GALILEO - by Dennis Barton

An often repeated story goes like this: The Church taught that the sun circled the earth and, when Galileo said the earth circled the sun, he was tortured, declared a heretic and condemned to life imprisonment. This fairy tale is often used to ‘prove’ religion’s hostility to science.

So let us look at the facts. The Church says the bible was inspired by God but written by men. When a doubt arises whether words express a divine teaching, or are due to the writer’s manner of expression, She says the words should be accepted at face value, unless there is a good reason to doubt them.

In the16th century, everyone believed the sun circled the earth. So when Copernicus, a priest and mathematician, calculated the planets were circling the sun, he feared public ridicule. Pope Pius III helped him overcome his fear by allowing a book about the theory, to be dedicated him. So in 1543 ‘De revolutionibus.’ was published. The new Christian calendar, issued by Pope Gregory in1591, was based on Copernicus’s theory. Catholic theologians didn’t see a problem.

In 1610 Galileo, using a telescope saw planets were revolving around the sun. He claimed this proved Fr. Copernicus’s theory. Normally this would not have caused a problem, but Protestants were claiming the Church was disloyal to the bible. Martin Luther said the idea of Fr. Copernicus was idiotic and a contradiction of the bible. Most people, using the evidence of their eyes and feet, agreed with him. If Galileo’s claim was accepted by Rome, the understanding of the biblical words: “the sun rose” would need revising. This would have helped the Protestant preachers.

In 1615 an enemy of Galileo accused him of scientific error and heresy, so the Church needed to try him. At the 1616 trial, the judges found that most scientists accepted that Galileo had increased the evidence for the theory, but not proved it scientifically. Because some planets were circling the sun didn’t prove the earth was doing the same. Facing scientific hesitancy and religious danger, the judges decided to wait for proof. They said the theory should not be promoted as fact but Galileo was still free to try to prove the theory. He promised to co-operate and was given a letter clearing him of heresy

In 1632 Galileo wrote a book to explain the various theories. But enemies alleged it was a cover for promoting Fr. Copernicus’s theory as fact. When tried in1633 he admitted disobeying the order and breaking his promise. Also, he had used deception to obtain permission to print. His book was republished with revisions. But leading scientists were allowed to read the original wording. Galileo was not found guilty of heresy but of being: ‘suspected of heresy.’

Galileo was sentenced to say seven psalms each week for three years. His daughter, a nun, was permitted to do this for him. To ensure he kept his renewed promise he was placed under house arrest in his comfortable villa. He was visited by many guests, such as the Dutch ambassador and John Milton. He frequently visited students at a local college and two lived with him as assistants. He corresponded with other scientists and had his portrait painted He wrote. “Discouses.. “, which many consider to be his greatest work, and died a loyal Catholic in 1642.

Catholic historians say that when the judges required Galileo to declare that he did not believe the earth revolved around the sun, they exceeded their authority. The judges were divided as to how to proceed and three did not sign the verdict. But these irregularities do not justify the ridiculous claim that the trial proves the Church consistently opposed scientific research.                            

Version: 2nd February 2011