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Posted by on Sep 10, 2007 in galileo | 15 comments

Galileo and the Inquisition

Here’s a little essay I am working on for this blog. It’s in progress, not finished… you may have suggestions as to how it might be improved. See previous post for context.

Some Catholics insist that Galileo was condemned, not for his scientific views, but his theological views. Here for example, is Patrick Madrid:

Galileo confused revealed truths with scientific discoveries by saying that in the Bible “are found propositions which, when taken literally, are false; that Holy Writ out of regard for the incapacity of the people, expresses itself inexactly, even when treating of solemn dogmas; that in questions concerning natural things, philosophical [i.e., scientific] should avail more than sacred.” Hence, we see that it was Galileo’s perceived attack on theology (which is the unique domain of the Magisterium and not of scientists) that elicited the alarmed response from the Church.

Thomas Lessl takes a similar view: that Galileo’s scientific views were not the “real source of his ecclesiastical difficulties”

What, then, caused the row with the Church? The first thing to remember is that Galileo’s heliocentric theory, although sternly opposed by theologians… wasn’t the real source of his ecclesiastical difficulties. Rather, the cause of his persecution stemmed from a presumption to teach the sense in which certain Bible passages should be interpreted….

McAreavey, in a letter to The Guardian, also voices the view that Galileo’s

subsequent trial and house imprisonment was not for his scientific views but for his refusal to refrain from theological interpretations of scripture.,,2127291,00.html

Madrid also quotes Rumble and Carty:

Galileo made the mistake of going outside the realm of science to invade the field of theology. He set himself up as an exegete of Scripture and thus brought upon himself the censures of lawful religious authorities.

That belief that the Church’s dispute with Galileo was essentially theological, not scientific, is held by a significant number of Catholics (though of course by no means all). Is the belief true?

The issue of “interpretation of scripture”

Galileo was brought before the Inquisition because he was alleged to have claimed that the Copernican system was not merely a useful hypothesis, but literally true – an opinion the Holy Office had already commanded him to relinquish back in 1616.

What happened is this. To claim that the Copernican system is not just a useful hypothesis, but literally true, is, on the face of it, to contradict what the Bible has to say. See for example:

…tremble before him, all earth; yea, the world stands firm, never to be moved. 1 Chronicles 16:30

The Lord reigns; he is robbed in majesty; the lord is robbed, he is girded with strength. Yea, the world is established; it shall never be moved.
Psalms 93:1

Say among the nations, “The Lord reigns! Yea, the world is established, it shall never be moved; he will judge the peoples with equity.” Psalms 96:10

Also see Joshua 10:12-13, where Joshua commands the sun to “stand still” – which it does, which entails that it had been moving.

In claiming that his theory was literally true, then, Galileo would immediately be seen by many to be contradicting holy scripture.

Galileo was indeed accused of contradicting scripture by his enemies Colombe and Caccini.

Short of saying that, “Yes, The Bible is indeed in error”, Galileo was then left with no choice but to say that these and other Biblical passages would, then, have to be interpreted differently.

Which is what he did say.

This certainly did upset the Church – particularly as it was believed Galileo had failed to supply any demonstrative proof of his scientific theory at that time (he had no proof, in fact).

Some theologians (e.g. Cardinal Bellarmine) were prepared to accept that scripture must indeed be reinterpreted if it could be proved that the Earth moved and the sun didn’t.

But here was Galileo claiming scripture must be reinterpreted, yet he could supply no proof! So now he’s in trouble!

Does all this, then, vindicate the claims of Madrid, MacAreavey and Lessl?

Madrid and MacAreavey

Now let’s return to MacAreavey, who says,

[Galileo’s] subsequent trial and house imprisonment was not for his scientific views but for his refusal to refrain from theological interpretations of scripture.

Madrid concurs. Now it is true that Galileo’s claim that scripture would have to be understood differently did indeed upset the Church, and certainly was an issue at his trial.

But of course, the only way Galileo could cease to make the claim that scripture would have to be interpreted differently would be to either (i) insist the Bible was just false, period, or (ii) cease asserting his scientific theory was literally true.

