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    Galileo and the Bible

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    • 07/01/2005

    By Paul Newall (2005)

    The so-called Galileo Affair occurred within a variety of contexts, some – like the invention of the telescope – recent and some with an ancient pedigree. This paper looks at examples of the latter, centring on the issue of interpreting the Bible.

    The Council of Trent

    The immediate context for the events surrounding Galileo's eventual abjuration was provided by the Reformation, beginning in 1517 with Luther's famous nailing of his ninety-five theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. There followed the Catholic Counter-Reformation, from the pontificate of Pius IV in 1560 to the end of the Thirty Years War in 1648 – roughly the period in which Galileo (1564 - 1642) lived. In 1523 (and later in 1524) a request had been made at the Imperial Diet in Nuernberg for a "free Christian Council" to discuss the issues that were then splitting the Church. This was delayed for so long (cf. Jedin, 1957) that when the Council was finally convened at Trent in 1545, its aims were to clarify Catholicism as a system and no longer to deal with a schism that had already gone too far to stop. The Council itself lasted for eighteen years, interrupted twice between 1547 and 1551 and later for a decade from 1552.

    The Fourth Session, held in 1546, covered the important question of the status to be granted to Scripture and tradition. The issues at hand were to decide which books should be considered authentic and thus included in the Bible, and how to intepret the result. In addition, there was the matter of Catholic tradition, in the form of the writings of the Fathers of the Church – from Basil through to Augustine and Cyril of Alexandria. On these, the Session approved two Decrees. The first concerned tradition and stated the following:

    The Council … maintains that these truths and rules [of the Gospel] are contained in the written books and in the unwritten traditions which, received by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ Himself or from the Apostles themselves, the Holy Spirit dictating, have come down to us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand. Following then the examples of the orthodox fathers, it receives and venerates with a feeling of equal piety and reverence both all the books of the Old and New Testaments, since one God is author of both, and also the traditions themselves, whether they relate to faith or to morals, as having been dictated either orally by Christ or by the Holy Spirit, and preserved in the Catholic Church in unbroken succession. (Decree on Tradition and the Canon of Sacred Scripture in Blackwell, 1991)

    The main (but not sole) intent of this passage was to counter the Lutheran doctrine of Sola Scriptura; that is, that salvation comes from Scripture alone (thereby rejecting the indulgences and worldly extravagances that Luther decried in the Church). Notice, though, the use of "and" when asserting that the Gospel truths "are contained in the written books and in the unwritten traditions…" This was the result of a great (and unresolved to this day) debate within the Church concerning the revelation and its transmission through Scripture and/or tradition. The question was: which part of the revelation is contained in each? The two possibilities discussed were that the whole was to be found in both, or that a part was in each (Partim in libris scriptis partim sine scripto traditionibus). (The notion that the whole was in one but only partly in the other was seemingly not covered – cf. Jedin, op cit.)

    The consequences of each were significant: if the whole revelation lies in Scripture then tradition tells us nothing additional, which is not far from Sola Scriptura in effect except insofar as it does not reject that tradition includes truths. On the other hand, the alternative suggests that there are truths in tradition that cannot be found in Scripture (the converse holding, too), leading to the placing of an increased importance on the writings of the Church Fathers. What the Council did, however, was dodge the issue by not really asking the question and by simply resorting to this "and".

    More importantly for Galileo subsequently, a second Decree covered Scriptural interpretation:

    … the Council decrees that, in matters of faith and morals pertaining to the edification of Christian doctrine, no one, relying on his own judgement and distorting the Sacred Scriptures according to his own conceptions, shall dare to interpret them contrary to that sense which Holy Mother Church, to whom it belongs to judge of their true sense and meaning, has held and does hold, or even contrary to the unanimous agreement of the Fathers, even though such interpretations should never at any time be published. Those who do otherwise shall be identified by the ordinaries and punished in accordance with the penalties prescribed by the law. (op cit)

    A variant of this appeared in the Papal Bull Iniunctum nobis of 1564, including the line "I also accept Sacred Scripture in the sense in which is has been held, and is held, by Holy Mother Church, to whom it belongs to judge the true sense and interpretation of the Sacred Scripture."

