Was the Catholic Church Wrong?

Who was right and who was wrong? who was just and who was unjust? who was fair and who was unfair? My conclusions:

  1. Galileo's theory was correct but his proofs were wrong.
  2. The pope and cardinals acted unjustly and unrighteously toward Galileo.
  3. The pope and cardinals proclaimed error as truth.
  4. Galileo was perhaps ill-mannered and behaved foolishly.
  5. The Catholic Church's apology was too little, too late.

Protestant anti-Catholicstypically do not address this topic factually and do not consider the various issues involved. And all anti-Catholics(both Protestant and non-Christian) typically use the case of Galileo Galilei to demonstrate that:

  1. The Catholic Church is opposed to scientific knowledge.
  2. The Catholic Church has officially proclaimed scientific errors as being true.
  3. The Bible is full of scientific errors.

None of these assertions are true.


Regarding the persecution of Galileo by the Catholic Church (from a secular textbook and therefore not expressing a Catholic bias):

For centuries it was interpreted as exemplifying the forces of religion smothering scientific knowledge. More recent research has modified that picture. (The Western Heritage, pg. 469)

The following quote concludes that it was Galileo's attitude that got Galileo in trouble with the Catholic Church; not his scientific views (but even so, this makes the pope out to be rather small-minded — not very becoming for the vicar of Christ). This is from an article by a non-Catholic so it does not express a Catholic bias:

It's interesting to note that during all of Galileo's conflicts with the Church, other astronomers, including the equally famous Johannes Kepler, were openly writing and teaching heliocentrism. . . So it was that Galileo's spiteful manner, his knack for turning even his best friends into enemies, repeatedly got him in trouble. (Twisting the Knife, by Wil Milan)

As an interesting bit of irony, the Protestant Reformation had a role in the conflict. This is significant because Protestants often use the Galileo case to "prove" the Catholic Church has taught erroneous doctrine:

The condemnation of Copernicanism and of Galileo occurred at a particularly difficult moment in the history of the Catholic Church. In response to Protestant emphasis on private interpretation of scripture. . . The Catholic Church, . . . had difficulty moving beyond a literal reading of the Bible for fear of being accused by the Protestants of abandoning scripture. (The Western Heritage, pg. 469)

Protestants and Catholics alike have now resolved the issue of reconciling science with the Bible. But in Galileo's time the Catholic Church had to be careful how they resolved this issue because the Protestant Reformers were looking for any excuse to condemn them.

The Catholic Church is not opposed to science as the following recent quote from Pope John Paul II highlights:

Truth Cannot Contradict Truth: For my part, when I received those taking part in your academy's plenary assembly on October 31, 1992, I had the opportunity with regard to Galileo to draw attention to the need of a rigorous hermeneutic for the correct interpretation of the inspired word. It is necessary to determine the proper sense of Scripture, while avoiding any unwarranted interpretations that make it say what it does not intend to say. In order to delineate the field of their own study, the exegete and the theologian must keep informed about the results achieved by the natural sciences (cf. AAS 85 1/81993 3/8, pp. 764-772; address to the Pontifical Biblical Commission, April 23, 1993, announcing the document on The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church: AAS 86 1/81994 3/8, pp. 232-243). (Address of Pope John Paul II to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, October 22, 1996)

Critics of the Catholic Church's handling of Galileo assume that Galileo's observations proved the Copernican model in which the earth orbits the sun. The following passage shows that the meaning of Galileo's observations were not so clear to those living at that time:

This lack of clarity was causing trouble for everyone. For example, what exactly had Galileo's observations proved? It was generally agreed that his observations disproved the Ptolemaic system, but in what sense had he proved the Copernican system? Heliocentrism accounted for the then available astronomical data, but so did the geocentric system of the Danish astronomer, Tycho Brahe (which still pictured the earth at the center with the sun orbiting it, but now the planets were no longer presented as orbiting the earth but as orbiting the sun.) One problem, therefore, was the lack of clarity concerning theory, data and their relationship to one's larger philosophical framework. Responsibility for the trouble this caused rests more or less equally upon all the parties involved.

But there was a second source of trouble, responsibility for which rests squarely with the Church. The theologians involved in the Galileo case, failed to grasp the profound, non-literal meaning of the Scriptures when they described the physical structure of the created universe. This led them unduly to transpose a question of factual observation into the realm of faith. (John Paul on Science and Faith, by Michael Sherwin OP)

I do not agree it is necessary to adopt a non-literalhermeneutic in order to harmonize science with the Bible.

Pope John Paul II has recently apologized for the Catholic Church's handling of the Galileo affair:

In 1992 the Catholic Church admitted that errors had occurred, most particularly in the biblical interpretation of Pope Urban VIII's advisors. (The Western Heritage, pg. 469)

Some are critical of this apology and think Pope John Paul II should have admitted that Pope Urban VIII was guilty of declaring Galileo's conclusions as untrue when they were, in fact, true. But Pope Urban VIII never declared Galileo as a heretic as the following quotations demonstrate:

That there were competent theologians even then who argued against the views expressed here suggests that the qualifiers [experts of the Holy Office] could have reached a wiser conclusion. Theirs [the qualifiers] is the chief fault in the entire affair.

