Galileo Galilei (1564-1642): Science and Religion – Part IV: Reason and the Religious Establishment

Galileo was distrusted by much of the religious establishment, first because he trespassed on territory considered the monopoly of religious authorities, both natural and religious beliefs, and, second, because of Galileo’s flamboyant style. Both the natural world and religious practices were seen to be the prerogative of the established religion. In 1612, Cardinal Conti had supported Galileo’s conclusion rejecting Aristotle’s view of the immutability of the stars. He even accepted that scripture supported the rejection of immutability. His views were verified through the work of the Bendictine monk, Benedetto Castelli. It is one thing to assert that Holy Scripture cannot err and that its conclusions are absolutely true and inviolable versus the very questionable thesis that biblical interpretations were inviolable.

There existed the divinely-made world and divine words. According to even Joshua, the sun appeared to stop its regular supposed Ptolemaic motion, but that was merely how the appearance was represented, how what was seen was experienced, and not how what was experienced actually occurred.  Further, reason alone would show: 1) that if the sun stopped in the heavens, the earth would also have to stop as well and the day would have to be extended; 2) the sun stopped in the heavens at noon precisely where it had been located in the Copernican system. As Vatican librarian Cesare Cardinal Baronio remarked, “the Bible was a book about how one goes to Heaven – not how Heaven goes.” (Sobel 65)

However, in 1616, both the pope and a cardinal inquisitor reprimanded Galileo. Roberto Cardinal Bellarmino, a Jesuit, the same man who prosecuted the case against Giordano Bruno in 1593, without examining any evidence, had concluded that the motion of the earth was contrary to scripture and that Galileo was a heretic. On 29 June 1930, that same Bellarmino was canonized by Pope Pius and named Doctor of the Church, one of only 36 in two millenia of church history even though he had been the major figure who led the Church to decree that professing heliocentrism was heresy. Galileo was ordered to refrain from teaching those ideas.

For the previous two years, hotheaded philistines in the church had denounced not only Galileo, but concluded that the universities were made up of a traitorous “deep state” of scientists and mathematicians who practiced diabolical arts. As has been the custom through the ages, these troglodytes took their opinions, however absurd and unsupported by evidence, as truth, in fact, as the real truth in contrast to conclusions drawn and supported by evidence and reason. If “the people believed it, it (whatever that was) had to be true.”

As Galileo noted, these ignoramuses engaged in propagating conspiracy theories and fabricated interpretations which they contended were supported absolutely by the words of the Bible. The lies contravened the truth, repressed it, even as the evidence mounted that revealed the truth more fully and more accurately. Of course, the support for lies had been institutionalized in the Council of Trent held between 1545-1563 that dictated the precise way clergy had to be educated, determined who had the right to interpret Biblical texts, rejected the rabbinic (and Lutheran) support for varied personal interpretations and, most importantly, decreed that no one other than lawfully appointed authorities were even permitted to interpret scripture contrary to established views.

Galileo took the prudential course of choosing silence on the issues in contention, but did not renounce his views. He simply turned to other pursuits – inventing navigational instruments to allow sailors to navigate by the stars as well as the compound microscope. He also wrote poetry and literary criticism, but avoided biblical criticism.

It was only when Supreme Pontiff Urban VII, became the new pope in 1623 that he resumed his work on the heavens, though he would take another nine years to publish his classic defence of the heliocentric universe in contrast to the earth-centered view of the world, Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems: Ptolemaic and Copernican. Galileo quickly fell out with his old friend, Urban VIII, ten years before he died and was summoned to Rome in 1624. He was especially at odds with The Inquisitional Court.

Galileo was summoned to Rome again in 1632. Contrary to the claim of The New Scientist (, Galileo did not recant. He was contrite. He confessed, and, as the third act of penance required, he offered satisfaction by engaging in good works – alms for the poor, prayers and fasting. On the 1992 occasion of Pope John Paul the II retracting the reprimand of Galileo by The Inquisitorial Court, the Pope deemed Galileo’s repression to be the result of “a tragic mutual incomprehension,” when there was nothing mutual about it, and the incomprehension was totally on one side.

The New Scientist erroneously stated that Galileo recanted. “In 1633, the Inquisition of the Roman Catholic Church forced Galileo Galilei, one of the founders of modern science, to recant his theory that the Earth moves around the Sun. Under threat of torture, Galileo – seen facing his inquisitors – recanted. But as he left the courtroom, he is said to have muttered, ‘all the same, it moves’.”

In 1616, Galileo, to repeat ad nauseum, did not recant. Further, Bellarmino never demanded a retraction. He simply informed him of the unanimous ruling of the theological panel that the Copernican theory was heretical and advised that Galileo not publish his beliefs as facts. Galileo agreed to present his claims as a hypothesis. Galileo acquiesced in the request that he stop teaching his theory, but, again, he did not recant. Further, in his communications he referred to his convictions as hypotheses. His book was suspended until the requisite amendments were made referring to his theories as hypotheses.