    A commentary on the appeal to the authority of the Church Fathers was given by the Dominican Melchior Cano in his De locis theologicis, published in 1563 two years after his death. He gave six degrees of authority to be used in determining the accuracy of any such appeal, of which two are of interest here. The first stated:

    When the authority of the saints, be they few or many, pertains to the faculties contained within the natural light of reason, it does not provide certain arguments but only arguments as strong as reason itself when in agreement with nature… (Cano, Opera, VII, 3)

    This is the principle that Galileo would later appeal to, as we shall see below, and it is quoted verbatim by the Carmelite father Paolo Antonio Foscarini in his defence of his own letter Concerning the Opinion of the Pythagoreans and Copernicus About the Mobility of the Earth and the Stability of the Sun and the New Pythagorean System of the World of 1615, also discussed below. In his fifth degree, however, Cano wrote that

    In regard to the exposition of the Sacred Scriptures, the common interpretation of all the old saints provides the theologian with a most certain argument for the corroboration of theological assertions; for indeed the meaning of the Holy Spirit is the same as the meaning of all the saints… (ibid)

    This was the understanding relied upon by Bellarmine.

    Another writer of influence who considered these problems was Benito Pereyra, a Jesuit who authored a lengthy commentary on the book of Genesis in which he gave four rules for judging the truth of conflicting Scriptural interpretations. In particular, the last reads as follows:

    Fourth Rule: … in dealing with the teachings of Moses, do not think or say anything affirmatively and assertively which is contrary to the manifest evidence and arguments of philosophy or the other disciplines. For since every truth agrees with every other truth, the truth of Sacred Scripture cannot be contrary to the true arguments and evidence of the human sciences. (Commentarium et disputationum in Genesim tomi quatuor, I, 13)

    This passage was quoted – again verbatim – by Galileo in his Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of 1615 and influenced his thought on Biblical hermeneutics considerably. (Indeed, it is in Pereyra that we find the references to Augustine’s De Genesi ad litteram that would later appear in Galileo's Letter, in support of the very same interpretive principle.)

    This, then, is the context provided by the Council of Trent. An unresolved problem and an injunction on who could meaningfully interpret the Bible left an air of inevitability that a challenge would soon arrive to test the Church. Before we come to this, however, it is necessary to take two short detours.

    The Context of Demonstration

    It is well known that Galileo was not able to prove the Copernican system definitively. Some have subsequently asserted that in fact it was the Church that acted "scientifically" by taking a fallibilist stance, but this myth is mere anachronism – applying current ideas to the past when Galileo was working within a different context of demonstration. In this section we examine the understanding of proof that was employed by Galileo at the time and its consequences.

    Proof and Rhetoric

    Recent work on Galileo's early manuscripts has discerned considerable continuity between his thought and that of his contemporaries, as well as the Aristotelianism prevalent at the time. In particular, three early Latin works – MS 27 consisting in questions on logic and based on Jesuit commentaries on Aristotle's Posterior Analytics; MS 46 being some notes on motion; and MS 71 comprising in tentative versions of his later De Motu – provide a window into how Galileo thought about what we now call science and the justification of scientific theories.

    In the first part of his Posterior Analytics, Aristotle described science as follows:

    We suppose ourselves to possess unqualified scientific knowledge of a thing, as opposed to knowing it in the accidental way in which the sophist knows, when we think that we know the cause on which the fact depends, as the cause of that fact and of no other, and, further, that the fact could not be other than it is. Now that scientific knowing is something of this sort is evident - witness both those who falsely claim it and those who actually possess it, since the former merely imagine themselves to be, while the latter are also actually, in the condition described. Consequently the proper object of unqualified scientific knowledge is something which cannot be other than it is.

    Note that this view is considerably distant from the modern fallibilist notion of science, wherein all theories are held provisionally as subject to possible revision or refutation. For Aristotle, the province of science is that "which cannot be other than it is"; i.e. certain knowledge. Wallace has shown (in Coyne et al., 1985) that Galileo was “seriously studying Jesuit course materials on logic and natural philosophy” (op cit, 16) while authoring MS 27, which contains his adaptations of their remarks on Aristotle's treatise.

