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Galileo: The Trump Card of Catholic Urban Legends
Pittsburgh Catholic ^ | 5/15/09 | Robert P. Lockwood

Posted on 05/18/2009 9:12:37 PM PDT by bdeaner

The film “Angels and Demons” brings up the Catholic Church’s so-called war on science and the church’s treatment of Italian scientist Galileo Galilei. The following analysis sheds much-needed light on the case.

In October 1992, Cardinal Paul Poupard presented to Pope John Paul II the results of the Pontifical Academy study of the famous 1633 trial of Galileo. He reported the study’s conclusion that at the time of the trial, “theologians ... failed to grasp the profound non-literal meaning of the Scriptures” when they condemned Galileo for describing a universe that seemed to contradict Scripture.

The headlines that followed screamed that the church had reversed itself on the 17th century astronomer, and commentators wondered about the impact of the study on papal infallibility and that the church had finally surrendered in its war with science.

Which only proved once again that the trial of Galileo — even more so than the Inquisition — is the granddaddy of all Catholic urban legends. Galileo is the alleged proof that the church is anti-science and anti-modern thought. He is the all-encompassing trump card, played whether the discussion is over science, abortion, gay rights, legalized pornography or simply as a legitimate reason for anti-Catholicism itself. If Galileo had never lived, the anti-Catholic culture would have had to invent him.

Like many urban Catholic legends, we are all infected a bit by the propaganda surrounding Galileo. Here’s a little just-the-facts that might help the next time someone tries to throw this urban legend in your face:

Was the church opposed to scientific study at the time of Galileo?

Most of the early scientific progress, particularly astronomy, was rooted in the church. Galileo would not so much “discover” that the Earth revolved around the sun, but attempt to prove the theories of a Catholic priest who had died 20 years before Galileo was born, Nicholas Copernicus. It was also the church at that time, under the aegis of Pope Gregory XIII, which introduced one of the major achievements of modern astronomy when Galileo was in his teens.

The Western world still marked time by the Julian calendar created in 46 B.C. By Galileo’s day, the calendar was 12 days off, leaving church feasts woefully behind the seasons for which they were intended. It was Pope Gregory XIII who was able to present a more accurate calendar in 1582. Though Protestant Europe fumed at the imposition of “popish time,” the accuracy of Gregory’s calendar led to its acceptance throughout the West.

What did Copernicus discover?

Through mathematical examination Copernicus came to believe that the Earth and the planets in our solar system revolve around it — contrary to popular and scientific understanding at the time, which had a fixed Earth at the center of the entire universe. His manuscript would circulate in scholarly circles, though it would not be formally published until he was on his deathbed in 1543. But Pope Leo X (1513-1521) had been intrigued by his theories and expressed an interest in hearing them advanced. For the most part, the church raised no objections to his revolutionary hypothesis after his death, as long as it was represented as theory, not undisputed fact. The difficulty that the church had with the theory is that it was perceived as contradicting Scripture where it was written that Joshua had made the sun stand still and the Psalmist praised the Earth “set firmly in place.” Most important, the theory could not be proven by current scientific technology.

Galileo is often portrayed as a pure scientist ranting and raging against religious oppression. Is this an accurate picture of the man?

The myth we have of Galileo is that of a faithless renegade attacked by a church afraid of science. It’s false on all counts. Galileo was a traditional believing Catholic — his daughter was a devout nun — who saw no contradiction between his science and his faith. He had begun to study and write on the Copernican theory and was recognized as the leading astronomer of his day. In 1611, he was honored in Rome for his work, receiving a favorable audience with Pope Paul V, and became friends with Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, the future Pope Urban VIII, who would celebrate the astronomer with a poem.

Sounds good so far. What happened?

Galileo produced his first book — “The Starry Messenger” — detailing his observations in 1610, describing the moons of Jupiter, the location of stars and that the moon was not a perfect sphere. Galileo became a controversial celebrity, while being carved up by fellow scientists.

At the same time, instead of keeping the debate on a theoretical plane involving mathematics, astronomy and observation, Galileo entered the murky post-Reformation waters of theology and Scriptural interpretation. His theory was that nature cannot contradict the Bible, and if it appeared to do so it is because we do not adequately understand the deeper biblical interpretation.

This sounds pretty much like a Catholic understanding of the role of faith and science. How did he get into so much trouble? Essentially, Galileo slipped into trouble on three accounts. First, he was teaching Copernican theory as fact, rather than hypothesis, when there really was no scientific fact to back it up. Second, the popularity of his writings brought an essentially philosophical discussion into the public arena, requiring some sort of church response. Third, by elevating scientific conjecture to a theological level, he was raising the stakes enormously. Instead of merely scientific disputation, Galileo was now lecturing on Scriptural interpretation. Galileo could have avoided trouble if he presented his work as theory and if he had stuck to science rather than elevating the whole issue to a theological dispute over the meaning of Scripture.

At the same time, Galileo was making few friends with the scientific establishment of his day. It is forgotten that when Galileo is portrayed as the hero of science over religion, most of his real enemies were fellow scientists.

Why did science at the time oppose his views?

Throughout his career Galileo was opposed by the vast majority of astronomers who still supported the Ptolemaic view of the universe, called geocentrism. The Ptolemaic system, named after the second century A.D. astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus, placed the Earth at the center of the universe, a view accepted as fact since the time of the ancient Greeks and that remained unchallenged until the 17th century.