Second, the sentence itself bears the signatures of seven of the ten judges; the Pope, in other words, did not officially endorse the decision (there was, of course, no reason why he should, since the Court was simply exercising its normal powers).

The declaration that Galileo's propositions were heretical was never published as a teaching of the Church, and it was never intended to be such. It was intended and taken as the advice of certain theological experts who worked in the Holy Office, of value in a legal case, but hardly a norm of faith for the Church as a whole.

Even as a private document, therefore, the declaration of heresy received no formal papal approval. Third, there is no evidence that Pope Urban VIII ever endorsed any public document which included the declaration of heresy, especially the sentence at Galileo's trial.

It is clear, then, that not even the ordinary Magisterium has ever taught or promulgated the idea that the propositions of Copernican-Galilean astronomy are heretical or errors in faith. Thus it can in no way be claimed that "the Church" has taught that such views are heretical. To make such a claim would require that we locate the teaching authority of the Church in those theologians who claim expertise, a mistake which many make today, but one which the Galileo case should, at long last, serve to correct. (Galileo and the Magisterium: a Second Look, by Jeffrey A. Mirus)

The new scientific discoveries were causing a crisis in the church since they appeared to contradict the Bible. In reality they did not contradict the Bible at all. Rather, the interpretative framework in use at the time was incorrect. It took some time for the church to adapt to the required new way of thinking.

It is in that historical and cultural framework, far removed from our own times, that Galileo's judges, unable to dissociate faith from an age-old cosmology, believed quite wrongly that the adoption of the Copernican revolution, in fact not yet definitively proven, was such as to undermine Catholic tradition, and that it was their duty to forbid its being taught. This subjective error of judgment, so clear to us today, led them to a disciplinary measure from which Galileo had much to suffer. These mistakes must be frankly recognized, as you, Holy Father, have requested (L'Osservatore Romano, November 1, 1992). (John Paul II and Galileo)

It is unfortunate the Catholic Church wrongly persecuted Galileo Galilei. But this incident does not provide one bit of "official" evidence in the charge that the Catholic Church is not what she claims to be. As Pope John Paul II has publicly admitted, the Catholic Church made errors in this incident. But the church never "officially" made a claim against Galileo that wasn't true, nor did she "officially" proclaim something false as being true. The mistakes were limited to errors in judgment, to not making wise choices, and to not having compassion.

That being said, most Christians will remain unsatisfied with the Catholic Church's claim of infallibility which depends on such trivialities and legal technicalities; such things as whether the pope put his views into writing or stated them in a certain prescribed manner — apparently we are to ignore the clear actions of this pope who sentenced Galileo to house arrest for the remainder of his life; who allowed him to be shown the instruments of torture; and who would have tortured him if he had not recanted.

Critics of Catholicism might wonder why Catholics would want to be a member of a church having such an arbitrary system of law. But I should note: the fundamentalist, evangelical Protestant doctrine of salvation via legal justification is no better — the ideas that God's looks at us in judgment but sees Christ's sacrifice instead; that our sins are merely covered by Christ's righteousness; that we enter heaven with the soul still polluted by sins as filthy rags.

Catholic Defense . . .

Protestant anti-Catholicsoften use the Galileo incident to "prove" that the Catholic Church is ...

In defense, Catholics make various claims about what really happened. Some of these ...

The claim ... They say it means ... My comments ...

The Catholic Church encouraged many scientists to pursue their scientific work (for example, Copernicus, who was the administrator of a Catholic diocese and may have been a Catholic priest).

Therefore, the Church was not anti-science.

—The Church was wrong about the heliocentric theory.
 —The church of today is not anti-science.
 —Copernicus' book was banned.
 —It is not certain Copernicus was a priest (but Galileo thought he was)

Galileo's "proofs" for the heliocentric theory of the solar system have all been shown to be false.

Therefore, Galileo was wrong to insist the heliocentric theory is true.

—Galileo's evidence of the phases of the moons of Venus were accurate.
 —His arguments regarding the tides were incorrect.

Galileo wrote a scathing tract against the Pope, who had formerly been on good terms with Galileo.

Therefore, the church was justified in her harsh dealings with Galileo.

—Galileo's book was not critical of the Pope.
 —The church was not justified in extracting a recantation from Galileo upon threat of torture nor of imprisoning Galileo.
—Even if the Pope did believe Galileo was attacking him, he should have been mature enough to not make it an issue.

Galileo insisted the heliocentric theory was a fact, even though the technology of his day could not prove it as such.

Therefore, Galileo was wrong to insist the heliocentric theory is true.

—Perhaps Galileo was overly zealous.
 —He was incorrect in certain details of his view.

Galileo delved into theology by claiming certain biblical passages were not to be taken literally.

Therefore, the church was justified in her harsh dealings with Galileo.

—Galileo turned out to be right and the church now accepts Galileo's views.
—The church now allows lay people to delve into theology.

Galileo refused to merely present his ideas as theories.

Therefore, the church was justified in her harsh dealings with Galileo.