    His overall concern was to develop demonstrative arguments by which to provide scientific proof of a theory (in particular, the Copernican system). He did this by appealing to the concept of causality and by making a series of distinctions between types of cause. He contrasted true causes (vera causae) with improper ones; the universal with the particular; genuine with accidental; internal with external; instrinsic with extrinsic; and so on. His method, as explained in MS 27 and later explicated in the Sidereus nuncios and the Discourse on Floating Bodies, was that causes could be determined via a regressus demonstrativa. This meant working backwards from effects to causes, only to then attempt to minimise or eliminate those that - although present - would not have an effect on the object of study. An ultimate cause, then, would be something that when present allows us to see the effect but when absent takes it away.

    In addition to this, Galileo made use of suppositions; that is, by making hypothetical suppositions and reasoning from them to a logical demonstration, in accordance with the causal principles discussed above. If these suppositions are not false, he argued, then the theory so demonstrated could be held to be certain (Opere: 5, 357-359). In this way he could combine causes already discovered to achieve conclusive demonstrations elsewhere.

    The question, then, is to what extent Galileo had – or believed he had – necessary demonstrations of the Copernican system. It seems that late in 1615 he thought his argument from the tides was (or rather could be) a conclusive argument (Opere: 5, 377), and wrote his Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina with it in mind. However, in his later Dialogue he places the argument on the fourth day and quite clearly notes that it is not certain proof by allowing Simplicius to critique it as an example of begging the question, to which Salviati provides no rejoinder. This being so, the considerable rhetorical skill with which Galileo advanced Copernicanism (Moss, 1993) must have been intended to serve another purpose.

    Dominicans and Jesuits

    Before we can understand what this aim was, it is helpful to consider still another context in which Galileo lived. In 1607, Pope Paul V had issued a moratorium finally putting an end to a controversy between the Dominicans and Jesuits that had lasted for two decades concerning the reconciliation of Divine Grace with the freedom of the will. In the latter half of the sixteenth century the Domincans had become increasingly conservative in outlook, promulgating a series of Acta (Reichert, 1901) dealing with the necessity of persecuting heretics and taking a dim view of any form of compromise (cf. Feldhay, 1995 – particularly ch. 5-6). This was in marked contrast to the Jesuit approach, which emphasised tolerance and sought to find a middle ground with Protestants, minimising or removing altogether the use of pejoratives terms like heretic.

    Jesuit Obedience

    Following his election as General of the Society of Jesus in 1581, however, Claudio Aquaviva became increasingly concerned that the Jesuits' role after the Council of Trent as defenders of Church orthodoxy was being diluted. Mindful of violating the conditions of the Papal order, moreover, he issued two letters in 1611 and 1613 in which he sought to provide the Jesuits with a greater degree of uniformity of thought (Epistolae, 1911). In the second, he made explicit reference to the forty-first decree of the Fifth General Congregation of the Jesuits, which read in part as follows:

    In matters of any importance philosophy professors should not deviate from the views of Aristotle, unless his view happens to be contrary to a teaching which is accepted everywhere in the schools, or especially if his view is contrary to orthodox faith. In accordance with the Lateran Council, they should strenuously try to refute any arguments of Aristotle, or of any other philosopher, which are contrary to the faith. (Decreta, 1830)

    This had an immediate effect: in 1614, Christopher Grienberger, who had taken over as Professor of Mathematics at the Collegio Romano in Clavius' chair, arranged for Giovanni Bardi to present a lecture and accompanying demonstrations in support of Galileo’s 1612 Discourse on Floating Bodies. Bardi, a friend of Galileo, wrote a letter to the latter giving his account of how well he had been received (Opere: XII, 76), remarking in particular on Grienberger's opinion:

    Fr. Grienberger told me that if the topic had not been treated by Aristotle (with whom, by order of the General, the Jesuits cannot disagree in any way but rather are obliged always to defend), he would have spoken more positively about the experiments because he was very favourably impressed by them.