So the Church certainly was demanding that Galileo cease claiming his scientific theory was literally true.

It is clear, then, that Galileo’s scientific claims were not irrelevant to his trial. Far from it – they were pivotal.

On that issue, MacAreavey and Madrid are just wrong.

However – we might still debate to what extent it was Galileo’s scientific views, or just his theological views, that were fundamentally at issue.Which brings us back to Lessl…


As we saw above, Lessl says:

Galileo’s heliocentric theory, although sternly opposed by theologians… wasn’t the real source of his ecclesiastical difficulties. Rather, the cause of his persecution stemmed from a presumption to teach the sense in which certain Bible passages should be interpreted….

Lessl makes the dispute primarily theological, not scientific. Is that fair?

I don’t think so.

The Church’s position was this: that scientists could not – on pain of imprisonment, torture or even death – express a scientific belief contrary to what scripture appeared to say unless they could provide proof that the belief was true (in which case, scripture would have to be “reinterpreted”).

It is this position that lies at the root of Galileo’s difficulties with the Church.

It is a position on what scientific beliefs may be expressed.

Perhaps you’re still tempted to think Galileo’s trial primarily concerned Galileo’s view that scripture must be reinterpreted?

Then consider this analogy. Suppose a mad dictator, Fred, decrees the Earth is flat, and then dies. Fred’s totalitarian regime continues on without him, however, imposing his beliefs upon its citizens. But then a scientist under the regime dares to voice the view that the Earth is not flat, but round. The scientist is arrested, tried and imprisoned for life. Accused by other nations of suppressing scientific theories, the regime responds by saying that the prisoner was (primarily!) prosecuted not for his scientific views – oh no, no, no! – but for his Freddist views – in particular his suggestion that Fred must either be wrong, or else reinterpreted.

We would be astonished at their chutzpah, would we not?


  1. Seems like your position is pretty solid. I’ve yet to see any evidence that Galileo was contradicting any sense of scripture other than the physical claim that the Sun and planets orbited an unmoving Earth.

  2. If Galileo’s real crime had been presuming to dictate how to interpret scripture, then why bury this charge so completely that it is not mentioned in the charges against him? Why warn him not to teach Copernicanism as more than mere hypothesis? The Church had invested much in defense of the Aristotelian/Ptolemaic world view, and to admit it had been wrong about Aristotelian physics would thereby jeopardize the status of the broadly Aristotelian metaphysics, on which much of its philosophical theology had come to be based (including the inherently teleological view of nature it contains — something very largely absent from Galileo’s scientific outlook).This seems a much more plausible reason for the Church to oppose Galileo so vigorously, and, of course, this is intimately tied to Galileo’s scientific views.

  3. I share Eric Sotnak’s viewpoint that the Church’s commitment to Aristotelian physics motivated its persecution of Galileo rather than concerns about the way Galileo wanted to interpret Scripture. Some of the passages you mention are obviously picturesque and not to be taken at face value.The Lord reigns; he is robbed in majesty; the lord is robbed, he is girded with strength. Yea, the world is established; it shall never be moved. Psalms 93:1Literally construed, this would say that the Lord is strong and majestic and the Earth does not move. The nonsequiter and apparent change of topic makes that reading clearly mistaken. The passage seems to have more to do with God’s immutability. Indeed, just a verse later, in Psalm 93:3, The seas have lifted up, O LORD, the seas have lifted up their voice; the seas have lifted up their pounding waves.Should we take this to mean that the seas can talk?I would wager that the perceived threat of Copernican astronomy had more to do with its implicit attack on the Aristotelian worldview wedded to the Church’s theology as a whole than with any apparent usurpation of the Church’s authority to interpret Scripture by Galileo.

