Galileo Galilei (1564-1642): Science and Religion – Part V: Reason on Trial

In 1632, Galileo was summoned to appear personally in Rome at the Palace of the Holy Office upon the appearance in print of Dialogue concerning the two Chief Systems of the World, Ptolemaic and Copernican. It was a sensation. Copies sold as soon as they reached the shelves of a bookseller. However, prudently, copies were not initially delivered to Rome, ostensibly because they might carry the plague. His friend, Benedetto Castelli, received an advance copy and found it to be an infinite delight.

However, the Jesuits were now once again in the ascendency in Rome and were on the warpath. Father Christopher Scheiner, an astronomer himself who had published Rosa Ursina the year before, demanded that the Dialogue be banned as heresy. In fact, Galileo’s volume had included a clearly recognizable pointed attack on Scheiner’s position. This time, however, the book also provoked his old friend, Pope Urban VIII, perhaps because the controversy created more enemies and more demands on himself when he was already under siege for his self-aggrandizing schemes that had thrown the Vatican into deep debt. His illegal seizure of Medici properties did not help. Nor did his foreign policy. After all, as Gaspare Cardinal Borgia charged, Urban had failed to back King Philip IV of Spain (1621-1640) in the Thirty Years War against the German Protestants. The pro-Spanish faction was in the ascendency over the those befriending France. Urban did not need a troublesome academic dispute to add to his mounting troubles.

Further, Urban felt that he had himself been insulted when the character in the Dialogue, Simplico, weakly defended his views in the volume. As Sobel wrote, Urban felt that, “Galileo had played him for a fool.” (Sobel 225) That is the immediate background to Galileo being summoned from Florence in September to appear before the Roman Inquisitional Court, the Congregation of the Holy Office. In the meantime, sales of the book were banned, but all copies had already sold out.

The strategy initially was to stall. Galileo was old and sick. Further, no one wanted the plague now ravaging Florence once again to arrive in Rome with copies of the book. Galileo had appealed to his powerful old friend, Francesco Cardinal Barberini, Urban’s nephew, for some clemency. In December, a medical report on Galileo’s ill health certified by three physicians was sent to Rome. The Inquisitors were unmoved and threatened to bring Galileo to Rome in chains. In January, Galileo voluntarily set out to travel to Rome and arrived after two weeks of travel and two in quarantine.

When first called on 12 April 1633, he had already been held two months under house arrest in the Tuscan embassy. During that time, Galileo learned from a leaked document that his alleged crime dated back to 1616 when he had visited Rome before Urban had been elected pope, before Ferdinando had become the Grand Duke and before his foremost advocate at this time, Ambassador Niccolini, had reached a position of power.

According to that note, the initial suspended trial of 1616 was much harsher than had generally been believed. Not only was the publication of the Discourse supposed to cease. Not only was Galileo required to desist from teaching the Copernican doctrine, as he had pledged, but he had been ordered not to discuss his now dubbed hypothesis with anyone. The spin that he was allowed to discuss it, but only as a hypothesis, was denounced as false. Galileo was in real trouble even though he had preserved Cardinal Bellarmino’s letter that supported the contention that he could discuss the theorem, but only as a hypothesis.

Had Galileo actually received an injunction never again to discuss the Copernican theory?  Was he ordered no longer to defend, no longer to teach the Copernican position view? Galileo adopted what later became known as the Berthold Brecht tactic of dealing with the Stasi, the East German thought police. Be not only contrite but profess your absolute innocence. Insist that others had misinterpreted your intent. “I did not seek permission to write the book, because I did not consider that in writing it that I was actually doing something contrary to, far less disobeying, the command not to hold, defend or teach that opinion. Rather, I was refuting the opinion.”

Galileo went before two officials and a secretary and no witnesses in a form of what is now called a preliminary inquiry. The ten judges as jurors were not in attendance. The questioning was totally pedestrian – when did he come to Rome, by what means, can you identify the book, can you summarize its contents, have the words been altered, when and where were the contents penned, when and how had he received notice from the Court, what had he discussed with the Cardinals in 1616 in Rome at the previous stage of this trial, what was his authority for writing the book, had he received an injunction, did he recall its words, in light of the injunction had he sought permission to publish?

As Galileo replied, permission to publish in 1616 was not required, only minor changes. He had not defended Copernicus, he insisted, but refuted him. As he offered his initial informational testimony, he remained humble.

Had the initial stage inquisitors not read the book? If they had, they would certainly know that this was a bald-faced lie. Galileo had only disguised his opinion. The first hearing ended and three theologians were assigned to read the book and cross examine Galileo in a second hearing equivalent to a Grand Jury in the American legal system. They unanimously concluded that Galileo had unequivocally supported Copernicus and to add to that “crime,” Galileo was guilty of perjury before the court.

All three wrote separate opinions and all concurred on the major conclusion – Galileo had defended rather than criticized Copernicus. Further, he had treated the opponents of Copernicus as mental dwarfs. Though the book had received the imprimatur of the Sacred Palace, the highest office now had to be embarrassed since the volume reeked of heresy. Even Francesco Cardinal Barberini could no longer stick his neck out and defend Galileo both to his uncle, the pope, and before the court. His friend Father Riccardi persuaded Galileo to confess and an effort could be launched to settle the affair quietly. Given Galileo’s age, his issues with health, hopefully the punishment would be mild.