Even after Copernicus raised serious questions regarding geocentrism, most astronomers obdurately clung to the Ptolemaic system. One of them was famed scientist Tycho Brahe, who constructed the so-called Tychonic system that still placed the Earth at the center of the universe with the sun revolving around it, but then suggested all of the other planets revolved around the sun in a complex set of epicycles. The invention of telescopes from 1609 brought advances in astronomy, but decades passed before Kepler’s laws of planetary motion and Newton’s laws of gravitation were widely embraced.

How did the church respond to all this?

Actually, the church responded lightly. In February 1616, a council of theological advisers to the pope ruled that it was quite possibly heresy to teach as fact that the sun, rather than the Earth, was at the center of the universe, and that the Earth rotates on its axis. Galileo was not condemned, but Cardinal Robert Bellarmine was asked to convey the news to Galileo, advise him of the panel’s ruling, and order him to cease defending his theories as fact. He also asked him to avoid any further inroads into discussion of Scriptural interpretation. Galileo agreed.

Did he break his word?

In 1623, Cardinal Barberini was elected Pope Urban VIII. With the election of his friend and supporter, Galileo assumed that the atmosphere could be ripe for a reversal of the 1616 edict. In 1624, he headed off to Rome again to meet the new pope. Pope Urban had intimated that the 1616 edict would not have been published had he been pope at the time, and took credit for the word “heresy” not appearing in the formal edict.

Yet, Pope Urban also believed that the Copernican theory could never be proven and he was only willing to allow Galileo the right to discuss it as hypothesis. Galileo was encouraged, however, and proceeded over the next six years to write a “dialogue” on the Copernican theory. Galileo published his “Dialogue” in February 1632. The book was received with massive protest.

Why was the “Dialogue” so upsetting?

Galileo had so weighted his argument in favor of Copernican theory as truth — and managed to insult the pope’s own expressed view that complex matters observed in nature were to be simply attributed to the mysterious power of God — that a firestorm was inevitable. His scientific enemies were infuriated with Galileo’s often snide and ridiculing dismissal of their views. The “Dialogue” was also seen within the church as a direct public challenge to the 1616 edict.

The difficulty that Galileo encountered with church authorities was that he appeared to attack the veracity of Scripture with no acceptable proof for his belief that the Earth revolved around the sun. He had attempted to make such proofs through an argument based on the Earth’s tides (a scientifically incorrect one), but 17th century science simply was incapable of establishing that the Earth did, in fact, orbit the sun. And, finally, he appeared to be openly challenging a church edict to which he had earlier agreed.

What happened at Galileo’s trial?

Galileo’s trial did not take place before 10 cardinals as it is often pictured. Participants were Galileo, two officials and a secretary. The 10 cardinals would only review the testimony to render judgment. Galileo’s defense was that he had understood from Cardinal Bellarmine that he had not been condemned in 1616 and that the “Dialogue” did not, in fact, support the Copernican theory as fact. His first defense was probable. He was certainly not aware of a more restrictive notice that had been placed in the 1616 file specifically targeting him, which was revealed at the 1633 trial. His second defense, however, does not stand much scrutiny. The “Dialogue” was clearly a presentation and defense of the Copernican hypothesis as truth.

Seven of the 10 tribunal cardinals signed a condemnation of Galileo (the three remaining never signed it). The condemnation found Galileo “vehemently suspected of heresy” in teaching as truth that the Earth moves and is not the center of the world. He was found guilty in persisting in such teaching when he had been formally warned not to do so in 1616. His book was prohibited, he was ordered confined to formal imprisonment, to publicly renounce his beliefs and to perform proper penance.

Was the trial a battle between faith and science?

The trial of Galileo is most often portrayed in terms that it clearly was not: Galileo the scientist arguing the supremacy of reason and science over faith; the tribunal judges demanding that reason abjure to faith. The trial was neither. Galileo and the tribunal judges shared a common view that science and the Bible could not stand in contradiction. If there appeared to be a contradiction, such a contradiction resulted from either weak science or poor interpretation of Scripture. This was clearly understood by Cardinal Bellarmine, for example, who had argued just that point in 1615. Cardinal Bellarmine had written that if the “orbiting of the Earth around the sun were ever to be demonstrated to be certain, then theologians ... would have to review biblical passages apparently opposed to the Copernican theories so as to avoid asserting the error of opinions proven to be true.”

The mistakes that were made came from Galileo’s own personality and style, the Holy Father’s anger in believing that Galileo had personally deceived him, jealous competitive scientists out to get the acerbic Galileo and, frankly, tribunal judges who erroneously believed it was scientific fact that the universe revolved around a motionless Earth and that the Bible confirmed such a belief.

In his 1991 report, Cardinal Poupard briefly summarized the findings. The difficulty in 1616 — and 1633 — was that “Galileo had not succeeded in proving irrefutably the double motion of the Earth. ... More than 150 years still had to pass before” such proofs were scientifically established. At the same time, “(T)heologians ... failed to grasp the profound, non-literal meaning of the Scriptures when they describe the physical structure of the created universe. This led them unduly to transpose a question of factual observation into the realm of faith.”

Was it only in 1992 that the church reversed itself on Galileo?

Galileo died in 1642. In 1741, Pope Benedict XIV granted an imprimatur to the first edition of the complete works of Galileo. In 1757, a new edition of the Index of Forbidden Books allowed works that supported the Copernican theory, as science had moved to the point where the theory could be proven.

The story of Galileo had nothing to do with the church being opposed to science. Galileo was condemned because he could not scientifically prove his theory to be fact, because he was undermined by many of his fellow scientists, and because he had purposefully blurred the lines between science and theology.

