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Galileo Galilei (15 February 1564 – 8 January 1642)

January 8, 2008

Thanks to his intuition as a brilliant physicist and by relying on different arguments, Galileo, who practically invented the experimental method, understood why only the sun could function as the centre of the world, as it was then known, that is to say, as a planetary system. The error of the theologians of the time, when they maintained the centrality of the Earth, was to think that our understanding of the physical world’s structure was, in some way, imposed by the literal sense of Sacred Scripture…” – Pope John Paul II, L’Osservatore Romano N. 44 (1264) – 4th November, 1992

galileoarp300pix.jpgItalian physicist, astronomer, mathematician and philosopher Galileo Galilei was one of the foundational figures of modern science. His achievements include the first systematic studies of uniformly accelerated motion, improvements to the telescope and consequent astronomical observations. But his status as a “saint” of the modern world hinges on his persecution by the Catholic Church for courageously championing the Copernican theory that the earth revolved around the sun, in contradiction to scripture, church tradition and the ancient authority of Aristotle and Ptolemy.

The controversy over Galileo’s position stretched more than a decade, but culminated in his trial and conviction as a heretic in 1633. Throughout the ordeal, Galileo maintained his devout faith and firm commitment to the authority of the church, and formally renounced his heretical views immediately upon the court’s decision. Convinced of his sincere repentance, the Holy Court commuted his sentence of imprisonment to house arrest in Florence where he was allowed to continue his scientific work until his death in 1642. Galileo’s offending work (Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (1632)) was banned by the Church.


Although the Galileo affair is often cited as evidence that science and Catholic doctrine are inevitably antagonistic, most of Galileo’s scientific findings were in fact embraced by the church as early as 1741, when Pope Benedict XIV granted an imprimatur to publication of a Complete Works of Galileo, but certainly by 1822 when his work was removed from the Index of banned books. In fact, it seems clear that the Galileo affair was part of a sea change in the Church’s understanding of the relationship between science and religion. The famous statement by Cardinal Baronius in defense of Galileo — “the bible teaches the way to go to heaven, not the way the heavens go” — came quickly to be the Catholic Church’s essential position in the wake of the scientific revolution. But Galileo was not fully vindicated until 1992 when, upon the recommendation of a papal commission that reviewed his trial and condemnation, Pope John Paul II formally absolved Galileo and acknowledged the error of the church’s judgment (quoted above).

For Catholics, the Galileo case is worth remembering as a sign that the church is fallible, and that it can and should recognize and repent of its historic failings. Robert Ellsberg puts it very nicely:

There remains a tendency to claim that the church, as it was once said of the earth, cannot move. To this the legendary words ascribed to Galileo remain appropriate. In making his abjuration, he is said to have whispered under his breath, “Nevertheless, it moves.” — Robert Ellsberg, All Saints (1999).

7 Comments leave one →
  1. spiritmeadow permalink
    January 17, 2008 11:31 am

    Thanks for a good article. I struggle with folks every day over the rather silly notion that the Church never errs. Somehow some try to twist it all and make Galileo the guilty party rather than the Church, ignoring of course JPII’s 1992 statements I guess. Thanks for reminding us once again of the truth.

  2. January 19, 2008 10:34 am

    Spiritmeadow — Thanks. Interestingly, many of my avowedly secular colleagues at the public university where I teach are equally committed to the idea that the church does not change (and of course, pretty much always errs), wanting to believe that there is a simple and inevitable opposition between science and the Church. Need for more humility and understanding all around I think.

  3. Akira permalink
    June 23, 2008 9:29 am

    Oh, The Galileo myth.

    Until the sixteenth century, the prevailing view was that the Sun, Moon, stars and planets circled the Earth (the geocentric system, based on the second century work of Ptolemy). Puzzled astronomers noticed that Mars, Jupiter and Saturn sometimes seemed to move backwards, but their motions were well within the predictions of Ptolemy’s theory. The moon was considered to have more freedom of movement.

    Nicolaus Copernicus, published a model of the solar system De Revolutionibus in 1543, in which the earth and other planets circled the sun. The Catholic Church endorsed the book. The book’s preface (which was not written by Copernicus) argued that astronomical models have merit if they correctly predict observations, even if the underlying hypotheses cannot be proved. The scientific evidence was inconclusive.

    However, pagan Greek thought was idolized at that time, and accepted by intellectuals as almost on par with the Bible itself.