In the second hearing Galileo offered his Brechtian performance. He had reread the Dialogue. The readers were indeed correct. He had not seen what they had with their greater perspicacious reading. He thanked them for the opportunity to reread the text and admitted fully that he had overlooked very heretical statements. But he insisted, he had not intended to defend Copernicus but to find fault in his position. Further, the argument from sunspots and from the tides had been stated with too much forcefulness and had led to the justifiable misreading of his intent. The problem was one of inattention, ignorance and inadvertence. He promised to revise the book and refute Copernicus in a more effective way. Had they given him the chance, would Galileo have set a precedent for Brecht in putting his views even more cleverly in an even stronger way?

In his third hearing before the full court of ten theologians, he showed the affidavit of 1616 of Cardinal Bellarmino. He claimed that neither in the public document nor in any private correspondence had he been enjoined not to teach or in any was disseminate the doctrine. He believed he could put it forth for refutation. He had neither willfully nor knowingly disobeyed any order of the Inquisition. His fault had merely been one of wanting to appear clever. He asked to be able to make amends and pleaded for mercy and for his jurors to take into consideration the honour and esteem with which he was held.

Members of the Holy Office fell into two factions, those excited and enthralled by the Copernican thesis and its proofs and those appalled at the affrontery and dishonesty of Galileo and were not persuaded that God had to be logical, only omnipotent. As my Hasidic cousin has said in countering the argument for evolution, God could have created the world as if the world had been created for twelve billion light years when in reality it was less than 6,000 years old. Such are the gambits of the irrational.

On 16 June 1633, Pope Urban III convened and presided over a meeting of the Cardinals responsible for determining Galileo’s guilt. The whole history of the affair from 1616 to date was before them. The issue was one of intent. Was there any evidence that President Donald Trump intended to insist that the president of Ukraine make a public announcement that the government of Ukraine would look into the role of the Bidens in 2016? The evidence was not 100% conclusive, but it overwhelmingly supported such a conclusion. The evidence that Galileo supported and disseminated the views of Copernicus was also overwhelming.

In one case, the guilt was about of irrationality, conspiracy theories, undermining agreed and established American foreign policy, endangering Ukrainian soldiers and, most of all, doing so to benefit Potus in a coming election. In Galileo’s case, he was guilty of esteeming reason and accurate observation so greatly that he was willing to lie before the court and pretend he believed what he actually condemned. He had, with smarmy intent, tried to deceive the court. His defence had been pitiful and his plea of mercy did not move the majority.

They ordered Galileo to serve a prison term and to perform penance. He was to be publicly humiliated. On the issue of intent, Galileo did not offer a defence, but repeated his now unbelievable assertion that he had held the condemned Copernican view to be false. I am not guilty, he insisted. “Do with me as you will.”

It is apparent that his defence was never a retraction and merely a false front. The court saw through it and insisted that he had indeed defended the Copernican worldview. They offered, however, to be merciful if he, “with a sincere heart and unfeigned faith [no, not a professed belief in the truth] …abjure, curse and detest the said errors and heresies, and every other heresy contrary to the Catholic and Apostolic Church in the manner we will prescribe for you.” The Dialogue would be prohibited from distribution. Further, Galileo was sentenced to an indefinite prison term. He would also be required to undertake penitence.

It was not a unanimous decision; 7 of the 10 jurors signed the majority opinion. Francesco Cardinal Barberini, Galileo’s old friend, did not appear for the sentencing. The guilty document was presented for Galileo to sign. However, it contended that Galileo had lapsed as a Catholic and that he had used deceit to obtain an imprimatur for the publication of the Dialogue in 2016. The officials agreed to delete these references from the document. Galileo then abjured as ordered.

How then can I argue that he never recanted? Because he admitted to promoting the Copernican theory, whether intentionally or inadvertently. He agreed that the Church had banned the teaching of the theory. These were all true statements. He swore that, “I have always believed, I believe now, and with God’s help I will in future believe all that is held, preached, and taught by the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church” and that “I abjure with sincere heart and unfeigned faith, I curse and detest such errors and heresies, and generally all and every error and sect contrary to the Holy Catholic Church. And I swear that for the future, I will never again say nor assert in speaking or writing such things as may bring upon similar suspicion; and if I know any heretic, or person suspected of heresy, I will denounce him to the Holy Office.” He also promised to deliver all the penances – alms, prayer and satisfaction.

Galileo was assigned to his friend, Ascanio II Piccolomini, Archbishop of Siena under house arrest. However, his host treated him as an important guest. Dialogue was suppressed. But the publishing house, Elzevir, printed his Two New Sciences in Leiden, Holland in 1638, and his fame became immortalized four years before his death and one year after he became blind.  

I hope I have established Galileo’s importance to science, to freedom of speech and to a culture of humanism where all humans are first and foremost treated as human beings. But what is the importance of Galileo to Jews? First, as I said in my initial blog, he treated them as equal human beings. Second, Jews generally at the time were, via the Rambam (Maimonides) in the Aristotelian camp antithetical to experimental science and mathematical proofs. Galileo provided a route out of their parochialism. Third, Galileo sewed the initial seeds for a scientific reading of the biblical text, whether through linguistic, historical or other modes of scientific hermeneutics. The Reform movement can be said to have had its roots in Galileo.

But Reformers do not seem to have acquired Galileo’s Brechtian skills.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s