  4. Hi Stephen,It would be good if you could engage with Feyerabend on this as he might prove to be less flimsy opposition (and engaging with the best of the opposition leads to a better argument, doesn’t it? Plus which I don’t think he was a ‘Catholic’ (nor am I) or even a Christian, so you might like to change your ‘Some Catholics insist….’ as that just seems to be playing to the gallery). I think you also need to clarify the distinction you use between ‘theological’ and ‘scientific’ – as there is a danger of anachronism there. I suspect it’s precisely that sort of clarification which would help understanding between the opposing sides.For example, you write: “It is clear, then, that Galileo’s scientific claims were not irrelevant to his trial. Far from it – they were pivotal. On that issue, MacAreavey and Madrid are just wrong.” Yet you also accept (what is not in doubt?) that Galileo could not prove that his hypothesis was correct, and that the available empirical evidence supported the traditional Ptolemaic perspective rather than the Copernican (ie predictive capacity of the model). In what sense, then, was Galileo’s position ‘scientific’? I think you need to clarify what you are claiming.

  5. Hi SamA scientific belief/theory/claim is, roughly speaking, a theoretical belief/claim about how things stand in the world (we might add: one that is amenable to empirical investigation).Scientific beliefs and claims may or may not be well-justified (there can be bad science, can’t there?)So, using the term in that familiar way, Galileo’s claim remains scientific, whether or not it was well-justified. Certainly, the absence of justification doesn’t make it theological!I have already made the point that G could not prove his theory at the time. So what I am suggesting should be clear enough, I would have thought.I fail to see why the issue of justification is even relevant here. After all, if, in my Freddist case, the scientist lacked good grounds for supposing the Earth was not flat, but round, that would hardly excuse the regime, would it? Nor would it justify the assertion that the scientist’s views were Freddist, rather than scientific.Feyerabend? What’s the relevance? He thinks Galileo’s theory was not justified, and that the Church wa justified in rejecting G’s theory. He might be right.But that’s irrelevant. We are discussing whether the Church objected to G’s scientific views, or merely his theological views. The claim remember, is that it was only, (or primarily) G’s theological views that were at issue. That is the claim made by Lessl, Madrid et al. That is the claim I am attacking.I was not aware Feyerabend had a view on that matter. But you may be more knowledgeable about F than me…Why don’t you give us a precis of what you take Feyerabend’s view to be, and why you think it is relevant here, so we can all discuss? Would be useful…

  6. Also a question for Sam – is it your view that Galileo was (primarily) tried for his theological views, and not his scientific theories?For that is the issue I am discussing.

  7. Just on that latter question first – don’t know, I want to investigate further, but I’m pretty sure a hard and fast division between ‘theological’ and ‘scientific’ is misleading when analysing this case. I’ll try and put something together about Feyerabend’s argument, and add on a few of my own further comments. It’ll probably be tomorrow though.

  8. Thanks Sam. Read it. So, now, can you state in a paragraph exactly what you take the point and relevance to be here?I am v interested, by the way, in F’s claim that “Galileo did not simply ask for the freedom to publish his results, he wanted to impose them on others. In this respect he was as pushy and totalitarian as many modern prophets of science — and as uninformed.”G “imposed” his views on the Church?Galileo was threatened with torture, imprisonment and even death for daring even to teach his views. His colleague Bruno was burnt alive for continuing to believe what he had been told not to believe. In what sense was Galileo in a position to “impose” his view on anyone, other than to state it and argue for it?And of course, even this freedom was stripped from him.The way in which the Church comes out as victim and Galileo the totalitarian brute in F’s portrayal is really quite breathtaking, don’t you think?

  9. Briefly – you and your interlocutors seem to share a framing of the Galileo episode that treats ‘science’ and ‘theology’ as separable realms, and you’re arguing over which of the two Galileo was condemned for. Feyerabend offers a different – and to my mind more robust – defence of the RC church’s underlying position which doesn’t use that framing.If this is not relevant to what you’re saying then I’ve misunderstood your paper. Quite possible.

