The Heresy of Galileo

Galileo was condemned by the Inquisition, not for his own brilliant theories, but because he stood up for his belief in Copernicus’s theory that the earth was not, as the Church insisted, the center of the universe, but that rather, the universe is heliocentric. Galileo was a man of tremendous intellect and imagination living in a era dominated by the Catholic Church, which attempted to control the people by dictating their own version of “reality. ” Any person who publicly questioned Church doctrine ran the chance of condemnation and punishment.

If man ould think, man could question, and the Church could lose its authority over the masses. This could not be tolerated in the 17th century, when the Church had the power to dictate “reality. ” Copernicus probably avoided a similar fate by confining his opinions to his students and the university milieu, and in fact his theories were not published until the time of his death. To be tried by the Inquisition was something that nobody could take lightly.

Although in Galileo’s time the Inquisition was becoming more and more lenient, it was known to have used orture in the past and to have sent many heretics to burn at the stake. As late as 1600, this fate had befallen the Italian thinker Giordano Bruno, a one-time Dominican friar who had adopted a From the summer of 1605, Galileo was private tutor of mathematics to young Prince Cosimo de’ Medici, son of the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Teacher and pupil became sincerely attached to each other by mutual affection and deference, and this bond lasted to the end of Galileo’s life.

Galileo remained a good friend of the Grand Duke as well. In the summer of 1611, he Grand Duke invited Galileo to a dinner party at his court. The Duke liked to gather great scholars around him, especially when he had illustrious guests, to hear them talk about issues of interest to the learned world. At this dinner the discussion centered on floating bodies. Galileo maintained that bodies can float only if their specific gravity is less than that of water.

Among the dinner guests there were, however, some followers of Aristotle’s philosophies, and they argued that bodies float if their shape is wide and smooth so they cannot cut through the resistance of the water. Floating bodies were a topic on which Galileo was especially knowledgeable, as he had been interested in the subject since, when as a student, he had read Archimedes. He was able to support his point so brilliantly that one of the guests of honor, Maffeo Cardinal Barberini, sided with him.

Years later, Cardinal Barberini became Pope Urban VIII and turned against Galileo, becoming one of his bitter enemies, but at that moment he was as congenial as one could be, sincerely admiring Galileo’s dialectical skill. Perhaps to please the Cardinal, the Grand Duke asked Galileo to put his argument into writing, which he did. The result was The Discourse on Galileo’s sharp, almost sarcastic wit made him especially suited to arguments and debates, of which he was to have many in the following years.

Some of these resulted in famous writings that added to his lasting glory; many antagonized people of his time and turned many of them into The Peripatetics at the Grand Duke’s table were not very dangerous as potential enemies, but his next adversary was. Even before the Discourse on Floating Bodies was published in 1612, Galileo was engaged in a conflict with an astronomer whose name he did not know and was ot to find out for over a year — the Jesuit father Christopher Scheiner (1575-1650).

In 1610, Galileo had claimed to be the first discoverer of sunspots; so had Father Scheiner, and the two had entered into a bitter dispute. Father Scheiner had communicated his opinions on his observations of sunspots in several letters to Mark Welser, a German patron of science. Perhaps to avoid direct criticism, Scheiner wrote under a pen name. Mark Welser published Scheiner’s letters and sent them to Galileo for comment without revealing the name of the author. Galileo replied in three Letters on Sunspots addressed to Welser (in Italian, which

Scheiner could not read and had to have translated, while Scheiner had not written in his native German, but in Latin). In his letters, Galileo severely criticized Scheiner’s views. The greatest significance of these Letters on Sunspots, as far as the Church was concerned, was that for the first time in print Galileo had openly endorsed Copernicus’s theory as a reality and not as a mere hypothesis, and that he had used his own discoveries as proofs in favor of Copernicanism.

Just as important, he had unwittingly antagonized a Jesuit, the first of many. The Jesuits were powerful in the Church, and in particular they were advisers on educational matters. It was unfortunate indeed that so many of them sooner or later should withdraw their previous friendship, respect, or even indifference toward Galileo to pass into the “enemy” camp. The trouble, however, initially came from other quarters.

In 1613, Galileo learned from Father Benedetto Castelli, one of his most beloved pupils, that in the course of a discussion at the court of Tuscany, the dowager Grand Duchess, Christina de Lorena, had taken the stand that the arth could not move because its motion would contradict the Holy Scriptures. Galileo decided that the time had come to explain his views on the relations between science and faith. He did this in his Letter to Castelli, which he sent, in manuscript copies, not only to his pupil Castelli, but also to several friends.

Soon afterward, in his Letter to the Grand Duchess Cristina, he elaborated what he had written to Castelli. It was lofty and solemn and showed that Galileo’s faith in nature and its laws went side by side with his faith in God. It contains passages which are among Galileo’s most beautiful Today, these views are widely shared and officially recognized by the Church. In fact, in 1893, Pope Leo XIII wrote a paper which presented the church’s official point of view concerning the relationships between science and scripture; this statement cannot be distinguished from Galileo’s.

Even in Galileo’s time, the highest authorities of the Church did not call his letters to Castelli and Cristina into question; but some in the Church did criticize them. To these few who had little understanding of new developments in science, Galileo’s writings seemed an outsider’s interference in religious matters. A Dominican friar denounced the Letter to Castelli to the Inquisition. Another Dominican, Father Tomaso Caccini, who had once been disciplined for being a “scandal-maker,” preached a sermon against Galileo in the popular church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence.

He concluded by saying that mathematics was an art of the devil, that mathematicians were the source of all heresies and should be ousted from all countries. Shortly afterward, he too testified against Galileo before the Inquisition. Although there was secrecy surrounding the Inquisition, Galileo became aware of what as going on in Rome and decided his presence was needed there. He was warmly welcomed and stayed at the Villa Medici, the Tuscan embassy, on the Grand Duke’s order.

Although his friends strongly advised against it, Galileo immediately resumed his campaign in favor of Copernicus through intense talks and discussions with almost everyone of importance in Rome and through several new writings. In fact, several cardinals did their best to persuade him to keep quiet in public about Copernicus, regardless of his private belief, but Galileo could not be Ultimately, the Inquisition never really questioned the theological views that Galileo had expressed in his letters; and he was able to clear himself of charges of heresy and blasphemy concerning the nature of God.

The Inquisition, however, did denounce Galileo for his defense of Copernicus’s theories, and on order of the Pope, admonished Galileo that he was not to hold, teach, or defend the condemned opinion of Copernicus. A few days later, Copernicus’s book, De Revolutionibus, which had been dedicated to a Pope, and which the Pope had accepted, and with hich the Church had found no fault until Galileo had started to present it as reality, was condemned and prohibited until it should be corrected.

Yet, the Roman Catholic Church had taken no action against Copernicus’s books or his ideas until Galileo undertook his campaign to “convert” the theologians. At the hands of Galileo, the heliocentric system threatened the geocentric and, much more serious, God’s creation was becoming an object of direct human observation which could be interpreted without the help of the Scriptures or of religion.


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