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Galileo Versus the Inquisition
Europe was suffering the ravages of religious wars, pitting Protestant against Catholic. The confrontation between Galileo and the Inquisition was a battle that no-one of high standing really wanted – except Galileo.
The scientific authorities in the Catholic Church were aware that if the Copernican view of the universe were correct, certain passages in the Bible that described the sun as “running his course” would need to be interpreted metaphorically rather than literally. That, in itself, presented little difficulty.
The issue was rather one of due process and, above all, maintenance of the Church’s authority in interpreting scriptures. If the Church had to change its official position about something as fundamental as the position of the earth in the heavens, the authorities needed to make sure it was well-founded before taking such a drastic move.
Was there a "compelling necessity" to revise cosmology?
Galileo was well aware of Church policy. He had been told by a cardinal that the Bible should be interpreted literally except for passages where there was a “compelling necessity” to view its content as merely metaphorical. Was there, then, a “compelling necessity” for the Catholic Church to change its view of the solar system in the early 17th century?
It is difficult for the modern reader, who has grown up with photographs of the earth spinning in space around the sun, to recognize what a drastic and even absurd idea this would have been to earlier generations. Serious skeptics of the time had plenty of empirical reasons to dismiss what appeared to many as a wild hypothesis.
When Galileo forced the issue to a head, Cardinal Bellarmine was called to adjudicate the matter. Bellarmine had lectured on astronomy in his youth and was in close contact with astronomers in Rome who were enthusiastic about Galileo’s work. His writings show respect for Copernicus’ theory along with a desire to avoid escalating the conflict unnecessarily.
When it came to changing official Church policy on such a substantive matter, Bellarmine insisted, quite reasonably, on seeing proof, writing:
If there were a real proof that... the Sun does not go round the Earth but the Earth round the Sun, then we should have to proceed with great circumspection in explaining passages of Scripture which appear to teach the contrary, and we should rather have to say that we did not understand them than declare an opinion to be false which is proved to be true. But as for myself, I shall not believe that there are such proofs until they are shown to me.
The problem was that Galileo had no proof to show Bellarmine. At that time, the Copernican system was no more than a hypothesis and contained many loose ends.
Galileo tried to cover this up in a letter to Bellarmine claiming he could offer “a host of proofs” but it would be a waste of time because of the ignorance of those who opposed him. This bluff was characteristic of Galileo, who had an abrasive personality, delighting in publicly ridiculing those who disagreed with him. He was not above using his intellectual acumen as a smokescreen even when he was wrong.
Itching for a showdown
Bellarmine tried to effect a compromise. He placed Copernicus’ book on the Index until the passages which argued for a heliocentric system could be proven correct. He encouraged Galileo to freely develop his theories as hypotheses but avoid using them to interpret the scriptures, which Galileo was wont to do.
It was only after years of enjoying fame and fortune, that Galileo eventually wrote the book that would bring him in front of the Inquisition, in which he portrayed himself as a brilliant savant explaining the new view of the universe, while caricaturing the Pope as a foolish buffoon representing the Church’s Aristotelian worldview.
Galileo was itching for a showdown. When called to Rome by the Inquisition, he had the option of ignoring the summons and remaining in his home town of Florence but chose to confront the Inquisition directly. Unlike so many other victims of the Inquisition’s brutality, Galileo was treated with dignity. Rather than being confined to the dungeons during his trial, he was allowed to reside as the Tuscan ambassador’s guest at the Villa Medici.
After being found guilty of heresy, he was sentenced by the Inquisition to “formal prison” which turned out to be the palace of the Archbishop of Siena; and he was ordered to repeat seven penitential psalms once a week for three years, which were delegated, with ecclesiastical consent, to his daughter, a Carmelite nun.
The mainstream historical narrative that depicts an irreconcilable conflict between science and Christianity frequently holds up the Galileo affair as its cause célèbre. Galileo’s caustic personality and the Church’s relative restraint in responding to him certainly do not exonerate the Catholic Church for its handling of the affair. They do, however, call into question whether it was historically inevitable.
Ironically, what emerges from this story is that, instead of acting as the enemy of science, the Church authorities were primarily concerned about receiving scientific proof of the new theory before shifting their official worldview. It was perhaps Galileo, rather than Bellarmine, who was guilty of subverting a rigorous and methodical pursuit of truth.
Excerpted from The Patterning Instinct, Chapter 18 | The Language of God: The Emergence of Scientific Cognition