TOPICS: Catholic; Ecumenism; History; Religion & Science
KEYWORDS: astronomy; catholic; catholicism; copernicus; galileo; inquisition; science; urbanlegend
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Very informative.
1 posted on 05/18/2009 9:12:37 PM PDT by bdeaner
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OK.....everybody pony up ten bucks and let’s get this FReepathon over....


2 posted on 05/18/2009 9:14:02 PM PDT by ButThreeLeftsDo (FR. ....Monthly Donors Wanted.)
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To: bdeaner
Through mathematical examination Copernicus came to believe that the Earth and the planets in our solar system revolve around it

That is freakin' unbelievable. My cousin is in High School and he can barely do fractions.

3 posted on 05/18/2009 9:14:13 PM PDT by exist
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To: bdeaner
Galileo was ordered to kneel down and the reading of the sentence of condemnation began:

We say, pronounce, sentence, and declare that you, the said Galileo, by reason of matters adduced in trial, and by you confessed as above, have rendered yourself vehemently suspected of heresy, namely of having believed and held the doctrine which is false and contrary to the sacred and divine Scriptures - that the Sun is the center of the world and the Earth moves and is not the center of the world ...

Annibale Fantoli, in GALILEO, FOR COPERNICANISM AND FOR THE CHURCH, Vatican Observatory Publications

BTW, you will find nothing in this work resembling the revisionism of the posted article.

4 posted on 05/18/2009 9:30:31 PM PDT by dr_lew
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To: bdeaner
Galileo: The Trump Card of Catholic Urban Legends

Dan Brown and the Catholic Church: Interview With Fr. John Wauck, (Angels and Demons)
More to Rome Than Angels and Demons; a True Story
Angels & Demons Director Ron Howard Denies 'God the Creator'

Hanks: Angels & Demons 'loose with the truth'
Ron Howard: Vatican Obstructed 'Angels & Demons' [Enemies of Catholicism Complain]
Small cameras and fake tourists: how Angels and Demons flouted Vatican ban
RON HOWARD LIES ABOUT “ANGELS & DEMONS” (Donohue responds today)

5 posted on 05/18/2009 9:42:47 PM PDT by Salvation ( †With God all things are possible.†)
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To: dr_lew

The article is not meant to be a scholarly examination of Galileo. It’s purpose is to correct an imbalanced public perception of the relationship between the Church and science — and it makes that point well and quite appropriately.

6 posted on 05/18/2009 9:47:49 PM PDT by bdeaner (The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? (1 Cor. 10:16))
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To: dr_lew
Twisting the Knife
How Galileo Brought His Troubles with the Church on Himself
By Wil Milan

If you ask people what Galileo Galilei is famous for, most will say that he invented the telescope, used it to prove the earth goes around the sun, and that the Catholic Church condemned him for his discoveries. That much is common knowledge, no?

In fact, none of those things is true.

Galileo did not invent the telescope. When and where the telescope was invented is not certain, but what is certain is that in 1609 Galileo heard about the new invention and made one for himself. Soon he turned it on the heavens, and it was at that moment that his destiny turned to fame.

Every night brought new discoveries. He discovered that the Milky Way is not a soft band of light but a cloud of millions and millions of stars, that the moon is covered with craters, that Venus has phases like the moon, even that the sun has spots on its face. (Looking at the sun through a telescope is probably what doomed Galileo to blindness later in his life.) Excited beyond measure by his discoveries, Galileo in 1610 published a little book, Siderius Nuncius (The Starry Messenger), detailing his discoveries.

The Starry Messenger made Galileo an overnight celebrity, and his discoveries did not go unnoticed by officials of the Catholic Church, many of whom were scholarly individuals with an interest in the sciences. Some of the leading cardinals of the Church were fellow members of the scientific society to which Galileo belonged and took great interest and pride in the discoveries of their most famous member.

The Church also lauded Galileo publicly. He had a friendly audience with Pope Paul V, and in 1611 the Jesuit Roman College held a day of ceremonies to honor Galileo. When in 1614 a Dominican monk criticized Galileo from the pulpit, the leader of the Dominicans reprimanded the monk and apologized to Galileo on behalf of the entire order.

What did get Galileo into a bit of hot water with the Church was a conclusion he drew from one of his telescopic discoveries: He discovered that Jupiter has four moons that orbit around it just as the moon does the earth. He was fascinated by this, and from this and from observing the phases of Venus (which indicated that Venus orbits the sun, not the earth) he concluded that the earth goes around the sun (a view known as heliocentrism), not the sun around the earth (known as geocentrism).

Today Galileo's conclusion seems obvious. But it was not obvious at the time, and the truth is that Galileo was jumping to conclusions unsupported by the facts. The fact that four moons orbit Jupiter does not in any way prove that the earth goes around the sun and neither does the fact that Venus shows phases as it orbits the sun.

A popular theory at the time (known as the Tychoan theory after Tycho Brahe, the famous Danish astronomer who had formulated it) proposed that all the planets orbit the sun, and the sun with its retinue of planets then orbits the earth. This theory explained Galileo's observations quite well, and many pointed that out to Galileo. But Galileo insisted that what he had found was proof of the earth orbiting the sun. He eventually turned out to be right, but what he had at the time was not proof.

It was that lack of proof, along with his own abrasive personality, that precipitated his troubles with the Church. Galileo was known for his arrogant manner, and during his career there were a great number of people whom he had slighted, insulted, or in some way made into enemies. In 1615 some of them saw a chance to get back at Galileo by accusing him of heresy for his assertion that heliocentrism was proven fact. And so it was that the Church was prompted to inquire whether Galileo was holding views contrary to Scripture.

