April 5th, 2002
Why was Galileo’s Dialogue concerning the Two Chief World Systems condemned by the Roman Catholic Church? Was this confrontation inevitable or could it have been avoided?
The conflict between Galileo and the church is a well-known incident in history often portrayed as a battle between the tyrannical Catholic Church and a heroic scientist. As recently as 1992 the Roman Catholic Church admitted they had made an error in their persecution of Galileo at a meeting of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences in Rome, much to the ridicule of the media who interpreted this as obvious result which had taken a Papal commission thirteen years to derive. To fully assess the reasons behind the condemnation of Galileo’s Dialogue concerning the Two Chief World Systems we shall examine the events that preceded it’s publication and also the condition of Italy at the time.
Galileo Galilei was born in1564 during a time titled as the Counter-Reformation. This was the Catholic Church’s response to the Reformation that took place in the first half of the sixteenth century. Before this time the Catholic Church, modelled upon the bureaucratic structure of the Holy Roman Empire, had become extremely powerful, but internally corrupt. From early in the twelfth century onward there were calls for reform. Between 1215 and 1545 nine church-councils were held with church reforms as their primary intent but all failed to reach significant accord. The clergy was unable to live according to church doctrine, and the abuse of church ceremonies and practices continued. In the period of time that followed, called the Reformation, Western Europe experienced a wide range of social, artistic, and geo-political changes as a result of this conflict within the Catholic Church.
The Counter Reformation was led by conservative forces whose aim was both to reform the church and to secure it’s traditions against the innovations of Protestant theology and against the more liberalising effects of the Renaissance. The Council of Trent in 1545-1563 was the central event of the Counter Reformation. Some of the areas covered by the council were communion in both kinds, the Mass, the sacraments of orders and matrimony, the veneration and invocation of the saints, the cult of relics and images, the list of forbidden books, the priesthood in all its phases, ecclesiastical foundations, education, marriage, religious orders, feasts and fasts, and the service books of the church. The decisions of the council were taken seriously during this time of conflict between the Catholics and Protestants and the Counter Reformation was mainly about carrying out the objectives laid down by it. One of the main issues dividing the Protestants and Catholics was the interpretation of the Bible, how particular points were to be interpreted and who had the authority to do so. During the fourth session of the Council of Trent it was decreed:
Furthermore, to check unbridled spirits, it decrees that no one relying on his own judgement shall, in matters of faith and morals pertaining to the edification of Christian doctrine, distorting the Holy Scriptures in accordance with his own misconceptions, presume to interpret them contrary to that sense which holy mother Church, to whom it belongs to judge of their own true sense and interpretation, has held and holds, or even contrary to the unanimous teaching of the Fathers, even though such interpretations should never at any time be published. Those who act contrary to this shall be made known to ordinaries and punished in accordance with the penalties prescribed by law.
This shows the commitment to traditional interpretations as opposed to the Protestants who had a more novel and individualistic approach. Previous to the Council of Trent Paul IV issued the first official Roman Index of Prohibited Books which included all the works of Erasmus and all translations of the Bible into vernacular languages. The list became more strict after the Council of Trent and even more so under Pius V who set up a Congregation of the Index for continuous censorship. Nicocolo Machiavelli was among the many placed on the Index and then later refuted. Tommaso Campanella was imprisoned for his ideas, as were Francesco Pucci and Giordano Bruno and then burnt at the stake.
The invention of the telescope in the first decade of the seventeenth century brought the attention of the Christian world back to the heliocentric theory. In 1609, Galileo improved the quality and magnification of the telescope first invented in 1608. With the instrument, Galileo made a number of discoveries that refuelled the debate over Copernicanism. Amongst his findings were the phases of Venus and the satellites of Jupiter. He also discovered that the planet Mars showed changes in brightness and size and that the surface of the sun exhibited dark spots that appeared and disappeared at irregular intervals and moved in a way that indicated rotation of the sun about its own axis. The Starry Messenger, published in 1610, featuring some of these discoveries, allowed him to leave his position as professor of mathematics at the University of Padua and become philosopher and chief mathematician to the grand duke of Tuscany. His book was a success and Galileo received a warm reception in Rome, however the publication of Sunspot Letters didn’t proceed as effortlessly. In 1612, Prince Fredrico Cesi (1585-1630) offered to publish Sunspot Letters but the censors forced him to make successive corrections to the opening of the book. It was to open with a quote from the Bible which theologians thought gave the impression that astronomers wanted to take their place. The Biblical passage was removed and a line referring to what pointed Galileo to displaying the Copernican system in public as “divine goodness” was changed to “favourable winds”. The amendments didn’t stop there. A third one had Galileo change what he had written about the corruptibility of the heavens but the revision he made was inadequate according to the censors and any mention of the Scriptures was altogether deleted. Galileo had described the immutability of the heavens as “not only false, but erroneous and repugnant to the indubitable truths of the Scriptures.” He argued that his own theories were “most agreeable to the indubitable truths of Holy Writ” and commended those before him for finding ways to reconcile biblical passages with evidence to the contrary. He implied that there existed a non literal way of interpreting biblical passages on astronomy as this had been done before to show agreement of the texts with Aristotle. The censors refused to let a layman get involved in the interpretation of Scripture whereas Galileo described his point of view as “divinely inspired” and labelled others’ as “contrary to Scripture.” This showed Galileo’s character, egoistic with the ability to ridicule people in writing with great eloquence.