    It was not theologians who balked at Galileo’s ideas, but rather mathematicians at the University of Pisa who were so outraged that he had challenged Aristotle that they refused to even look through his telescope at the stars. Galileo wrote a privately-circulated pamphlet which argued that the Bible should be interpreted in the light of increasing knowledge, and warning that scientific opinion should not be treated as an article of faith. In this way he echoed Saint Augustine. Quoting another of the early church fathers Galileo wrote

    “The intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes.”

    In 1613, one Dominican, Tommaso Caccini, preached a sermon against Galileo. A mangled version of Galileo’s writing was sent to Rome. Galileo heard of this and sent the full version. He was not terribly alarmed, knowing that many of the best minds in Italy, including the Vatican’s mathematicians, were convinced on the heliocentric universe that his works had help to substantiate. Caccini’s Dominican superior was so embarrassed that he sent a letter of apology to Galileo.

    Caccini wasn’t through, however, and gave an unsolicited deposition to the Inquisition about Galileo’s views, which largely demonstrated his own ignorance on the subject. Nevertheless, the theologians who were given the case ruled that Galileo must only use Copernican concepts as a hypothesis for the sake of calculation, without claiming that they had been literally proven true.

    Because Galileo had overstated the scientific case for the heliocentric theory and given some dubious theological arguments, the Inquisition ruling decided that:

    (1) [Correctly] The immobility of the Sun at the center of the universe was absurd in philosophy and formally heretical, and that

    (2) [Incorrectly] The mobility of Earth was absurd in philosophy and at least erroneous in theology.

    The following month the Church required that nine sentences in Copernicus’s book be corrected.

    It is hard to understand the decision, but in defense of the arbiters of that time, the view through Galileo’s telescope was nothing like the quality of telescopes today. To untrained laymen, it would be difficult to know what was being viewed. Also, the concept of stellar parallax, a condition that had to exist if Galileo was right, turned out to be completely false. (Parallax is real, but due to the incredibly far distances of the stars in relationship to the earth’s movement around the sun, it could not be detected until 1838, over 200 years later.)

    Using the principle of falsifiability to improve the scientific method Galileo tested Aristotle’s theory that heavy objects fall faster than light ones and found it was a consequence of air resistance, not gravity. By making careful measurements he found he could use mathematics to measure the acceleration of gravity and predict the movements of pendulums and tides.

    Galileo then got approval from Rome to write his book “Dialogue on the Tides”, which discussed both the Ptolemaic and Copernican hypotheses, as long as it discussed both systems and did not draw a conclusion that would make the heliocentric world view be viewed as fact instead of theory.

    Rome changed the title to Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems and it was published in Florence in 1632. Unfortunately for Galileo, the work was not evenhanded.

    Indeed, his fictitious Ptolemaic character, ‘Simplicius’, stumbled over his own errors and seemed quite foolish. Church officials found that Galileo had erred by advocating heliocentrism as scientifically proven. In 1633 he Galileo voluntarily submitted to Church authority and renounced his thesis, that Heliocentrism was a proven scientific fact.

    Galileo went back to studying motion and mechanics in his private villa, receiving many prominent Ecclesiastical Scientists.

    In 1741, Pope Benedict XIV bid the Holy Office grant an imprimatur to the first edition of the Complete Works of Galileo.

  4. Vinay permalink
    October 28, 2008 5:11 am

    Well that’s how world has seen those who try to reveal the truth…………there are many others who tried in their own ways … Isaac Newton, Keplar , Copernicus and many who have been vanished in unknown ways.

  5. Jerome permalink
    January 10, 2010 10:50 pm

    It is fascinating that the absolution for heresy didn’t come about until decades after man walked on the moon. In spite of this absolution, Catholic academics are still attempting to justify what the church did. Read the article at The writer claims Galileo brought charges upon himself by being belligerent, caustic and aggressive, and the church had “no choice.” He states that Galileo was “permitted” to serve his sentence “in a pleasant country house near Florence.” Even when the Church admits they are wrong (centuries after being proven wrong), they have an infrastructure in place to make it appear as though…they really were not wrong.

  6. April 25, 2010 10:58 am

    The Condamnation of Galileo.

    In 1633, Galileo was condemned by the Church for biblical and scientific reasons. Subsequently, science gradually proved that Galileo’s theory was correct.

    I reconsidered the ultimate phase of the trial of the astronomer: the contradiction of his new thesis with regard to the biblical verses sustained by the Church.
    In my French book “Entre Galilée et l’Église : la Bible” (Between Galileo and the Church, the Bible…) I analyse the conflicting verses. And I demonstrate, through a comprehensive semantic study, that in the Hebrew and Greek Texts, the sun does not turn around the Earth, contrary to what the versions assert. I conclude that if the translations of the Bible had been faithful to the original Texts, Galileo would not have been condemned for “having held and believed a doctrine which is false and contrary to the divine and Holy Scripture.”
    As a result of this study, I clarify the many debates held through the centuries and endeavour to align the translations of the Bible with their original Texts and to officially rehabilitate Galileo.