It must be pointed out that at the time the Church did not have an official position on whether the sun goes around the earth or vice versa. Though geocentrism was the prevailing view, both views were widely held, and it was a matter of frequent debate among the science-minded.

Indeed, most of the resistance to heliocentrism came not from the Church but from the universities. Within the Church some believed heliocentrism to be contrary to the Bible, others believed it was not. In fact, Galileo had wide support within the Church, and Jesuit astronomers were among the first to confirm his discoveries.

So when Galileo was accused of statements contrary to Scripture, the matter was referred to Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, the Church's Master of Controversial Questions (quite a title, isn't it?). After careful study of the matter and of Galileo's evidence, Cardinal Bellarmine-who was later canonized and made a doctor of the Church-concluded that Galileo had not contradicted Scripture. But he did admonish Galileo not to teach that the earth moves around the sun unless he could prove it. Not an unreasonable admonition, really, but it had the effect of muzzling Galileo on the matter, because by then he realized he really did not have proof, though he still thought he was right.

And so it was that Galileo chafed under the cardinal's admonition for most of a decade, until in 1623 the luckiest event in his life occurred: Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, a member of Galileo's scientific society and a great fan of Galileo, became Pope Urban VIII.

This was Galileo's dream come true: a pope who was learned in the sciences, who had not only read all of Galileo's works but was a friend and admirer as well. Galileo was soon summoned to Rome for an audience with the Pope to discuss the latest in astronomy, and Galileo took the opportunity to ask the Pope for his blessing to write a book about the motions of the solar system.

Pope Urban VIII readily agreed to Galileo's request, with one condition: The book must present a balanced view of both heliocentrism and geocentrism. The Pope also asked Galileo to mention the Pope's personal view of the matter, which was that bodies in the heavens perhaps move in ways that are not understood on earth (not an unreasonable view at the time). Galileo agreed, and set forth to write his book.

Had Galileo written his book as promised there would have been no problem. But as he had many times before, Galileo was bent not only on arguing his case but on humiliating those who disagreed with him, and he wrote a book far different from what he had promised.

As was common at the time, he wrote the book in the form of a discussion among three men: one a proponent of heliocentrism, one a proponent of geocentrism, and an interested bystander. Unfortunately, the "dialogue" was one-sided-Galileo portrayed the proponent of heliocentrism as witty, intelligent, and well-informed, with the bystander often persuaded by him, while the proponent of geocentrism (whom Galileo named "Simplicius") was portrayed as slow-witted, often caught in his own errors, and something of a dolt. This was hardly a balanced presentation of views.

But Galileo's greatest mistake was his final twisting of the knife: He fulfilled his promise to mention the Pope's view of the matter, but he did so by putting the Pope's words in the mouth of the dim-witted Simplicius. This was no subtle jab-the Pope's views were well-known, and everyone immediately realized that it was a pointed insult. This was too much for the Pope to bear. He was furious, and Galileo was summoned to Rome to explain himself.

This time things did not go well for Galileo. He was charged with a number of offenses, and though he was not imprisoned or tortured, he was shown the implements of torture. Galileo, by then an old man, was terrified, and agreed to something of a plea bargain: In return for publicly recanting his heliocentric view, he was allowed to return home with a sentence of permanent house arrest. He lived out his remaining years in his home, eventually going blind. Curiously, it was during his years of house arrest that he wrote his finest work, a book dealing with motion and inertia that is a cornerstone of modern physics.

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. Kepler even worked out and published the equations that describe the orbits of the planets about the sun. Yet he never had the problems Galileo did, in part because he had less to do with the Catholic Church but also because he did not have Galileo's biting arrogance.

So it was that Galileo's spiteful manner, his knack for turning even his best friends into enemies, repeatedly got him in trouble. His accomplishments cannot be overstated-Galileo is truly one of the giants of science-but in recounting his famous run-in with the Church, it's also important to remember that the root of his problems were not his scientific views but his own unbridled arrogance.

Wil Milan is an astrophotographer based in Arizona. Though he is not a Catholic, he takes great interest in the history of astronomy. Some of his work can be seen on the World Wide Web at

Any mention in your source of all the noise the followers of Luther were making about Galileo teaching something not found in Scripture and why wasn't the Church condemning same?

7 posted on 05/18/2009 9:52:45 PM PDT by A.A. Cunningham (Barry Soetoro is a Kenyan communist)
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To: bdeaner

It is also worth noting that Galileo was wrong in his belief that the sun is the center of the universe. While it certainly is the center of our solar system, it absolutely is not the center of the universe, nor is it even the center of our own galaxy. The church was correct to urge him to claim his heliocentric idea were theory rather than fact.

8 posted on 05/18/2009 9:53:26 PM PDT by Jeff F (austinaero; Phoenix11; WaterBoard)
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To: bdeaner

You forgot the part where the pope had him under house arrest the rest of his life. The essence of the whole thing is that the church back then simply did not respect freedom of the individual. This is a huge reason why our ancestors left Europe. It is why we have a first amendment prohibiting “an establishment of religion”.
No man of God should have arrest power over an individual, then or now.

The entire story is of the Pope acting like a secular leader. While trying him for heresy, the Pope had the power to imprison him. This is a power no pope deserves. Jesus claimed no such power, so where did a pope deserve it?
If they deserved it then, why not today?