  10. Ok, I see.Well, let’s go one step at a time. The first issue is: did the Church (primarily) object, not to Galileo’s expressing scientific views, but to his view that scripture would have to be re-interpreted (i.e. those passages that seem to suggest the Sun moves and the Earth does not)?I don’t really see how Feyerabend’s stuff is directly relevant to this.Of course F’s views are relevant to the question of the extent to which the Church did anything blameworthy (i.e. it was not to blame, perhaps, for rejecting Galileo’s claims, given the evidence was lacking).But that’s a bigger question, and of course I said myself in the essay that the Church may have been correct to reject G’s, and also Bruno’s view, view, given the evidence.But of course, that doesn’t justify imprisoning Galileo for life, threatening him with torture,and burning Bruno alive, does it?There’s some other not terribly clear stuff in the Feyerabend article, which I now have a copy of by the way, that you might try to do something with…e.g. the stuff about, authority, traditions, the pretensions of science… by all means have a go.

  11. I think the church primarily objected to Galileo not accepting their authority over him, but “that doesn’t justify imprisoning Galileo for life, threatening him with torture,and burning Bruno alive” – absolutely. I think the issue of whether the church was intellectually justified/justifiable in opposing Galileo is separate from the methods they used to do that opposing. I’ve got no desire to defend the latter, but I’m very interested in the former. I may well write up something further over the weekend, if I get enough time!BTW did you ever follow up that link to his finger that I left on one of your previous threads?

  12. Take the earth from the centre, spin it round the sun which means displacing the human being’s privileged position in the universe, say we’re just one among many wandering stars, and what happens to our special relationship with God? The unique relationship that the Scriptures tell us is an absolute? Galileo’s championing of the Copernican view of the universe, like that of Bruno, Kepler, Digges, was seen by many as a total sabotage job on all the Church teachings, which proclaimed the primacy of the human being on Earth and in the universe, not just details in the Scriptures. Whatever the Church authorities said it was objecting to it would have been to both the scientific and the theological because the one implied the other.’And new Philosophy [Science] calls all in doubt, /The Element of fire is quite put out;/ The Sun is lost, and th’earth, and no man’s wit/Can well direct him where to look for it…. ‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone'(John Donne,17th century poet)Robert Burton (1621) was worried:’But who shall dwell in these vast earths, worlds, if they be inhabited? And have they souls to be saved? Are we or they, Lords of the World? How, then, can all things be made for man?’ Donne was in no doubt what Rome condemned Galileo for. In his gloriously savage satire on the Jesuits, ‘Ignatius, His Conclave’, which post-dates Galileo’s work, Lucifer’s deciding who should be let into Hell – Copernicus, Galileo Machiavelli and so on. These are the ‘Innovators’ who have done the most to further Satan’s unending effort to overthrow God’s dominion, because they shot to pieces the whole notion of God as the First Mover who sets in motion the sun, the moon and the stars so that they revolve around a stable, motionless earth, of an absolute moral order based on the Law of Nature, which was the instrument of divine will. Here’s Donne: ‘The Papists have extended the name, and the punishment of Heresy, almost to everything.’ Lucifer says ‘I will write to the Bishop of Rome: he shall call Galileo the Florentine to him; who by this time hath thoroughly instructed himself of all the hills, woods and Cities in the new world, the Moon. And since he effected so much with his first Glasses, that he saw the Moon, in so near a distance that he gave himself satisfaction of all, and the least parts in her, when now being grown to more perfection in his Art, he shall have made new Glasses, and they received a hallowing from the Pope, he may draw the Moon, like a boat floating upon the water, as near the earth as he will.’ Priceless!