    Joël Col

    The Galileo Affair.


    Whether we are authors or readers, we all react according to our own concepts, concepts which lead us to make various analyses on given subjects.
    There are subjects which lead to different analyses, because they call upon our subjectivity.
    . If this subjectivity is tendentious, it will lead, very often, to the rejection of the reasoning of others.
    . If it is well based, it will make it possible to accept – or at least to recognize – the logic of reasoning of those others, even if this logic leads to different conclusions. This subjectivity could be described as open-minded.
    Thus, there are subjects for which it is difficult to establish only one analysis, accepted by all, because they call upon the subjectivity of each individual.
    But there are other subjects which call upon an analysis of facts. From these subjects should thus appear a consensus of ideas, on the condition, however, that one’s objectivity is not influenced by a strong subjacent subjectivity, coming from a sectarian spirit.
    The analysis of my study “Between Galileo and the Church: the Bible” demands that the various commentators follow grammatical and semantic rules, which are well established.
    Who are these commentators?
    There are:
    those who have read the study,
    those who have not read it.
    . The first group, although there have been few of them, have all expressed favorable comments.
    . Concerning the second group, it will be necessary to consider:
    – those who, because of the subject and for personal reasons, did not show any interest,
    – those who, although they did not read the book, criticized it sharply a priori or simply rejected it. Ill-advised they intermingled objectivity and subjectivity, rejecting from the start the bases of analysis which this type of work demands.
    Why such an a priori rejection?
    This rejection comes from people belonging to different groups:
    . some belonging to Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical or Jewish communities,
    . others to agnostic or atheistic groups.
    But there is a surprising fact: all of them, whether they are religious or not, had the same reaction, that is an almost complete silence with regard to the book.
    Religious people have concepts according to the group they belong to, and so have atheists or agnostics. But why is it that they all react in the same way: silence?
    . Protestants and Evangelicals, who profess their confidence in the Holy Scriptures, should have been delighted owing to the fact that this thorough semantic study shows that the original Texts of the Bible have expressed clearly, for more than 3000 years, that which Copernicus and Galileo discovered a little more than three and a half centuries ago: the Sun not turning around the Earth.
    But this truth disturbs them, not from the scientific point of view, but from the Biblical point of view – their Version of the Bible, to which they are strongly attached, affirming the rotation of the Sun around the Earth and which is contradicted by my study. Not wanting to correct their translations, they thus persist in the error and the discredit which wrongly fell upon the Bible at the time of the trial of Galileo.
    . Catholics, also refusing the comforming of their Versions with the Original texts, share the same responsibility of error and discredit of the Bible.
    It is quite obvious that the Catholic Church (not only in the past but also today), not having detected these mistranslations and being supposed to hold supremacy on the matter, will have to recognize this gap officially and solve it. Until now, It has only developed arguments which do not put an end to this problematic affaire, Galileo having not been rehabilitated yet.
    . The atheists or agnostics, even if they have good reasons to criticize religious people and the Versions of the Bible, are embarrassed by learning that the original Texts, even in this scientific discipline, cannot be contested. They, like the others, abstain from any comment.
    The goal of my study is thus to obtain:
    . not only the official rehabilitation of the astronomer Galileo,
    . but also a real rehabilitation of the Bible – Its original Texts having never proclaimed the error of the rotation of the Sun around the Earth. For more than six years, I have been reiterating these arguments in my various letters and e-mails, without success.
    Apart from a few exceptions, the media (press, radio, television), Associations organizing Book exhibitions or Conferences adopt this same “law of silence”.
    Galileo deeply marked history. During 2009, many scientific demonstrations took place in his honour and others are programmed in 2010. But why is it that the question of his rehabilitation is so little discussed? Wouldn’t one like to see him rehabilitated one day?
    In conclusion:
    An end must be put to the unjust trial of the astronomer. Not only must his rehabilitation be officialized but also that of the Bible regarding Its original Texts.
    Recently, I contacted the competent authorities.
    I remain at the disposal of any person desiring to see Truth triumph.
    I express my thanks to those who helped me and encouraged me in this delicate task. I also thank the booksellers who have agreed to sell my book.

    Joel Col
    For more information please consult:
    Also do a search with “Joel Col” Galileo

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