Now, that said. Not liking the Catholic church today, or disliking today’s Pope, because of despotic popes 400 years ago, is like disliking Prince Charles in England because you disapprove of Henry the 8th. (and thought processes this silly is *exactly* how some decide to hate todays catholic church,,)

9 posted on 05/18/2009 9:54:11 PM PDT by DesertRhino (Dogs earn the title of "man's best friend", Muslims hate dogs,,add that up.)
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To: bdeaner
It’s purpose is to correct an imbalanced public perception of the relationship between the Church and science...

In other words, it's revisionism. It promotes the view that the actions of the Church were consistent with a scientifically enlightened view, and that Galileo brought the whole thing upon himself with his rash agressiveness.

I think the record of his condemnation that I cited should be enough to give anyone pause.

10 posted on 05/18/2009 9:57:39 PM PDT by dr_lew
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To: A.A. Cunningham

“Indeed, most of the resistance to heliocentrism came not from the Church but from the universities”

And please tell us about all of these secular universities in Europe, so free to contradict the papacy. circa 1600.

11 posted on 05/18/2009 10:01:34 PM PDT by DesertRhino (Dogs earn the title of "man's best friend", Muslims hate dogs,,add that up.)
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To: Jeff F

That is a huge distortion. The Church firmly argued then that the earth was the center of everything. The church wasnt the guardian of purity on science in 1600. They were deathly afraid of anything that might threaten their theology, and thereby, their temporal power.

12 posted on 05/18/2009 10:05:29 PM PDT by DesertRhino (Dogs earn the title of "man's best friend", Muslims hate dogs,,add that up.)
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To: DesertRhino

If you dispute what Milan wrote, provide the evidence to refute it.

13 posted on 05/18/2009 10:10:15 PM PDT by A.A. Cunningham (Barry Soetoro is a Kenyan communist)
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To: DesertRhino

You obviously get all of your knowledge from PBS and the History channel. I’d even wager that you’re one of those suckers who lines the wallets of people like Brown and Howard.

14 posted on 05/18/2009 10:13:34 PM PDT by A.A. Cunningham (Barry Soetoro is a Kenyan communist)
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To: DesertRhino
Galileo did not invent the telescope. When and where the telescope was invented is not certain, but what is certain is that in 1609 Galileo heard about the new invention and made one for himself. Soon he turned it on the heavens, and it was at that moment that his destiny turned to fame.

He didn't invent THE telescope, but he did invent a telescope of his own design. He states in The Assayer that having heard of such a thing, he was inspired to put his mind to it, but that he wasn't aided by any knowledge of a design. He was quite proud of himself, and bragged about the "perfection" of his instrument, and I believe that his telescopes did exceed any others at the time in magnifying power.

15 posted on 05/18/2009 10:23:57 PM PDT by dr_lew
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To: bdeaner

Galileo Revisited, Part II
Andrew Schuman and Robert Cousins
Discuss this article

In Part I, we examined Galileo’s 1616 conflict with the Roman Catholic Church. The disagreement was not over any fundamental incompatibility between science and religion. On the contrary, both parties believed that there was only one truth, and that new scientific demonstrations necessitated a reinterpretation of the Bible. They differed only on the question of when reinterpretation was appropriate and who had the authority to do it.

Galileo’s 1633 trial before the Roman Inquisition endures in popular culture as the climactic moment when science and reason clashed with organized religion, giving birth to the modern era of rationalism. We imagine Galileo standing before his robed judges, methodically explaining his scientific proof for the earth’s motion and perhaps even inviting them to look through his telescope. His prosecutors, meanwhile, fire back at him obscure Bible verses that indicate the Earth’s fixed place in the universe. They condemn Galileo as a heretic, he is forced to recant his scientifically verified views under threat of torture and he ends his days under house arrest, despondent and in disgrace.1

This version of events, entertaining as it may be, is in fact little more than a romantic misconception. Galileo was never tortured, put in chains or imprisoned. Instead he was treated with great courtesy, spending most of his time in Rome at the home of the Tuscan ambassador.

Indeed, Galileo’s trial is perhaps the most profoundly misunderstood episode in his life. It simply was not the epic battle between belief systems that it is popularly made out to be. Rather, it was the result of a technicality, a misunderstanding about what Galileo was and was not permitted to say in his 1632 work Dialogue On the Two Chief World Systems. The trial was also caught up in the personal conflict between Galileo and his old student and friend, Pope Urban VIII, at a time of intense political pressure for the Pontiff and his Church.

Let us first review the immediate background of the trial. In the spring of 1632, Galileo published the Dialogue—a book that pitted the sun-centered view of the cosmos against the earth-centered view—which immediately began to evoke accusations of heresy. Ever since 1616, the Roman Catholic Church had prohibited all books advocating Copernicanism. As evidence for the earth’s motion swelled during the allegedly neutral dialogue, it gave every impression that the purpose of the book was to render geo-centrism illogical.2 In addition to apparently violating Church regulations, Galileo had injudiciously placed Pope Urban VIII’s own opinion on the matter—that human intellect could not discern the true causes of celestial phenomena—in the mouth of the buffoonish character Simplicio. In this way Galileo managed to alienate and insult his longtime friend and ally. What’s more, the insult came at the height of the Thirty Years’ War when the Pope could ill afford more dissension. Thus when the Florentine Inquisitor summoned him to Rome in October 1632, under threat of imprisonment, Galileo had no choice but to comply.