In November 1613, Galileo’s favourite pupil and friend, Benedetto Castelli was invited to dine with the grand duke Cosimo II. Copernicanism was discussed as the Duchess Christina asked Castelli how it fitted with the Bible. When Galileo was told about this he wrote Castelli a letter (this formed the basis of his Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of 1615) explaining Biblical passages. This was dangerous ground, as earlier mentioned, interpretation was only to be done by people with authority. Matters became serious in 1614 when a Dominican friar, Tommaso Caccini, preached against the motion of the earth and cursed mathematicians for promoting the idea. This caused Galileo to complain the preacher general of the order who apologised. Galileo also wrote to Prince Cesi who gave him sound advice about the situation. He told him that Bellarmine, a papal theologian and counsellor to the Holy Office, considered the opinion of Copernicus as heretical and that the motion of the earth was against Scripture. In the spring of 1616, the Nicolaus Copernicus book De Revolutionibus Orbium Caelestium was condemned and finally put on the Roman Index of Prohibited Books. Bellarmine however was not totally dismissing the theory as shown in his letter to Paolo Antonio Foscarini who had made a appeal for the compatibility of Copernicanism with the Scriptures. He argued that the motion of the earth had not been proven and that it shouldn’t be treated as a physical truth since this was contrary to Biblical texts. He also added that if the motion of the earth were to be proved “then we would have to use great care in explaining the passage of Scriptures that seem contrary.” Galileo was sent a copy of this letter to which he replied that the Council of Trent only had authority of Scripture regarding matters of faith and morals.
In 1623, Cardinal Maffeo Barberini was elected pope under the name Urban VIII. Urban granted Galileo six audiences, gave him many gifts and allowed Galileo to talk about Copernicanism. After this he set to work on his Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems. Galileo wrote the book in the form of a dialogue between three people, Simplicio defending the geostatic view, Salviati presenting the Copernican view and the Sagredo a neutral bystander. When the book was published various complaints emerged. The main complaint was regarding a document found that stated that Galileo had been ordered to stop holding or discussing geokinetic opinions by Bellarmine in the name of the Inquisition. The second complaint was that the book did not show the earth’s motion as a hypothesis but as a fact, something Urban had specifically warned Galileo against. Thirdly, the book appeared to be defending the Copernican theory despite its format. It depicted his views favourably and criticised the other. Galileo was summoned back to Rome; a trial followed his arrival in February 1633 after which he was put under house arrest.
Galileo’s Dialogue was only dropped from the Roman Index of Prohibited Books in 1832. Catholics were free to teach Copernicanism after this point. His denunciation was the result of political as well as personal factors. Galileo was convinced of his theory and therefore could not sit back but he failed to understand that the Catholic Church could not give leeway due to attacks by Protestants who claimed it was neglecting the Bible. The Church was forced to treat anything contradicting Scripture with extreme vigilance. Galileo received many warnings that should have indicated this to him but he wanted a swift acceptance of his theories. This episode in the history of science and religion damaged both, giving the impression of hostility between the two, particularly the Catholic Church.
1. Finocchiaro, M.A. 1989. The Galileo Affair University of California Press
2. Westman, R.S. “The Copernicans and the Churches” and Shea, W.R. “Galileo and the Church” in Lindberg, D. and Numbers, R.L. 1986. God and Nature University of California Press
3. De Santillana, G, 1958. The Crime of Galileo Heineman
4. Machamer, P. 1998. The Cambridge Companion to Galileo Cambridge University Press
5. “Counter Reformation: Phases of the Counter Reformation.” The Columbia Electronic Encyclopaedia.
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6. The Council of Trent, The canons and decrees of the sacred and ecumenical Council of Trent, Ed. and trans. J. Waterworth (London: Dolman, 1848)
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