The church was not justified to treat Galileo so harshly since he was mostly correct.

The Pope never ruled whether or not Galileo's scientific theories were true.

Therefore, the church is not guilty of infallibly proclaiming an untruth as truth.

The Pope never made an ex cathedra statement.
However, the Holy Office (Inquisition) was wrong and the Pope allowed it and likely believed the untruths himself.

Galileo's treatment while under house arrest was not inhumane.

Therefore, the church is not harsh in her execution of justice.

—His conditions of house arrest were humane; he continued his scientific research.
—The church was not justified in imprisoning him.

All of the objections by Protestant anti-Catholicscan be answered.

Therefore, these objections do not prove the Catholic Church is not the true church established by Jesus.

The only relevant question is whether or not the Pope made a false ex cathedra proclamation. He did not.

As I will demonstrate, the facts are clear that ...

In my opinion, the defense of the Catholic Church in the Galileo incident is limited to these propositions ...

Papal infallibility is limited ...

Neither the Catholic bishops nor the Pope were "officially" speaking infallibility when they made untrue statements. Quotes from the official teaching of the Catholic Church ...

QuotesMy comments

This is the infallibility which the Roman Pontiff . . . enjoys in virtue of his office, when, as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful . . . by a definitive act he proclaims a doctrine of faith or morals.

Vatican II, Lumen Gentium

The Pope never made any statement at all, therefore, he never spoke definitively or infallibly.

The infallibility promised to the Church resides also in the body of Bishops, when that body exercises the supreme magisterium with the successor of Peter [the Pope].

Vatican II, Lumen Gentium

There were only a very small number of bishops who were members of the Holy Office (Inquisition). Therefore, this does not satisfy the requirements necessary for their declarations to be infallible.

This infallibility . . . in defining doctrine of faith and morals, extends as far as the deposit of Revelation extends.

Vatican II, Lumen Gentium

The deposit of Revelation never declared anything about the earth being the center of the solar system, so any statements the church makes about this topic can never be infallible.

Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they nevertheless proclaim Christ's doctrine infallibly whenever . . .

  • maintaining the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter [the Pope], and authentically teaching matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement on one position as definitively to be held.
  • This is even more clearly verified when, gathered together in an ecumenical council, they are teachers and judges of faith and morals for the universal Church, whose definitions must be adhered to with the submission of faith.

Vatican II, Lumen Gentium

There were only a very small number of bishops who were members of the Holy Office (Inquisition). Therefore, they do not satisfy the requirements necessary for their declarations to be infallible.

The Roman Pontiff is not pronouncing judgment as a private person, but as the supreme teacher of the universal Church, in whom the charism of infallibility of the Church itself is individually present, he is expounding or defending a doctrine of Catholic faith.

Vatican II, Lumen Gentium

The Pope never expounded or defended anything at all. It was the members of the Holy Office (Inquisition) who did so.

When the Roman Pontiff speaks Ex Cathedra, that is, when . . . he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses. . . infallibility.

Vatican I, Pastor aeternus

The Pope never made any statement at all, therefore, he never spoke Ex Cathedra or infallibly.

The Catholic Church was wrong ...

QuotesMy comments

Proposition to be assessed: . . . (2) The earth is not the center of the world [universe], nor motionless, but it moves as a whole and also with diurnal [daily] motion. Assessment: All said that this proposition receives the same judgement in philosophy and that in regard to theological truth it is at least erroneous in faith.

1616, Report

They were incorrect since ...

  • the earth is not the center of the universe
  • it does move
  • it has diurnal (daily) motion (it rotates)

Note: This document was not signed by the Pope.

For interpreting Holy Scripture according to your [Galileo's] own meaning in response to objections based on Scripture which were sometimes made to you; and whereas later we received a copy of an essay in the form of a letter, which was said to have been written by you to a former disciple of yours and which in accordance with Copernicus's position contains various propositions against the authority and true meaning of Holy Scripture.

1633, Sentence

Today the Catholic Church agrees with Galileo's interpretation of scripture.
Note: This document was not signed by the Pope

The actions of the Holy Office (Inquisition) ...

They are shocking: torture, declaring untruth as truth, banning books ...

QuotesMy comments

Contrary to popular accounts, Galileo did not abjure the theory under threat of torture. Both he and the Inquisitors knew that the threat of torture was pure formality. Galileo was, in fact, treated with great consideration.

Catholic.net, The Galileo Affair

Even possessing instruments of torture and showing them to Galileo as a "formality" is a serious matter. Torture is immoral.

[Galileo's] heresy, namely of having held and believed a doctrine which is false and contrary to the divine and Holy Scripture:

  1. that the sun is the center of the world [universe] and does not move from east to west, and
  2. the earth moves and is not the center of the world [universe], and
  3. that one may hold and defend as probable an opinion after it has been declared and defined contrary to Holy Scripture.

Sentencing, 1633

This is from the statement made at Galileo's sentencing to house arrest.

Galileo was wrong in believing the sun is the center of the universe.

The Holy Office [Inquisition] was wrong ...

  • the earth is not the center of the universe
  • the earth does move
  • their interpretation of scripture was wrong

Note: This document was not signed by the Pope.