Galileo appeared in Rome in February of the next year. Unlike usual procedure, he was not arrested upon arrival, but rather allowed to stay in the home of the Tuscan ambassador. Despite growing apprehension about his trial, Galileo nonetheless was pleasantly surprised by his accommodations, and wrote to a friend shortly after his arrival that: “...this seems to be the beginning of a procedure which is very gentle and kind, and completely unlike the threatened ropes, chains and prisons, etc.”3

However, Galileo’s first impression was not entirely accurate. Within a few days of his arrival, the Pope ordered him not to speak to anyone; for the next month and a half Galileo was not allowed to leave the ambassador’s quarters or entertain visitors.4 During this time Galileo heard nothing official about the preparations for his trial, but nevertheless slowly gleaned from friends that “the greatest difficulty seems to lie in the claim by these Lords that in the year 1616 Mr. Galilei received an injunction not to dispute about or discuss [Copernicanism].”5

Galileo’s trial was to be conducted under the auspices of the Roman Inquisition, which consisted of ten Cardinals appointed by the Pope and charged with safeguarding Catholic dogma. The usual trial procedure was for the Prosecutor of the Holy Office, a primarily legal official, to formulate the charges against the defendant and conduct interrogations prior to the trial. Then he was to submit an official summary of the proceedings to the Cardinals, who then would vote on the charges and submit their decision to the Pope for approval.6

On April 12, 1633, Galileo stood before the Prosecutor of the Holy Office, Fr. Vincenzo Maculano, for the first round of questioning. Father Maculano began with the standard question of whether Galileo knew why he had been summoned by the Holy Office. Galileo responded that he suspected it was because of his book, the Dialogue, since the printer had been ordered to “not issue any more of these books” as well as to “send the original the Holy Office in Rome.”7

Father Maculano focused his later questions on Galileo’s disagreement with Cardinal Bellarmine, former Master of Controversial Questions and twelve years deceased, over the topic of Copernicanism in 1616. This was the conflict which ultimately led to the decree by the Congregation of the Holy Index which declared Copernicanism “foolish and absurd in philosophy” and “formally heretical.”8 Although Galileo was never mentioned by name in this decree, or publically punished and charged with holding a heretical view, he was personally given a warning by Cardinal Bellarmine not to advance Copernicanism in the future.

Since Bellarmine delivered this warning to Galileo verbally, no official record of his exact words was filed. However, when Father Maculano searched through the files of the Holy Office for a record of the meeting, he found an unsigned document from 1616 which read that Bellarmine had forbidden Galileo to “hold, teach or defend [Copernicanism] in any way, either verbally or in writing.”9

If this were the case, then Galileo’s writing of the Dialogue would be indefensible. Even if he tried to argue that he did not defend Copernicanism in his book, he most certainly taught the theory. From Father Maculano’s view, the case was open-and-shut. Instead of pitting scientific reasoning against religious authority, this case pivoted on the simple question: had Galileo violated the injunction against advocating Copernicanism?

However, as Maculano continued to question Galileo about the 1616 controversy and injunction, a different story emerged. Unlike the document found in the files of the Holy Office, Galileo claimed that Bellarmine had not prohibited him from teaching about Copernicanism, only from advocating that Copernicanism was absolutely true. He said Bellarmine had told him that “Copernicus’ theory could be held suppositionally, as Copernicus himself held it.” Only when Copernicanism was taken as a literal description of the universe could “the opinion be neither held nor defended.”10

In other words, Galileo could hold Copernicanism as a theory, but could not assert that it was an actual description of the objective universe. In support of this claim, Galileo quoted from a letter by Cardinal Bellarmine applauding him for “proceeding prudently by limiting [himself] to speaking suppositionally and not absolutely.”11 Given Galileo’s account of Bellarmine’s injunction, a hypothetical discussion of Copernicanism, such as in the Dialogue, would be acceptable.

Galileo further supported his position by furnishing a certificate that he had received from Cardinal Bellarmine only a few months after the 1616 decree. It confirmed that Galileo had not been forced to renounce “any opinion or doctrine which he held,” and instead stated that Copernicanism taken in the absolute sense could not be “defended or held.”12

This document contained no mention of the much stronger injunction not to “teach … in any way whatever, verbally or in writing” that was found in the document from the Holy Office files. When asked if he remembered the stronger wording, Galileo responded: “Regarding the two other phrases...not to teach and in any way whatever, I did not retain them in my memory, I think because they are not contained in the said certificate.”13

Indeed, Galileo’s certificate appeared more genuine, bearing the signature of the late Cardinal, whereas Maculano’s document was unsigned. With no way to establish which document took precedence, the first round of questioning ended. The trial appeared to have reached an impasse.14

For the next eighteen days, Galileo was sworn to silence and given accommodations in the quarters of the Holy Office. During this time, he was beset with physical pain from old age, but nonetheless acknowledged that his “hope was greater than ever” that the trial might be resolved in a conciliatory manner.15

Maculano, however, was far less at peace. His airtight case against Galileo had been brought to a halt by Galileo’s unexpected certificate, and pressure was beginning to build for a verdict.16 Seeing no way to convict Galileo in court, Maculano asked permission from the Holy Congregation to “treat extrajudiciously with Galileo, in order to render him sensible of his error and bring him, if he recognizes it, to the confession of the same.”17

In essence, Maculano would offer Galileo a deal, a plea bargain of sorts. He would drop all charges of formal heresy if Galileo would admit to inadvertently advancing heretical ideas in the Dialogue.18 This way both parties could save face: Galileo would be guilty only of inadvertence, and the Inquisition would have duly punished him, albeit lightly.

