” Science and Religion Course No. 4691. John Hopkins University.
30. Blackwell, 23.
31. Principe, “Galileo’s Trial.”
32. Blackwell, 24.
33. Fantoli, 422.
34. Blackwell, 25.
35. Fantoli, 423.
36. Blackwell, 25-26.
37. Principe, “Galileo’s Trial.”
38. Dava Sobel, Galileo’s Daughter (New York: Walker & Company, 1999) 63.
39. Principe, “Galileo’s Trial.”
40. Sobel, 12.