Many have wondered at this abjuration, and on account of it have denied to Galileo the title of martyr. But let such gainsayers consider the circumstances. Here was an old man - one who had reached the allotted threescore years and ten - broken with disappointments, worn out with labours and cares, dragged from Florence to Rome, with the threat from the Pope himself that if he delayed he should be "brought in chains"; sick in body and mind, given over to his oppressors by the Grand-Duke who ought to have protected him, and on his arrival in Rome threatened with torture.

Victory of the Church over Galileo

Torture is immoral.

A month later (June 21), by order of the Pope, he was given an examination of intention, a formal process that involved showing the accused the instruments of torture. At this proceeding, he said, "I am here to obey, and have not held this Copernican opinion after the determination made, as I said."

On June 22, 1633, the Inquisition held the final hearing on Galileo, who was then 69 years old and pleaded for mercy, pointing to his "regrettable state of physical unwellness". Threatening him with torture, imprisonment, and death on the stake, the show trial forced Galileo to "abjure, curse and detest" his work and to promise to denounce others who held his prior viewpoint. Galileo did everything the church requested him to do, following (insofar as there is any evidence) the plea bargain of two months earlier. He was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Although ten Cardinal Inquisitors had heard the case, the sentence carried out on June 22 bears the signature of only seven; one of the three missing was Cardinal Barberini, the Pope's nephew. It is generally held that this indicates a refusal to endorse the sentence. The seven who signed, however, were those who were present at that day's proceedings; Cardinals Barberini and Borgia in particular, were attending an audience with the Pope on that day. Analysis of the Inquisition's records has shown that the presence of only seven of ten Cardinals was not exceptional; hence the inference that Barberini was protesting the decision may be doubted.

That the threat of torture and death Galileo was facing was a real one had been proven by the church in the earlier trial against Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake in 1600 for holding a naturalistic view of the Universe.

Reference.com, Galileo Galilei

Torture is immoral.

Rowland makes much of the fact that Galileo was never under any serious threat of torture by the Inquisition - he argues that the threat was purely formal. He then constructs elaborate arguments based on Galileo's recantation of the Copernican hypothesis. However, he fails to emphasize that if Galileo had persisted in his position and refused to recant, he would have been convicted of heresy, and if he failed to abjure his "crimes", he would have been "handed over to the civil authorities to be burned, and in burning, purified." (p. 244) Are we supposed to believe that this eventual outcome of adherence to the Copernican hypothesis did not impact Galileo's conduct during the inquisitorial process? Apparently, being burned alive does not constitute torture if one is thus purified.

Amazon.com, Galileo's Mistake

Burning at the stake for holding a partially true scientific view is immoral. Torture is immoral.

The scientist [Galileo] was too ill to travel.

Galileo and the Aristotelian Cardinals

His trial was a death sentence.

Decree of the Congregation of the Index having been presented, in which were prohibited and suspended . . . the writings of Nicolaus Copernicus On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres.

Inquisition, 1616

A book by Copernicus was forbidden.
Note: This document was not signed by the Pope.

Call Galileo before himself and warn him to abandon these opinions; and if he should refuse to obey, the Father Commissary, in the presence of a notary and witnesses, is to issue him an injunction to abstain completely from teaching or defending this doctrine and opinion or from discussing it; and further, if he should not acquiesce, he is to be imprisoned.

Inquisition, 1616

Galileo was not merely forbidden to teach heliocentrism as a fact rather than as a theory. He was to abandon the idea altogether and if he didn't, he was not to teach or defend it, or even to discuss it upon threat of imprisonment. Imprisonment might have been a death sentence for Galileo at his advanced age.
Note: This document was not signed by the Pope.

The Protestant Reformers were wrong ...

Protestant anti-Catholicsoften cite the Galileo incident as "proof" that the Catholic Church is not the true church established by Jesus. But since the Protestant Reformers shared the same untrue views as the Holy Office (Inquisition) and the Pope of the Catholic Church, this argument backfires and also proves Protestantism false.

QuotesMy comments

The response from the leading Protestant theologians of Copernicus' time was swift and negative, though even this response was mostly remarks in passing in conversation or sermons, nothing resembling an organized anti-Copernican campaign.

Religious Objections to Copernicus

The leading Protestant theologians believed an untruth.

Calvin clearly denounced the view that the earth moved.

Calvin, Astronomical Revolution

Calvin believed an untruth.

This argument is not to imply that Luther or Melanchthon endorsed the teaching of their contemporary, Copernicus. They did not, nor was there any compelling reason for them to question the traditional cosmological matrix of their day.

The teachings of Luther and Melanchthon are consistently cited as evidence of their disapproval of Copernican cosmology. Admittedly, the Wittenberg reformers were not personally impressed with the heliocentric interpretation of the universe, nor could they accept the theory that the earth and not the sun was in motion. Scriptural citations and, especially in the case of Melanchthon, Aristotelian references were raised in opposition; yet neither Luther nor Melanchthon addressed the unconventional ideas with great urgency.

Copernican Astronomy

Luther and Melanchthon believed an untruth.