  13. I have before me a translation of the sentence the Inquisition issued in 1633. The first thing of interest is that only seven of the ten cardinals who tried Galileo signed the sentence. In other words, there are three cardinals who perhaps declined signing because they did not agree with the sentence.The next interesting point is that it is not science or theology that Galileo is primarily condemned for in 1633 – it is disobedience. When he came before the Inquisition in 1616, he was given a strong warning to stop believing in heliocentrism. And Galileo promised to obey and, thus, they left him alone. So in 1633, they accuse him of breaking his promise and disobeying the Church.Here is some of what they say (from The Galileo Affair: A Documentary History by Maurice A. Finocchiaro): “Whereas however we wanted to treat you with benignity at that time, it was decided at the Holy Congregation held in the presence of His Holiness on 25 February 1616 that the most Eminent Lord Cardinal Bellarmine would order you to abandon this false opinion completely” (288). And, “you were given an injunction by the then Father Commissary … to the effect that you must completely abandon the said false opinion, and that in the future you could neither hold, nor defend, nor teach it in any way whatever, either orally or in writing; having promised to obey, you were dismissed” (289). Also, “And whereas a book has appeared here lately, printed in Florence last year, whose inscription showed that you were the author, the title being Dialogue by Galileo Galilei on the two Chief World Systems, Ptolemaic and Copernican … the said book was diligently examined and found to violate explicitly the above-mentioned injunction given to you” (289).It is important to remember that all those concerned were Catholic, including Galileo. This wasn’t freethinking scientists versus traditionalist Catholics. In his “Letter to Madame Christina of Lorraine Grand Duchess of Tuscany,” Galileo affirms the authority of the Church, but maintains that there is nothing wrong if you speak out against the use of Church authority for personal gain.Remember, also, that a little over a hundred years before Martin Luther started the Protestant Reformation. In 1633, they were halfway through what we now call the 30 Years War. Spain, a Catholic country, was invading the southern Italian peninsula. There was still uncertainty with how to deal with northern Europe. And the current Pope, Urban VIII, feels personally betrayed. He had been a friend and supporter of Galileo. He had met with Galileo about 6 times before Galileo started his Dialogue. Galileo thought these meetings gave him the go ahead for writing said book. Unfortunately for him, he puts many of the Pope’s words from these meetings in Simplico’s mouth. So when Urban VIII reads the book, he feels personally attacked by Galileo.Galileo had a way of making people dislike him. He once had many Jesuit supporters, but his personality eventually drove some of them away.So Galileo, had he not been so abrasive, could have furthered heliocentrism in Catholicism. And there were Church figures in his day who agreed with Galileo’s views of scriptural interpretation.So, when Galileo was placed under house arrest in 1633 (he was never in an actual jail), it was primarily because he had disobeyed the injunction/warning given him in 1616. And in 1616, Galileo was given this warning for a combination of science and theology (they weren’t viewed as incompatible back then). He had said he could prove the earth moves and didn’t (he tried using the tides as evidence of the earth’s movement – if you move a bucket of water, it sloshes around and what are the tides but water sloshing. However, this is a wrong explanation for the tides and the Church realized this). So on the basis of lack of scientific proof for heliocentrism, Scriptural passages that seemed to confirm geocentrism, and a majority of scientists adhering to the Ptolemaic system (the Church wasn’t aware of Copernicus until 1616) heliocentric theory was labeled heretical and Galileo was told to not hold or teach it. In other words, both science and Scripture seemed to say Galileo was wrong. I say seemed because it turns out neither actually did.I disagree with the sentencing of Galileo, but when you step your mind back in time, it becomes understandable as to why they did so. I’m just glad that Pope John Paul II found Galileo not guilty of heresy (note it’s heresy and not disobedience, since he was still guilty of that).Hmm… You should get a better falsehood for your Fred example than a flat earth. Ptolemy knew the earth was round. The Catholic Church knew the earth was round (Washington Irving wrote a story about Columbus and made up the part that medieval people believed the earth was flat). Maritime societies know the earth is round. It is an easy thing to find proof for. The scientist would be able to show those trying him the proof that the earth is round (Galileo couldn’t show that the earth was moving – his telescope wasn’t good enough to detect stellar parallax and the lack of stellar parallax was one thing geocentrists used as proof that the earth didn’t move). As it is right now, this example is not relevant to Galileo.

  14. Hello Thomas – thanks for your post. But are you disagreeing with me? If so, I can’t really see how.Except at the end when you say my thought experiment does not work because it was known the Earth was round. Well, imagine that this was not known to my hypothetical people, and my dissenter cannot prove what he says. Does that make his treatment any more justified? of course not.Of course the sentencing of Galileo was “understandable”. So was the slave trade. That does not morally excuse it at all.

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