Galileo’s controversy with Church - Pope’s regret for how the Galileo affair was handled

Galileo Galilei (15 February 1564 – 8 January 1642) was a Italian physicist, mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher who played a major role in the Scientific Revolution. His achievements include improvements to the telescope and consequent astronomical observations. Galileo has been called the "father of modern observational astronomy" and "the Father of Modern Science”.

Galileo's championing of Copernicanism was controversial within his lifetime. The geocentric view had been dominant since the time of Aristotle, and the controversy engendered by Galileo's presentation of heliocentrism as proven fact resulted in the Catholic Church's prohibiting its advocacy as empirically proven fact, because it was not empirically proven at the time and was contrary to the literal meaning of Scripture. In astronomy, heliocentrism is the theory that the Sun is at the center of the Universe. Historically, heliocentrism was opposed to geocentrism, which placed the earth at the center. The distinction between the Solar System and the Universe was not clear until modern times, but extremely important relative to the controversy over cosmology and religion.

Galileo defended heliocentrism, and claimed it was not contrary to those Scripture passages. He took St. Augustine's position on Scripture: not to take every passage literally. The writers of the Scripture wrote from the perspective of the terrestrial world, and from that vantage point the sun does rise and set. Galileo did, however, openly question the veracity of the Book of Joshua (10:13) wherein the sun and moon were said to have remained unmoved for three days to allow a victory to the Israelites. By 1616 the attacks on Galileo had reached a head, and he went to Rome to try to persuade the Church authorities not to ban his ideas. In the end, Cardinal Bellarmine, acting on directives from the Inquisition, delivered him an order not to "hold or defend" the idea that the Earth moves and the Sun stands still at the centre. The decree did not prevent Galileo from discussing heliocentrism hypothesis (thus maintaining a facade of separation between science and the church). For the next several years Galileo stayed well away from the controversy.

He revived his project of writing a book on the subject, encouraged by the election of Cardinal Barberini as Pope Urban VIII in 1623. Barberini was a friend and admirer of Galileo, and had opposed the condemnation of Galileo in 1616. The book, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, was published in 1632, with formal authorization from the Inquisition and papal permission.

Pope Urban VIII personally asked Galileo to give arguments for and against heliocentrism in the book, and to be careful not to advocate heliocentrism. He made another request, that his own views on the matter be included in Galileo's book. Only the latter of those requests was fulfilled by Galileo. Whether unknowingly or deliberately, Simplicio, the defender of the Aristotelian Geocentric view in Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, was often caught in his own errors and sometimes came across as a fool. This fact made Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems appear as an advocacy book; an attack on Aristotelian geocentrism and defense of the Copernican theory. To add insult to injury, Galileo put the words of Pope Urban VIII into the mouth of Simplicio. Most historians agree Galileo did not act out of malice and felt blindsided by the reaction to his book. However, the Pope did not take the suspected public ridicule lightly, nor the blatant bias. Galileo had alienated one of his biggest and most powerful supporters, the Pope, and was called to Rome to defend his writings.

With the loss of many of his defenders in Rome because of Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Galileo was ordered to stand trial on suspicion of heresy in 1633. The sentence of the Inquisition was in three essential parts:

  • Galileo was found "vehemently suspect of heresy", namely of having held the opinions that the Sun lies motionless at the centre of the universe, that the Earth is not at its centre and moves, and that one may hold and defend an opinion as probable after it has been declared contrary to Holy Scripture. He was required to "abjure, curse and detest" those opinions.
  • He was ordered imprisoned; the sentence was later commuted to house arrest.
  • His offending Dialogue was banned; and in an action not announced at the trial, publication of any of his works was forbidden, including any he might write in the future.

According to popular legend, after recanting his theory that the Earth moved around the Sun, Galileo allegedly muttered the rebellious phrase And yet it moves, but there is no evidence that he actually said this or anything similarly impertinent. The first account of the legend dates to a century after his death.

After a period with the friendly Ascanio Piccolomini (the Archbishop of Siena), Galileo was allowed to return to his villa at Arcetri near Florence, where he spent the remainder of his life under house arrest, and where he later became blind. It was while Galileo was under house arrest that he dedicated his time to one of his finest works, Two New Sciences. Here he summarized work he had done some forty years earlier, on the two sciences now called kinematics and strength of materials. This book has received high praise from both Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. As a result of this work, Galileo is often called, the "father of modern physics".

Galileo died on 8 January 1642 at 77 years of age. The Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinando II, wished to bury him in the main body of the Basilica of Santa Croce, next to the tombs of his father and other ancestors, and to erect a marble mausoleum in his honour. These plans were scrapped, however, after Pope Urban VIII and his nephew, Cardinal Francesco Barberini, protested. He was instead buried in a small room next to the novices' chapel at the end of a corridor from the southern transept of the basilica to the sacristy. He was reburied in the main body of the basilica in 1737 after a monument had been erected there in his honour.

The Inquisition's ban on reprinting Galileo's works was lifted in 1718 when permission was granted to publish an edition of his works (excluding the condemned Dialogue) in Florence. In 1741 Pope Benedict XIV authorized the publication of an edition of Galileo's complete scientific works which included a mildly censored version of the Dialogue. In 1758 the general prohibition against works advocating heliocentrism was removed from the Index of prohibited books, although the specific ban on uncensored versions of the Dialogue and Copernicus's De Revolutionibus remained. All traces of official opposition to heliocentrism by the Church disappeared in 1835 when these works were finally dropped from the Index.

In 1939 Pope Pius XII, in his first speech to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, within a few months of his election to the papacy, described Galileo as being among the "most audacious heroes of research ... not afraid of the stumbling blocks and the risks on the way, nor fearful of the funereal monuments". His close advisor of 40 years, Professor Robert Leiber wrote: "Pius XII was very careful not to close any doors (to science) prematurely. He was energetic on this point and regretted that in the case of Galileo."

On 31 October 1992, Pope John Paul II expressed regret for how the Galileo affair was handled, and officially conceded that the Earth was not stationary, as the result of a study conducted by the Pontifical Council for Culture. In March 2008 the Vatican proposed to complete its rehabilitation of Galileo by erecting a statue of him inside the Vatican walls. In December of the same year, during events to mark the 400th anniversary of Galileo's earliest telescopic observations, Pope Benedict XVI praised his contributions to astronomy.

Cristiano Banti's 1857 painting Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition
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