Calvin's exegesis clearly demonstrates that he believed in the Ptolemaic system of astronomy. "The heavens revolve daily, and, immense as is their fabric, and inconceivable the rapidity of their revolutions, we experience no concussion. ... By what means could it [the earth] maintain itself unmoved, while the heavens above are in constant rapid motion, did not its Divine Maker fix and establish it?"

This interpretation is harder to reconcile with the Copernican system.

Only a brief sentence, mentioned almost in passing, states that the cause of the sun stopping was God temporarily ceasing the motion of the celestial sphere.

"We indeed are not ignorant, that the circuit of the heavens is finite, and that the earth, like a little globe, is placed in the center."

Calvin accepts the Ptolemaic system.

We have seen that Calvin was certainly not an adherent of the Copernican theory. He took for granted that the Ptolemaic system accurately described the physical construction of the universe. Yet he was not oblivious to the astronomical revolution which was occurring around him. However, he only spoke of it once that we know of, and then only to denounce it.

But though he did explicitly attack it in one instance, the Copernican theory was almost an innocent bystander in a battle taking place over an unrelated issue.

Religious Objections to Copernicus

Calvin believed an untruth.

From Luther's Tablebook ... "There is talk of a new astrologer who wants to prove that the earth moves and goes around instead of the sky, the sun, the moon, just as if somebody were moving in a carriage or ship might hold that he was sitting still and at rest while the earth and the trees walked and moved. But that is how things are nowadays: when a man wishes to be clever he must needs invent something special, and the way he does it must needs be the best! The fool wants to turn the whole art of astronomy upside-down. However, as Holy Scripture tells us, so did Joshua bid the sun to stand still and not the earth."

Religious Objections to Copernicus

Luther believed an untruth.

This partial acceptance of Copernicus' work was disseminated widely through Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560) and his students at University of Wittenberg (thus often called the 'Wittenberg Interpretation'). Melanchthon, the Lutheran educational Reformer, incorporated into his textbook, Introduction to Physical Doctrine (Initia Doctrinae Physicae), Copernican values for the apogees of the sun and superior planets, but rejected his heliocentric claims.

Copernicus's Book

Melanchthon believed an untruth.

Luther is famed for his quote about the man "who wanted to prove that the earth moves and not the sky, sun and the moon." He calls him "that fellow ... who wishes to turn the whole of astronomy upside down." Martin Luther, Table Talk, vol. 54 in the series Luther's Works, Fortress Press, 1981, No. 4638, pp. 359-259.

Calvin, Astronomical Revolution

Luther believed an untruth.

Galileo's errors / his role ...

Although Galileo made errors, I do not believe the Catholic Church was justified in treating him as they did.

Some of his proofs for heliocentrism were wrong ...

QuotesMy comments

I hold the sun to be situated motionless in the center of the revolution of the celestial orbs while the earth revolves about the sun.

1615, Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina

Galileo was technically wrong in believing the sun was the center of the universe. But he was correct in believing the earth revolves around the sun.

Galileo describes the movement of the planets as circular, although Kepler had already shown twenty years earlier that the orbits of the stars are elliptical.

Galileo, Notes

Galileo was wrong.

The rotation of the earth creates a sloshing in the ocean that causes tidal changes.

Galileo and the Aristotelian Cardinals

Galileo was wrong.

Proposition to be assessed: (1) The sun is the center of the world [universe] and completely devoid of local motion. Assessment: All said that this proposition is foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts many places the sense of Holy Scripture, according to the literal meaning of the words and according to the common interpretation and understanding of the Holy Fathers and the doctors of theology.

1616, Report

They were correct. The sun is not the center of the universe and it does move. Galileo was wrong to claim this.
Note: This document was not signed by the Pope.

Galileo reasoned that the earth, as a giant vessel spinning on its axis, might cause the seas to rise and fall twice a day. . . . Now we know that this is . . . incorrect. . . . Although a link between the tides and the phases of the moon had been observed for centuries, Galileo rejected the idea.

PBS, Nova

Galileo was wrong. He claimed the tides proved the earth spun on its axis.

Showing a greater fondness for their own opinions than for truth they sought to deny and disprove the new things which, if they had cared to look for themselves, their own senses would have demonstrated to them. To this end they hurled various charges and published numerous writings filled with vain arguments, and they made the grave mistake of sprinkling these with passages taken from places in the Bible which they had failed to understand properly, and which were ill-suited to their purposes.

1615, Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina

Galileo had an arrogant attitude. This entire long letter has a tone of arrogance.

Galileo's writing was sarcastic, cutting, dismissive and arrogant. The characters he developed in his dialogues engaged in hurtful satire which enraged his enemies and eventually offended his friend the pope.

Galileo and the Aristotelian Cardinals

It is true that Galileo's communication style was a factor in his troubles. But the church should be gracious and accept people's weaknesses.

Galileo was right ...

He got a lot right ...

QuotesMy comments

He explained that nothing he wrote or taught was meant to suggest that the scriptures were in error. However, Galileo allowed that the Bible was metaphorical and often adapted to the common wisdom of its time for rhetorical effect.