    Bardi also said that Grienberger had added (ibid) that it was no surprise that Bardi’s demonstration should disagree with Aristotle, since Galileo had already shown him to be in error with regard to the rates at which bodies of differing mass fall (the famous experiment at the Leaning Tower of Pisa). Clavius himself had sounded a similar note in 1611 when revising the final edition of his In sphaerum, wherein he reviewed the results Galileo had obtained from telescopic observations (which he had verified for himself) and stated that "ince these things are so, astronomers should consider how the celestial orbs are constituted so that these phenomena can be saved" (Opera mathematica, III, 75). Nevertheless, his suggestion (and the principle behind it) was not heeded and the Jesuits moved in a direction of obedience and fidelity to Aristotelianism (and Thomism) rather than continue with their open-minded approach to Galileo and his work.

    This is no more clearly shown than in the case of Guiseppe Biancani, a Jesuit who in 1614 authored his Aristotelis loca mathematica in which he treated of Aristotle's thought on floating bodies. While undergoing peer review, a custom of the Jesuits, this work was censored and a recommendation made that the discussion of floating bodies, due to Galileo, be replaced with a note pointing to the Florentine's work. (The reviewer, Giovanni Camerota, opined that "It does not seem to be either proper or useful for the books of our members to contain the ideas of Galileo, especially when they are contrary to Aristotle" – cf. Baldini, 1984.) In the revised edition of another work, the Sphaera mundi, seu cosmographia, first written in 1615 but only published in 1619 after the Decree of the Congregation of the Index in 1616, Biancani concluded his discussion of Copernicus and Kepler by saying:

    But that this opinion [heliocentrism] is false and should be rejected (even though it is established by better proofs and arguments) has nevertheless become much more certain in our day when it has been condemned by the authority of the Church as contrary to Sacred Scripture. (Sphaera, IV, 37)

    In his report on this work, Grienberger had lamented the restrictions placed on Biancani, noting that "he was not allowed to think freely about what is required" (Baldini, op cit). Much later, in 1633, Niccolo di Peiresc reported to Pietro Gassendi that in Athanasius Kircher’s opinion, even Christopher Scheiner, Galileo's bitter opponent on the question of sunspots, had been Copernican in outlook, only defending Aristotle because of his obligation as a Jesuit to do so:

    [Kircher]… could not keep from admitting to us … that Fr. Malapert and Fr. Clavius himself did not disapprove of the opinion of Copernicus, and were not very far from it, but they had been pressured and obliged to write in favour of the common views of Aristotle, which even Fr. Scheiner himself supported only because of force and obedience. (Opere: XV, 254)

    It is important to understand what apparently occurred here: the Jesuits were not bound to oppose Galileo because of what he wrote per se, but because their order had determined to follow Aristotle in philosophy. This, in turn, they had opted to enforce due to their (intellectual) battle with the Dominicans and the Counter-Reformation consequences of the Council of Trent, which had itself laid down the standards that could be accepted on Scriptural interpretation. Thus we come full circle to the Bible and how Galileo would be allowed to read it.

    Reading the Bible and the Book of Nature

    In order to avoid simplistic accounts of Galileo's differences with Bellarmine in interpreting Scripture, it is necessary to first understand the subtlety present in the latter’s views. In particular, we need to look beyond the almost exclusive focus on the last decade of his life when he came to know and interact with Galileo.

    Bellarmine and Astronomy

    An important observation arising from the study of Bellarmine's early works (most notably the Louvain Lectures of 1570-72) is that he held to a non-Aristotelian cosmology from at least the age of 28, if not earlier, and that this did not change significantly throughout the course of his life (cf. his letter to Cesi of 1618 in Blackwell, 1991, and his Letter to Foscarini of 1615) The hermeneutic principle he held to was that since there was disagreement among astronomers as to the make-up of the heavens, we should follow the interpretation that best accords with the Scriptures. This is to take the Bible as a boundary condition, limiting interpretations (this is Feyerabend’s argument in Coyne, et al., 1985, before he lapses into myth).

