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    The Galileo Affair, Part 5: The aftermath

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    • 06/30/2005

    By Paul Newall (2005)


    So it was that the trial and its inevitable result established what had already been determined in 1616 by Bellarmine's blinkered approach, wherein he claimed that no Scriptural passage could be challenged by physical arguments because they all came from the Holy Spirit. This opinion, followed to the letter, would kill science before it had even developed.

    As Fantoli put it, "to hold that the provisions of 1616 were only intended to break the untimely zeal of Galileo for Copernicanism without blocking further careful scientific research on the matter appears to me to be completely untenable" (op cit: 481). Although there were other factors, the effect on Copernican astronomy within Italy was catastrophic. Galileo blamed the Jesuits (XIV, 116-117, for example) and there is little doubt that a varied group of opponents was arrayed against him, from jealous academics to furious theologians. Nevertheless, the decisive influence was Urban VIII, convinced that Galileo had betrayed him—without which certainly even the most strident efforts of Galileo's detractors could not have borne fruit.

    The complex tale that is the Galileo affair cautions us not to make simplistic judgements. Nevertheless, it remains the case that the question of whether or not Galileo had any proof for Copernicanism was never at issue—in 1616 or in 1633. The very possibility of any demonstration was excluded in principle by Bellarmine's doctrinal position and its adoption by an authoritarian Church. The trial and abjuration of Galileo thus represented an "institutionalised abuse of power which can never be sufficiently deprecated" (ibid), in which the societal position of the Church was used to dictate the correct understanding of an issue that was never considered on its own terms. Allowing the enmity of some philosophers to provoke a theological confrontation when there was only a physical argument at issue, the machinery of the Holy Office was turned against Galileo and fell into the very error he and Augustine before him had warned against.

    In spite of Galileo not being blameless himself, it is fair to say that history has judged the Church justifiably harshly—most notably, perhaps, Pope John Paul II with his comment on the Galileo affair that "the sons and daughters of the Church must return with a spirit of repentance ... [to] the acquiescence given, especially in certain centuries, to intolerance and even the use of violence in the service of the truth" (1994: 45). The upshot of the affair was characterised by Westfall when he explained that

    [a]s the Church had remained a central factor in European life for more than fifteen hundred years by refusing ever to put itself in opposition to prevailing learning, so it would remain a factor in the new age then being formed if it refused to be at odds with modern science. The net result of Cardinal Bellarmine's devoted effort to defend his Church was to place an incubus to its back that it struggles still to shake off. (op cit: 24)

    For his part, Galileo had seen his attempt to save his Church from this mistake crushed by the authoritarianism he had sought to delimit to theology. Writing in 1633 to his friend Diodati of yet another attack on Copernicanism by Libert Froidmont, he asked

    [w]hen Froidmont or others have established that to say the earth moves is heresy, while demonstrations, observations, and necessary conclusions show that it does move, in what swamp will he have lost himself and the Holy Church? (XV, 25)

    It seems the question could only be rhetorical.

    Galileo was imprisoned by the Holy Office but his sentence was commuted—first to confinement within the Tuscan Embassy, then to house arrest in the Archbishop of Sienna's residence, and finally to house arrest in his own villa at Arcetri, close to Florence in his native Tuscany (XIX, 389). This circumstance remained in force even when he was completely blind. Using dictation to his students, however, he continued to work despite his disappointment, compiling all the work he had done or intended to do on dynamics. This was published in 1638 in Leiden as the Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations about two new sciences belonging to Mechanics and local motions.


    The Discourses, leading to Galileo being described as "the father of modern science"

    On the 8th of January, 1641, his health having deteriorated for the last time, Galileo Galilei died with his son Vincenzio and his student Evangelista Torricelli at his bedside. He was buried in the church of Santa Croce in Florence, the Grand Duke resolving immediately to "provide a sumptuous tomb for him comparable to and facing that of Michelangelo Buonarroti" (XVIII, 378). The Tuscan Ambassador was told by Urban VIII in Rome that this could not possibly be allowed (ibid, 378-379), showing that the attitude of the Church to him did not soften following his death. His friends, at least, realised his true stature and how he would be considered by posterity (for example, Holste, ibid).

    Only in 1734 did the Church finally give permission for a mausoleum to be built for Galileo's remains (XIX, 399), which were moved to the completed structure in 1736. The inscription read Galileo Galilei, Florentine Patrician, very great Innovator of Astronomy, of Geometry and of Philosophy. Incomparable to anyone of his time. May he rest here well. The work that Galileo had begun with the Two new sciences had since been completed by Newton in his Principia Mathematica and the Church finally had to come to terms with what Bellarmine supposed there could not be—a justification of Copernicanism.

    The adaptation was still slow, with the 1741 authorised edition of Galileo's works still requiring "corrections". In 1757 the decree of 1616 was quietly dropped from the Index of forbidden books, but the Copernican works proscribed therein remained until 1822 "out of at having finally to take a clear position with respect to the behaviour of the Church" (Fantoli, op cit: 497). In perhaps the ultimate irony, Pius VII released a decree in 1822 stating that no work treating of the motion of the Earth was to be prohibited, on pain of punishment for the person proposing to do so—a complete reversal of the situation in 1616 and 1633.