Galileo and the Aristotelian Cardinals

The church now agrees with him.

Plainly confute the Ptolemaic system while admirably agreeing with and confirming the contrary hypothesis.

1615, Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina

His correct proof of heliocentric theory.

In 1612, Galileo successfully predicted the eclipses of the moons around Jupiter; he then further verified Copernicus' theory using the phases of Venus.

Galileo and the Aristotelian Cardinals

His evidence for heliocentrism was sound.

These "blemishes" on the Sun were contrary to the doctrine of an unchanging perfect substance in the heavens, and the rotation of the Sun made it less strange that the Earth might rotate on an axis too, as required in the Copernican model.

Galileo and Sunspots

His correct proof of heliocentric theory

it would be necessary to forbid men to look at the heavens, in order that they might not see Mars and Venus sometimes quite near the earth and sometimes very distant, the variation being so great that Venus is forty times and Mars sixty times as large at one time as at another. And it would be necessary to prevent Venus being seen round at one time and forked at another, with very thin horns; as well as many other sensory observations which can never be reconciled with the Ptolemaic system in any way, but are very strong arguments for the Copernican.

1615, Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina

His correct proof of heliocentric theory.

Contrary to the sense of the Bible and the intention of the holy Fathers . . . they would extend such authorities until even in purely physical matters - where faith is not involved - they would have us altogether abandon reason and the evidence of our senses in favor of some biblical passage, though under the surface meaning of its words this passage may contain a different sense. . . . The reason produced for condemning the opinion that the earth moves and the sun stands still in many places in the Bible one may read that the sun moves and the earth stands still. Since the Bible cannot err; it follows as a necessary consequence that anyone takes a erroneous and heretical position who maintains that the sun is inherently motionless and the earth movable. . . . With regard to this argument, I think in the first place that it is very pious to say and prudent to affirm that the holy Bible can never speak untruth-whenever its true meaning is understood. But I believe nobody will deny that it is often very abstruse, and may say things which are quite different from what its bare words signify. Hence in expounding the Bible if one were always to confine oneself to the unadorned grammatical meaning, one might; fall into error. Not only contradictions and propositions far from true might thus be made to appear in the Bible, but even grave heresies and follies. Thus it would be necessary to assign to God feet, hands and eyes, as well as corporeal and human affections, such as anger, repentance, hatred, and sometimes even the forgetting of` things past and ignorance of those to come. . . . This being granted, I think that in discussions of physical problems we ought to begin not from the authority of scriptural passages but from sense-experiences and necessary demonstrations; for the holy Bible and the phenomena of nature proceed alike from the divine Word the former as the dictate of the Holy Ghost and the latter as the observant executrix of God's commands. It is necessary for the Bible, in order to be accommodated to the understanding of every man, to speak many things which appear to differ from the absolute truth so far as the bare meaning of the words is concerned. . . . From this I do not mean to infer that we need not have an extraordinary esteem for the passages of holy Scripture. On the contrary, having arrived at any certainties in physics, we ought to utilize these as the most appropriate aids in the true exposition of the Bible and in the investigation of those meanings which are necessarily contained therein, for these must be concordant with demonstrated truths.

1615, Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina

About the proper interpretation of scripture

Clarifications / interpretations ...

Whether the Church was wrong, whether Galileo was wrong, whether Galileo mocked the pope, whether the Catholic Church is anti-science ...

QuotesMy comments

Simplicio, the simpleton, is a comic foil, mouthing the church's doctrines on science and philosophy.

PBS, Nova

I disagree with this assessment. Galileo was very respectful of dissenting views.

Two New Sciences written when under house arrest

Two New Sciences

Galileo's scientific work during house arrest

The pope took the narrow path because the war against the Protestants was going badly, he was losing the allegiance of some nations, and he felt the need stamp out dissent wherever possible.

Galileo and the Aristotelian Cardinals

A factor in the Galileo incident was the Protestant Reformation which put the Catholic Church on the defensive. But this is no excuse for their harsh and unjust treatment of Galileo.

The story of his heroic fight in the name of science against the intractable ignorance of the tyrannical Catholic church. The reality is not so starkly drawn; . . .

  • Galileo's own arrogance created many enemies, and
  • Rome's anxiety over its authority in the schismatic era of the Protestant reformation made their collision inevitable.


Neither of these points nullifies the Catholic Church's errors.

The church did not accept Galileo's claim that the phases of Venus proved a Sun-centered universe.

PBS, Nova

The church was wrong in dismissing Galileo's interpretation of the phases of Venus. Galileo was wrong in claiming that the sun was the center of the universe.

The Pope and Galileo walked around in the Vatican gardens talking about various things, and of course one of the things they talked about was whether or not Galileo could publish on the Copernican theory. And the Pope told him that, as long as he limited himself to speaking about it hypothetically [as a theory], there would be no problem.

PBS, Nova

According to this report, the Pope merely wanted Galileo to treat the heliocentrism as a theory (the word hypothetically refers to a theory) rather than a fact.

