The Heresy Of Galileo Essay

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
could 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
torture 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
pantheistic philosophy of nature.

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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,
the 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
Floating Bodies.

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
not 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
earth 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
was 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
which 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. In short,
Galileo was condemned because he could not keep his opinions to himself and could not resist the
temptation to expose the ignorance, deceit, and manipulation of the powerful religious leaders of
the time.

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