    Galileo's Tomb in Florence

    The Galileo Affair Today

    In the nineteenth century the rise of anti-clericalism and its antithesis in the combative defenders of the Church led to the myths we began this essay with. For the former, Galileo was a martyr to intellectual freedom, having fought the dragon of implacable hostility to science and free thought. No more convincingly, for the militant supporters of the Church Galileo embodied vanity, pride and ambition, and was responsible for his own sufferings at the hands of a Church that had correctly judged the limits of the available knowledge and acted accordingly. Neither of these can be taken seriously today, as we have seen.

    In 1849 the archives of the Holy Office were opened for the first time for the study of the Galileo affair. Giacomo Manzoni, Minster of Finances of the short-lived Roman Republic, and Silvestro Gherardi, Minister of Public Education, found some of the relevant documents and published them as The Trial of Galileo Reseen through Documents from a New Source in 1870. With the return to power of Pius IX, the Church hastily compiled its own resource to prevent any possible damage, with Prefect of the Secret Vatican Archive Marini's Galileo and the Inquisition issued in 1850. This was—intentionally—nothing approaching a complete record of the affair. Several other scholars were later given the chance to consult the volumes on Galileo, including Henri de L'Espinois, Domenico Berti and Karl von Gebler. In 1880 the Secret Archives were finally opened by Leo XIII and Antonio Favaro began his work on the National Edition of the Works of Galileo. Nevertheless, a resolution of the difficulties posed by the Galileo affair was no closer.

    In 1941 a decision was made by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences to commission a biography of Galileo in time for the 300th anniversary of his death in 1942. The work was entrusted to Monsignor Pio Paschini, professor of Church history in Rome at the Pontifical Lateran University, which he duly completed (slightly late) within three years. The book was rejected, however—some said for the harshness of opinion Paschini demonstrated towards the Jesuits for their part in the affair—and only released some twenty years later, having been corrected for the "inappropriate" way it portrayed the Church (cf. Maccarrone, 1980 for more detail). Thus did the concern to "save face" extend all the way to the Second Vatican Council and beyond.

    On the 10th of November, 1979, Pope John Paul II gave an address at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Einstein, at which he noted that

    The greatness of Galileo is known to everyone, like that of Einstein; but unlike the latter... the former had to suffer a great deal—we cannot conceal the fact—at the hands of men and organisms of the Church. ... I hope that theologians, scholars and historians, animated by a spirit of sincere collaboration, will study the Galileo case more deeply and, in a loyal recognition of wrongs from whatever side they come, will dispel the mistrust that still opposes, in many minds, a fruitful concord between the Church and the world. I give all my support to this task, which will be able to honour the truth of faith and of science and open the door to future collaboration. (quoted in Bucciarelli, 1980: 79)

    This challenge was taken up with the formation in July 1981 of a "Galileo Commission" under the leadership of Cardinals Casaroli and Garrone and split into four areas: exegetical; cultural; scientific and epistemological; and historical and juridical. A series of works were produced, beginning in 1983 and culminating in the Studi Galileiani of the Vatican Observatory.

    On the 31st of October, 1992, the Pope again addressed the Pontifical Academy to draw to a close this period of investigation. Commenting on the whole affair, his talk took a different tack when he said that

    From the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment down to our day, the Galileo case has been a sort of myth, in which the image fabricated out of the events was quite far removed from reality. In the perspective, the Galileo case was the symbol of the Church's supposed rejection of scientific progress, or of dogmatic obscurantism opposed to the free search for truth. This myth has played a considerable cultural role. It has helped to anchor a number of scientists of good faith in the idea that there was an incompatibility between the spirit of science and its rules of research on one hand and the Christian faith on the other. (in 1992: 271-280)

    The Pontiff went on to explain that the affair had resulted from a "tragic mutual incomprehension", which consisted in four separate conclusions of the Commission:

    • Galileo failed to appreciate that he had no proof of Copernicanism;
    • Theologians of that time did not correctly understand Scripture;
    • Bellarmine truly understood what was "at stake" in the affair; and
    • The Church accepted Copernicanism as soon as proof was available.

    We have seen that the first of these is untenable. The second fails because the methodological principle of Galileo's Letter to the Grand Duchess, while commonplace today, was neither understood nor employed by theologians at that time; and so it is useless to complain that it was not wielded correctly. We have also noted that Bellarmine's position rendered any such accommodation impossible. Following on from this, the third we already know to be in error: Bellarmine's position was not instrumental at all but based on reading all Scriptural passages as literally coming from the Holy Spirit. Finally, the idea that the Church embraced Copernicanism as soon as it was demonstrated is given the lie by the unwillingness to open the Secret Vatican Archives and the fact that the 1744 edition of Galileo's works was not allowed to contain the Letter (although it did include the Dialogue, but only with the sentence of 1633 alongside it) (Coyne, 2002), as we have treated of briefly above.

    Thus we see that the Church had retreated from the boldness of John Paul II's intentions in 1979 to a restatement of the old myths we have considered and rejected throughout. Meanwhile, Galileo studies continue unabated with new perspectives continually casting the affair in a different light. It is perhaps in this desire to consider the case closed that the contemporary Church has erred most seriously, since the continuing relevance of all the issues encompassed by this great human, theological, philosophical, political and personal drama is such that it seems likely to maintain its hold over our imaginations indefinitely. It is as well to leave the last word on a subject that is never final, then, to Fantoli (1996: 511), who suggested that:

    [The Galileo Affair] remains, and should remain, "open"... as a severe lesson of humility to the Church at all levels and as a warning, no less rigorous, not to wish to repeat in the present or in the near future the errors of the past, even the most recent past.



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