Sagredo often has to explain what Salviati is saying to Simplicio because Salviati has a superior intellect. Simplicio is portrayed as "confused and perplexed." His thoughts are often reworded for him. In exchange after exchange, he is ridiculed but fails to see what is being done to him. . . . The ridicule of Simplicio continues. He is accused of "pretending" to be stupid. The condescension continues throughout. Phrases such as "Now try, if you can ..." and "I am giving you the very best that is in me."

Galileo and the Aristotelian Cardinals

Although it was common for writers of the day to be very sarcastic, it did not serve Galileo's interests to write in this style. However, the church was not justified in judging him so harshly.

The Inquisition limited the trial to two simple questions of fact: Did the late Cardinal Bellarmine forbid Galileo to advocate Copernicus when the two faced each other 16 years earlier? And had Galileo violated the Cardinal's injunction by writing his Dialogue?

INQUISITOR: Let Galileo state what the most eminent Cardinal Bellarmine told him about the decision of the Holy Congregation of the Index on a certain day in the year sixteen hundred and sixteen.

GALILEO: The Lord Cardinal Bellarmine informed me that the opinion of the stability of the Sun and the motion of the Earth was deemed to be repugnant to Holy Scripture. I believe the Cardinal notified me that it was possible to hold the opinion hypothetically, as Copernicus did.

All who read the Dialogue could see that the defense of Copernicus was, by far, the stronger argument in the book. The character Simplicio, mouthing the words of Urban VIII, was really more satire than science. Galileo was forced into a position of false humility and humility was never his style.

PBS, Nova

In reading chapter 3 (day 3) of Galileo's book (see next quotes), I must disagree with the above assessment in several ways ...

  • Simplicio was not mouthing the words of the Catholic Church, but of Aristotle and Ptolmy.
  • Simplicio was not just a fool.
  • Galileo's book was not satire but an honest presentation of the various arguments concerning heliocentrism.

Galileo's great admirer, the Pope, may not have actually read it [his book]. Instead, Urban VIII heard rumors, rumors that Galileo had put his words into the mouth of a fool, rumors that Galileo had not written a scientific discourse, but a literary satire . . . . He puts the words of the Pope in the mouth of the simpleton . . . . Urban's advisors persuaded him that he had been the model for Simplicio and that he was being made a fool.

PBS, Nova

As the next quotes show, Galileo does not treat Simplicio as a fool.

Statements by Simplicio in the chapter addressing astronomical aspects of the heliocentric view (chapter 3, day 3) ...

  • Blame Neptune for my long delay. For in this morning's ebb he withdrew the waters in such a manner that the gondola in which I was riding, having entered an unlined canal not far from here, was left high and dry. I had to stay there over an hour awaiting the return of the tide.
  • But the earth is at that center, as is proved in many ways by Aristotle, Ptolemy, and others.
  • Gentlemen, please give me a chance to restore harmony to my mind, which I now find very much upset by certain matters which Salviati has just touched upon.
  • I had no interest in reading those books, nor up till now have I put any faith in the newly introduced optical device. Instead, following in the footsteps of other Peripatetic philosophers of my group, I have considered as fallacies and deceptions of the lenses those things which other people have admired as stupendous achievements.
  • If I must tell you frankly how it looks to me, these appear to me to me some of those geometrical subtleties which Aristotle reprehended in Plato when he accused him of departing from sound philosophy by too much study of geometry.

The Third Day, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems

In my view, Galileo does not treat Simplicio as a fool. I have quoted several passages which reflect the worst on Simplicio and he comes out looking fine.

Galileo had believed that Pope Urban VIII would protect him from censure but the Pope had not.

DAVA SOBEL: Being the pope is different from being the cardinal. The Pope had many battles to fight, the most important being the Protestant Reformation. And there he was the head of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. And Urban was actually accused of not doing the right things to further the Catholic cause.

INGRID ROWLAND: The Pope maintained interest in what Galileo was doing, but the Pope, in many ways, had other concerns besides science. Urban VIII is facing the Thirty Years War-the entire reign is under the shadow of a terrible, vicious civil war that's tearing apart the Christian world.

DAVA SOBEL: So when Galileo came to trial the Pope could not risk defending his friend [Galileo] when he, personally, was under such scrutiny. And Galileo became expendable.

PBS, Nova

I think it is true that political factors stemming from the Protestant Reformation provide a backdrop for the Catholic Church's handling of the Galileo incident.

The Catholic Church long ago accepted the science of Galileo, but it was not until 1992 that a papal commission reconsidered its handling of the Galileo affair.

PBS, Nova

The Catholic Church is slow to address important issues.

ALBERT VAN HELDEN: John Paul II said that mistakes had been made in the Galileo case and used Galileo's language to talk about the relationship between faith and reason, between religion and science.

NARRATOR: Saying that faith should never conflict with reason, Pope John Paul II used the very words Galileo had once written in his own defense. The Pope, like Galileo, believed that the scriptures can never err, but theologians can err in their interpretation. The Pope expressed the church's regret that the Galileo affair had contributed to a "tragic mutual misunderstanding" between religion and science.

PBS, Nova

At least the Catholic Church of today has the correct view of science (although some would consider her views on contraception, abortion, stem-cell research, and homosexuality to be anti-scientific).