    Bellarmine's personal opinion remained constant in supposing that the heavens consisted in three parts, the second (the "starry") neither being composed of an Aristotelian quintessence nor incorruptible, but likely composed of fire and stationary. He further explained the motion of the Sun from North to South by its true path being a spiral, while he believed that the fixed stars actually moved independently of one another. (cf. Baldini, 1984 for more details.) Although he was aware of (and struggled with) the weaknesses of this account, which he based on his reading of relevant Biblical passages, it is therefore wholly incorrect to suppose that his opposition to Galileo and Copernicanism was due to his allegiance to Aristotelianism or the Jesuit injunctions of 1581.

    Biblical Hermeneutics

    In 1615, Foscarini published his Letter. This brought matters to a head very quickly. For his part, Foscarini was clear on his reasons for undertaking to show that Scripture could be adapted to Copernicanism:

    ... if the Pythagorean opinion is true, then without doubt God has dictated the words of Scripture in such a way that they can be given a meaning which agrees with, and is reconciled with, that opinion. This is the motive which has led me … to look and search for ways to accommodate many passages of Sacred Scripture with it, and to interpret these passages, with the aid of theological and physical principles, in such a way that they are not openly contradictory. As a result, if by chance this opinion should in the future become explicitly established as a certain truth (although now it is only taken as probable), no obstacles would arise which would worry or hinder anyone, and thus unfortunately deprive the world of that venerable and sacred association with truth which is desired by all good people. (in Blackwell, 1991, 222-223)

    The principle that Foscarini was relying on here was that there could not be two truths; that is, the Book of Nature must ultimately agree with the Bible or else two contradictory truths would hold at the same time. Judging that Copernicanism was quite probable, Foscarini therefore set himself the task of showing that Scripture could be interpreted in a manner that agreed with heliocentrism. In doing so, he was following Pereyra's Fourth Rule and the very same advice of Augustine that Galileo would appeal to; namely, that if the Church should fix physical truths on the basis of Scriptural passages and the former should one day be demonstrated to be incorrect, the faith would thereby be grievously injured.

    Bellarmine's response was his carefully considered Letter to Foscarini. After noting that Copernicanism cannot be held to have been demonstrated, and therefore can only be held ex suppositione, Bellarmine hints that Foscarini has not been able to explain all Scriptural passages on the basis of heliocentrism being true. His second point is of paramount importance, however:

    Now consider whether in all prudence the Church could encourage giving to Scripture a sense contrary to the holy Fathers and all the Latin and Greek commentators. Nor may it be answered that this is not a matter of faith, for if it is not a matter of faith from the point of view of the subject matter [ex parte objecti], it is still on the part of the ones who have spoken [ex parte dicentis]. It would be just as heretical to deny that Abraham had two sons and Jacob twelve, as it would be to deny the virgin birth of Christ, for both are declared by the Holy Ghost through the mouths of the prophets and apostles.

    Here Bellarmine insisted on a principle that meant the end of all debate, and indeed neither Foscarini nor Galileo published anything on Biblical hermeneutics subsequently. Since everything in the Scriptures has been authored by the Holy Spirit, it becomes a matter of faith by default. Although Foscarini had anticipated the appeal to the Decree of the Council of Trent, then, by saying that only matters of faith and morals come under the restriction on interpretation, Bellarmine had cut the ground from under him (and anyone else) by rendering the entirety of Scripture under the province of Trent. This also makes the Ptolemaic system "a matter of faith" and hence brought an end to any possibility of debate. (Although Tommaso Campanella published an attempted reconciliation of Copernicanism and Scripture in 1622, there is considerable dispute as to its actual date of creation. Even if we push it back to 1615, the year when he was asked for his opinion by Cardinal Gaetani (the man charged with correcting Copernicus' De revolutionibus orbium celestium), it does not seem to have impacted on the debate between Galileo and Bellarmine (although it is more likely to have had an effect on the trial of 1616). Campanella was not a popular man due to his having been imprisoned in 1599 for heresy and political conspiracy, even though his defence of Galileo’s freedom of inquiry was Scripturally more sound than Bellarmine's thought. cf. Blackwell, 1994 and Langford, 1998)

    Galileo's Reductio

    We will return to Bellarmine’s third point below, but Galileo was able to obtain a copy of the Letter and in due course made his own notes on it. Although he did not – and could not – publish these, he nevertheless developed a simple yet devastating reductio ad absurdum of Bellarmine’s principle that is worth considering.