On April 27, Maculano visited Galileo in his private quarters at the Holy Office to negotiate a compromise. After hours of “exchanging innumerable arguments and answers,” Galileo agreed to the deal, admitting to Maculano that he “had erred and gone too far in his book.” 19 Once the deal was settled, Galileo expressed relief and thankfulness towards Maculano, grateful that he would leave the whole affair with little more than a slap on the wrist. Maculano too was glad, stating: “the case . . . may now be settled without difficulty. The Tribunal will maintain its reputation; the culprit can be treated with benignity.”20

A few days later a second court session was called and Galileo confessed his errors: he had simply gotten carried away and accidentally made a weak argument look strong.21 “My error then was, and I confess it, one of vain ambition, pure ignorance and inadvertence.”22 Maculano in turn proposed a relatively light sentence for Galileo; although the specifics are not known, it was likely akin to “inadvertence” or “rashness.”23

The next step was for Galileo to present before the court a formal defense of his innocence. So, ten days later, Galileo appeared again and presented the original copy of Bellarmine’s certificate as well as a brief written defense of his actions. Echoing his previous confession, Galileo asserted that the errors found in his book were “not introduced through the cunning of an insincere intention,” but rather through the “satisfaction of appearing clever beyond the average among popular writers” by making the weaker argument appear strong.24 Having finished his part of the plea bargain, Galileo only needed to wait for Maculano to uphold his end of the agreement. Leaving the session Galileo was optimistic, even confident, about the outcome of the trial.25

The officials of the Holy Office then prepared a summary of the trial, which was delivered to the ten cardinals of the Holy Congregation, and ultimately to the Pope, for judgment.26 Likely there was disagreement among the members of the Congregation regarding the sentence; Galileo heard nothing from them for more than a month.27

However, when the sentence was presented to Pope Urban VIII, he balked at letting Galileo off with a slap on the wrist. Faced with increasing pressure from Spain to contribute more to the war effort, and amidst growing accusations of weakness as a leader, Urban was determined to make an example of Galileo.28 Furthermore, there was the matter of Galileo’s handling of the Pope’s request that he include in his book a disclaimer on the tides, a request that Galileo managed to meet in a way that embarrassed the Pope, a serious scientist and theologian in his own right.

The Pope ignored the plea bargain and decided to use Galileo’s confession against him as evidence of vehement suspicion of heresy, a sentence only one degree below formal heresy.29 On June 16, the Pope issued a public decree that “Galileo is to be interrogated with regard to his intention, even with the threat of torture, and, if he sustains [answers in a satisfactory manner], he is to abjure de vehementi [i.e., vehement suspicion of heresy].”30 With this the case was effectively settled. Galileo would be arrested, interrogated and convicted of vehement suspicion of heresy.31

Although we do not know when Galileo first heard of the decree, he must have been stunned. The plea bargain had been disregarded, and now he was being called to trial again. On June 21, Galileo was rearrested and brought to court. When asked if he held Copernicanism in the absolute sense, Galileo responded that he had adhered to that view when he was young, but ever since the Decree of 1616, “assured by the prudence of the authorities, all my uncertainty stopped.”32 Having answered satisfactorily, Galileo was deemed guilty of “vehement suspicion of heresy,” but innocent of formal heresy.33

On June 22, 1633, Galileo listened as the Congregation of the Holy Office read its verdict:

We say, pronounce, sentence, and declare that you, the abovementioned Galileo...vehemently suspected of heresy, namely of having held and believed a doctrine which is false and contrary to Holy Scripture: that the sun is the center of the world and does not move from east to west, and the earth moves and is not the center of the world.34

Galileo’s sentence was also read: he was confined to house arrest for the rest of his life, the Dialogue was officially banned and he had to recite the seven penitential psalms weekly for the next three years. He was given the opportunity to receive forgiveness from the Holy Office if he read with a sincere heart the abjuration statement that had been prepared for him in advance.35 Thus, kneeling before his judges, Galileo declared:

With a sincere heart and unfeigned faith I abjure, curse and detest the above mentioned errors and heresies...and I swear that in the future I will never again say or assert, orally or in writing, anything which might cause a similar suspicion about me.36

With this image, we are transported to the modern day. Despite the popular understanding of Galileo’s trial as the epitome of the struggle between science and religion, the two disciplines actually were not in conflict with each other. Instead we find that the case pivoted on an internal technicality: had Galileo violated the injunction of 1616? Given the contradiction between Maculano’s document and Galileo’s certificate, it was impossible to know the specifics of the 1616 injunction. Galileo could not, therefore, be proved to have violated the decree.

External matters of the day were equally germane to the outcome of the case. The nascent Protestant Reformation brought to the fore the issue of reinterpretation of Scripture. There was much disagreement among Christians in Europe over who could legitimately interpret Scripture and when it was appropriate to do so.

It was not yet determined what level of empirical evidence constituted a scientific “fact.”37 As a result, natural discoveries like Galileo’s telescopic observations further complicated the issue of reinterpreting Scripture. As we saw in the 1616 controversy, Galileo thought he had enough evidence to merit such a reinterpretation, but Cardinal Bellarmine disagreed.

Additionally, mounting political pressure from Catholic rulers in Europe forced Pope Urban VIII to make exaggerated demonstrations of orthodoxy. As a result, he was in no position to authorize the lenient sentence proposed by Fr. Maculano, and so deemed Galileo guilty of vehement suspicion of heresy.

Looking back, it becomes clear that the whole Galileo affair has been blown out of proportion. It was never a conflict between science and religion. Rather, it was a simple trial that was turned into a vehicle for settling political differences completely unrelated to Copernicanism, Galileo and the legal matter at hand.