Bellarmino even published a letter that insisted that Galileo had not abjured any doctrine held by him, but only that the Copernican theory was contrary to scripture and, though it could be held up as a hypothesis, it could not be defended or promulgated. Galileo obeyed the decision of the authorities and would refer to his convictions as poetic conceits, fancies, chimera, elements of a dream. In 1633, when the trial was renewed, did Galileo retract? Did he renounce, repudiate and abjure in formal solemnity his long held scientific conclusions?

After 1616, Galileo retreated into other activities, but he did not retract his convictions. This was Galileo’s pattern. He very much depended for his work, his rapidly increasing wages and his safety on whomever occupied positions of power. Look at his prior history in academia. Would Galileo have achieved his position at the University of Padua if Ferdinand I had not become the Grand Duke of Tuscany five years earlier following the death of his brother from malaria? Galileo had been his son’s tutor. Later, in 1605, thirteen years after he assumed his professorship at the University of Padua, Prince Cosimo de’ Medici was being tutored by Galileo. Four years later, Cosimo became Grand Duke of Tuscany when Ferdinand I died (1605), even though Galileo had agreed to prepare his horoscope in spite of his personal skepticism about its value. Five years after that, in 1610, at the age of 45, Galileo was appointed chief mathematician and philosopher to the Grand Duke.

Five year after the Thirty Years War began in 1618, Maffeo Cardinal Barberini became Pope Urban VIII. Even though Galileo had first made his acquaintance in 1611, they shared a mutual experience of age, place of origin, alumni standing at the University of Padua as well as interest in both science and poetry. However, even though Galileo dedicated his book, The Assayer, to him in 1623, it did not win him protectzia, even though Barbarini had been an admirer and friend. In history, as a politician, Barberini proved to be adept at nepotism, patronage and corruption. He even had himself named to the prestigious Lyncean Academy. That corruption went well beyond monetary theft and included the appointment of ignorant and unscrupulous clerics to attend to mass and confessions at nunneries where they were free to prey on young girls who had donned the habit.

In The Assayer, Galileo mocked terms that pretended to be scientific explanations, such as “sympathy,” “antipathy,” “occult properties,” “influences,” for their inability to be backed by evidence that could verify or falsify the notions connoted. (Sobel 92) Received wisdom and majority opinion were not routes to the truth.“I believe that good philosophers fly alone, like eagles, and not in flocks like starlings.” (The Assayer) He went on to declare that, unlike eagles that are rarely seen or heard, starlings “fill the sky with shrieks and cries, and wherever they settle befoul the earth beneath them.” They appear to be kin to Canadian geese.

As a result of the restrictions placed upon Galileo, Italian astronomers had to lead a double life, rejecting Galileo theologically while admiring him “theoretically” so that cognitive dissonance became integrated into their scientific versus their political lives. Between 1623 and 1632, Galileo remained safe for a decade until he published his classic, Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems: Ptolemaic and Copernican in 1632. This was made possible because the style he adopted allowed the manuscript to obtain a provisional license, subject to a few minor corrections, but more importantly, because his friend, Niccolò Riccardi, controlled the licensing of books.

Once again, Galileo was summoned to Rome to stand trial for heresy by the Holy Office of the Inquisition. When Galileo arrived, he witnessed the extent to which the Pope had expended monies to heighten his own self aggrandizement. On trial was not only Galileo’s classic, Dialogue, but the suppression of science by a religious self-serving establishment, individual rights versus authoritarian demands, reform versus a petrified tradition, knowledge versus ignorance, discovery versus mindblindness, freedom of thought and speech versus their repression.

Galileo was not treated like any other individual who came before the inquisitional court. He had the protection of Grand Duke Ferdinando. He was an acclaimed scholar. He was also frail and sick. Instead of being placed in a dungeon, he was allowed to stay in the Tuscan embassy hosted by Ambassador Francesco Niccolini and his wife Caterina. Further, just as contemporary detectives do, the Court sent Monsignor Lodovico Serristori to befriend and extend to him the court’s good graces, all the while working to ferret out the strategies and tactics by which Galileo intended to defend himself. But Galileo was required to pay this supposed defence attorney 6 scudi for his advice.

Galileo was allowed to remain in isolation for weeks and then two months before he was called in for questioning. Niccolini intervened on his behalf, but to no avail. The Inquisitional Court rejected the ambassador’s entreaties to allow the elderly and sick Galileo his freedom or, at the very least, to return to Tuscany under house arrest where he could await being called for trial.  

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