    It would be much more a "matter of faith" to hold that Abraham had sons, and that Tobias had a dog, because the Scriptures say so, than to hold that the earth does not move, granting that the latter is found in the Scriptures themselves. The reason why the denial of the former, but not the latter, would be a heresy is the following. Since there are always men in the world who have two, four, six, or even no sons, and likewise since someone might or might not have dogs, it would be equally credible that someone has sons or dogs and that someone else does not. Hence there would be no reason or cause for the Holy Spirit to state in such propositions anything other than the truth, since the affirmative and the negative would be equally credible to all men. But this is not the case concerning the mobility of the earth and the stability of the sun, which are propositions far removed from the apprehension of the common man. As a result it has pleased the Holy Spirit to accommodate the words of the Sacred Scriptures to the capacities of the common man in such matters which do not concern his salvation, even though in nature the fact be otherwise. (in Blackwell, 1991, 270)

    Here Galileo was referring to his own quotation of Cardinal Baronius' epigram in the Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, which stated that "the intention of the Holy Spirit is to teach us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go." However, Galileo was able to ally this with a reductio: if it is true that everything in the Scriptures is a "matter of faith" ex parte dicentis, then it follows that denying that Tobias had a dog would be tantamount to heresy. Indeed, while the movement of the Earth may have been denied in the Scriptures, this is not a commonsensical issue and may be a question of accommodating the Biblical passages to the understanding of the lay readers. That Tobias had a dog, on the other hand, is a literal and straightforward interpretation of the Scriptures, and hence to deny it is – on Bellarmine's principle – heretical. This absurd conclusion demonstrates the poverty of Bellarmine’s position but Galileo, of course, did not dare publish it.

    Boundary Conditions

    If we wish to distill meaningful methodological principles from Bellarmine’s and Galileo's thought on interpreting the Scriptures, then, we have to look to their differing employment of boundary conditions. For Bellarmine, the common understanding of the Bible may not be without error but its overall status (containing either a part or the whole of the revelation, as discussed above) meant that it should be treated accordingly with a certain respect. That is, unless a passage could be shown to be contradicted by a certain demonstration to the contrary, we should assume its truth.

    For Galileo, on the contrary, the fact that some aspects of the Scriptures were false when read literally implied that physical arguments should take priority, with the Bible holding the "last place" in the interpretive chain ("if truly demonstrated physical conclusions need not be subordinated to biblical passages, but the latter must rather be shown not to interfere with the former", he writes in the Letter). Only when it speaks of an issue having nothing to do with the Book of Nature should the literal understanding of the Bible be accepted as definitive (cf. the extremely subtle reading of this section of the Lettter given in Fantoli, 2003, 156-159). Moreover, Galileo added that

    … before a physical proposition is condemned it must be shown to be not rigorously demonstrated - and this is to be done not by those who hold the proposition to be true, but by those who judge it to be false.

    When we bear in mind Galileo's methodology of suppositions and the regressive demonstration of causes, we arrive also at the realisation that for him only those physical propositions contained in passages of Scripture that were in agreement with certain proof could be taken as definitive; all others should not be subject to condemnation unless or until the complainant could show that they could not possibly be demonstrated. This is thus Galileo’s Aristotelian conception of what we now call science, still relying on certainty but operating in the opposite direction.

    What we have, then, are two hermeneutic principles. On the one hand, the Bible is to be taken as true (or approximately true) as is unless we can find reason to believe otherwise, whereupon its meaning must be reinterpreted. This is so for physical and theological elements alike (and also historical). On the other, we must start with true (or approximately true) physical propositions and interpret the Bible from within the context they provide. The one sets the Bible as a methodological standard by which to navigate, while the other strips it of all but theological content and sets the Book of Nature in its stead. It is this change in priority that has led to Galileo being called the "father of modern science", while these opposing methodologies inform debates on the priority of Scripture even today.



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    • Ugo Baldini, Additamenta Galilaeana, in Annali dell’Instituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza di Firenze (1984)
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