Nicholas Copernicus; and that he was not only a Catholic, but a priest and a canon.

1615, Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina

Copernicus a priest?

He [Nicholas Copernicus] was in fact so esteemed by the church that when the Lateran Council under Leo X took up the correction of the church calendar, Copernicus was called to Rome from the most remote parts of Germany to undertake its reform.

1615, Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina

The Church allowed scientific work. But later, the church condemned Copernicus' work.

St. Robert Bellarmine's Role ...

St. Robert Bellarmine was involved in the early phase of the Galileo affair. Is he guilty of any wrongdoing? Can a Catholic Saint make errors?

QuotesMy comments

Your Paternity and Mr. Galileo are proceeding prudently by limiting yourselves to speaking hypothetically and not absolutely, as I have always believed that Copernicus spoke.

1615, Cardinal Bellarmine to Foscarini

The word hypothetically refers to representing the heliocentric view as a theory rather than as a fact. At this stage of history, the heliocentric view should have clearly been represented as a theory rather than as a fact.

There is no danger in saying that, by assuming the earth moves and the sun stands still, one saves all the appearances better than by postulating eccentrics and epicycles; and that is sufficient for the mathematician. However, it is different to want to affirm that in reality the sun is at the center of the world . . . ; this is a very dangerous thing, likely not only to irritate all scholastic philosophers and theologians, but also to harm the Holy Faith by rendering Holy Scripture false.

1615, Cardinal Bellarmine to Foscarini

Notice that both philosophers and theologians are troubled by the heliocentric theory. St. Bellarmine remarks that a key issue is whether this theory contradicts the Bible.

The Council prohibits interpreting Scripture against the common consensus of the Holy Fathers. . . . You will find all [the Holy Fathers and the modern commentaries] agreeing in the literal interpretation that the sun is in heaven and turns around the earth.

1615, Cardinal Bellarmine to Foscarini

St. Bellarmine appears to believe that the Bible clearly teaches the earth is the center of the world (universe).

Consider now, with your sense of prudence, whether the Church can tolerate giving Scripture a meaning contrary to the Holy Fathers and to all the Greek and Latin commentators.

1615, Cardinal Bellarmine to Foscarini

St. Bellarmine appears to believe that the Bible clearly teaches the earth is the center of the world (universe), or at least he admits the church seemed to teach this.

If there were a true demonstration that the . . . earth circles the sun, then one would have to proceed with great care in explaining the Scriptures that appear contrary, and say rather that we do not understand them than that what is demonstrated is false. But I will not believe that there is such a demonstration, until it is shown me.

1615, Cardinal Bellarmine to Foscarini

He admits to the possibility that the earth could revolve around the sun, but he needs it to be proved. Just basing it on the mathematical calculations of the positions of the planets is not sufficient.

In case of doubt one must not abandon the Holy Scripture as interpreted by the Holy Fathers.

1615, Cardinal Bellarmine to Foscarini

He considers the Holy Fathers have interpreted the scriptures as stating that the earth is the center of the world.

The Most Illustrious Lord Cardinal Millini . . . ordered the most Illustrious Lord Cardinal Bellarmine to call Galileo before himself and warn him to abandon these opinions; and if he should refuse to obey . . . [Bellarmine] is to issue him an injunction to abstain completely from teaching or defending this doctrine and opinion or from discussing it; and further, if he should not acquiesce, he is to be imprisoned.

1616, Special Injunction

Note that St. Bellarmine is not actually in charge of the proceedings against Galileo.

[The] Lord Cardinal [Bellarmine] warned Galileo that the above-mentioned opinion was erroneous and that he should abandon it; and thereafter . . . ordered and enjoined the said Galileo . . . to abandon completely the above-mentioned opinion that the sun stands still at the center of the world and the earth moves, and henceforth not to hold, teach, or defend it in any way whatever, either orally or in writing; otherwise the Holy Office would start proceedings against him. The same Galileo acquiesced in this injunction and promised to obey.

1616, Special Injunction

The February 26 entry is considered by many to be a forgery.

St. Bellarmine not only told Galileo not to hold, teach, or defend heliocentrism; but he also declared it was not true. But, of course, it is true, so he was incorrect.

St. Robert Bellarmine had an incorrect view but he was open to the truth if it could be proved. This is the attitude that true scientists should have.

St. Robert Bellarmine was ordered by his superior to deliver certain messages to Galileo.

Is the Catholic Church the True church? ...

The Galileo case has nothing to say about this question.

QuotesMy comments

By virtue of this "charism of unfailing truth and faith" the Gospel is proclaimed indefectibly in spite of the sins and shortcomings of the Church's members and leaders.

Catholics & Methodists, Joint Commission

Sins and shortcomings of the leaders of the Catholic Church do not prove the Catholic Church is not the church Jesus established. Likewise, sins and shortcomings of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation do not prove the Protestant Reformation was unjustified and heretical.


Kagan, Donald; Ozment, Steven; Turner, Frank M. (2001). The Western Heritage (7th ed.). Prentice-Hall: Upper Saddle River, NJ

A textbook on Western Civilization.