As for Galileo, he remained a faithful Christian all his life. He lived and died an ardent proponent of the unity of truth, and he believed in the fundamental compatibility of truth observed in nature and in Scripture.

Galileo never promised that reconciling science and faith would be easy. In fact, he warned that “its expounders and interpreters are liable to err in many ways.”38 Nevertheless he always affirmed that there is “no teacher of truth but God, no matter where it comes to light.”39

How science rose from the tumult of the Reformation and Age of Enlightenment and became an independent way of seeing the world, and how religion and science came into conflict, is a story for another day. The lesson of the Galileo affair is that history is often more complex and more nuanced than the caricatures that exist in today’s popular imagination.

Nowadays, with science and religion so often appearing at war, we might do well to look back at Galileo and his complicated times. What we find there will help us understand the interplay of natural science and religion, of empiricism and epistemology, in a time before modern intellectual prejudice had been born. And we would do well to remember a faithful Christian and brilliant scientist who persevered through opposition and personal hardship, “always to conform his duty as a scientist with the destiny of his soul.”40
1. Richard J. Blackwell, Behind the Scenes at Galileo’s Trial (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006) 1.
2. Ibid, 3.
3. Annibale Fantoli, Galileo: For Copernicanism and for the Church Vol.3, trans. George V. Coyne S.J. (Italy: Vatican Observatory Publications, 1994), 396.
4. Fantoli, 395.
5. Ibid, 396.
6. Blackwell, 6-7.
7. Maurice A. Finocchiaro, The Galileo Affair (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989) 256.
8. Fantoli, 199.
9. Blackwell, 10.
10. Finocchiaro, 258-259.
11. Fantoli, 174.
12. Blackwell, 9.
13. Finocchiaro, 260.
14. Blackwell, 13.
15. Fantoli, 407.
16. Blackwell, 13.
17. Fantoli, 408.
18. Blackwell, 14.
19. Ibid, 15.
20. Ibid, 15.
21. Ibid, 16.
22. Ibid, 17.
23. Ibid, 16.
24. Ibid, 17.
25. Ibid, 21.
26. Ibid, 18.
27. Ibid, 29.
28. Lawence M. Principe, “Galileo’s Trial.” Science and Religion Course No. 4691. John Hopkins University.
29. Ibid.
30. Blackwell, 23.
31. Principe, “Galileo’s Trial.”
32. Blackwell, 24.
33. Fantoli, 422.
34. Blackwell, 25.
35. Fantoli, 423.
36. Blackwell, 25-26.
37. Principe, “Galileo’s Trial.”
38. Dava Sobel, Galileo’s Daughter (New York: Walker & Company, 1999) 63.
39. Principe, “Galileo’s Trial.”
40. Sobel, 12.

Thanks for the article bdeaner. An accurate portrayal.

16 posted on 05/18/2009 10:27:08 PM PDT by chase19
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To: A.A. Cunningham

“You obviously get all of your knowledge from PBS and the History channel. I’d even wager that you’re one of those suckers who lines the wallets of people like Brown and Howard.”


17 posted on 05/18/2009 10:28:34 PM PDT by chase19
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To: dr_lew
I think the record of his condemnation that I cited should be enough to give anyone pause.

It was not about the science, as the article suggests. It was about the politics surrounding the science. They didn't arrest and put Copernicus on house arrest, did they? No. Why? Because he didn't overstep political bounds in the way Galileo did. The Church was not ever anti-science. The Church is the foundation for science -- the belief in a rational universe is only really possible if you assume the universe has a rational order. And the only reason to assume there is such an order is if there was a rational Creator. That's why paganism did not produce a scientific revolution -- their assumed cosmos were always chaotic due to the supposed capriciousness of the gods.
18 posted on 05/18/2009 10:28:52 PM PDT by bdeaner (The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? (1 Cor. 10:16))
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To: A.A. Cunningham

NO, you claimed that this opposition to the heliocentric was not from the church, it was from the “universities”.
There were almost no NATIONS, much less universities in Europe circa 1600 that were in any way free to contradict the pope. I “refuted Milan” by defying you to provide us with an example of a university free of Vatican domnination. The fact is, that you cant.

I asked you what universities you think may have been this free then. That was a silly statement by that writer, to say that the universities were some force that was free to oppose the Vatican.

The Pope locked up galileo. Unless you think they lied recently.

And this has not a whit to do with todays church to criticize those elitist despots back then. I give the modern church more credit for winning the cold war than i even do Thatcher and Reagan. The popes role in that is never recognized for the driving force it truly was.

19 posted on 05/18/2009 10:29:25 PM PDT by DesertRhino (Dogs earn the title of "man's best friend", Muslims hate dogs,,add that up.)
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To: A.A. Cunningham

NO, you claimed that this opposition to the heliocentric was not from the church, it was from the “universities”.
There were almost no NATIONS, much less universities in Europe circa 1600 that were in any way free to contradict the pope. I “refuted Milan” by defying you to provide us with an example of a university free of Vatican domnination. The fact is, that you cant.

I asked you what universities you think may have been this free then. That was a silly statement by that writer, to say that the universities were some force that was free to oppose the Vatican.

The Pope locked up galileo. Unless you think they lied recently.

And this has not a whit to do with todays church to criticize those elitist despots back then. I give the modern church more credit for winning the cold war than i even do Thatcher and Reagan. The popes role in that is never recognized for the driving force it truly was.

20 posted on 05/18/2009 10:30:36 PM PDT by DesertRhino (Dogs earn the title of "man's best friend", Muslims hate dogs,,add that up.)
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