In 1979 Pope John Paul II set to work to re-instate
It took two years to gather the experts. The Galileo Review
Commission was divided into four groups. Jesuit Archbishop Carlo Martini was
in charge of exegesis. Cardinal Poupard was for culture. Two astronomers,
Professor Chaga and Jesuit Fr Coyne, Professor at the Vatican’s own observatory, each headed scientific divisions. (The Vatican
Observatory was formerly in Vatican
City but is now situated in
a modern building and teaching complex at Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s sumptuous summer residence. It houses a
three million dollar American telescope.)
From 1981 to 1992, these four gentlemen grappled with
the issue of Galileo. Yet Pope Benedict XIV had already forgiven Galileo in
1741 by adding Rome’s imprimatur to his Complete Works. In
1757, all scientific works backing the heliocentric theory (the earth goes
round the sun, not vice versa) were removed from the Index of prohibited
books. Then in 1822 Pope Pius VII decided he could also grant the imprimatur
to all the studies that presented the Copernican theory (see unshaded box) as a
thesis. Why a fresh Commission now?
The Commission’s report appeared in L’Osservatore
Romano on the 4th
November 1992. Pope John
Paul II said, “A twofold question is at the heart of the debate of which
Galileo was the centre … The first … concerns biblical hermeneutics (biblical
interpretation) … Galileo rejected the suggestion made to him to present the
Copernican system as a hypothesis, inasmuch as it had not been confirmed by
irrefutable proof … Secondly, the geocentric (the sun goes round the earth)
representation of the world was commonly admitted in the culture of the time as
fully agreeing with the teaching of the Bible … certain expressions, taken
literally, seemed to affirm geocentrism. ‘If Scripture cannot err’, Galileo
wrote to Benedetto Castelli, ‘certain of its interpreters and commentators can
do so in many ways’ … The second aspect of the problem, (is) its pastoral dimension. The pastoral
judgement … was difficult to make … as geocentrism seemed to be part of
scriptural teaching itself … A tragic mutual incomprehension has been
interpreted as the reflection of a fundamental opposition between science and
The Papacy had already forgiven Galileo. The recent
Commission’s findings are really just a defence of Rome’s
treatment of him. The report would have us think that Rome’s
former opposition to Galileo is a “myth”, a fabrication, “far removed from
reality”. Then why did she treat him so severely? Because, so the report
would have us believe, Galileo had “rejected the suggestion made to him to
present the Copernican system as a hypothesis”. So Galileo, it is claimed, was
in trouble only for teaching as a fact what he had been warned by the
Inquisition was only a theory.
Is there any evidence for this claim in the
Inquisition files? These are still secret and distinct from the Vatican Secret
Archive although we have some knowledge of their contents (see shaded box).
The Vatican proposition that, “the geocentric
representation of the world was commonly admitted in the culture of the time as
fully agreeing with the teaching of the Bible,” is reasonable. The Reformers
of an earlier generation were violently anti-Copernican. Martin Luther called
the theory, “The over-witty notions of a fool, for does not Joshua 10 plainly say
that the sun, not the earth, stood still?” John Calvin cited Psalm 93:1, “The
earth is set firmly in place and cannot be moved … Who will dare to place the
authority of this man Copernicus above Holy Scriptures?” The archive must be
viewed in this light.
Galileo before the Inquisition
Galileo appeared before the Inquisition twice, in 1616
and in 1633. Despite the archive’s chequered history, much survives regarding
Galileo’s first appearance in 1616. A note of surety that Galileo procured
from Jesuit Inquisitor Cardinal Ballarmine on 26th May is reliable,
since Galileo carried it with him and produced it again at his second
appearance before the Inquisition in 1633.
Galileo clearly wished to dispel growing confusion
over the Inquisition’s 1616 verdict. Bellarmine had written concerning
Galileo’s appearance before him on 25th February 1616: “We … in our
own hand declare neither has any penance salutary or otherwise been imposed
upon him … The declaration was … intimated to him … that the doctrine attributed
to Copernicus … is contrary to the Holy Scriptures … and therefore cannot be
defended or held.” Discussion and teaching of the matter as a hypothesis
was clearly in order.
Yet at the same time, the Inquisition, dominated as it
was by the Dominican order, seemed to be taking a quite different line, that of
total prohibition. The Inquisition’s minutes of 25th February 1616
state, “His holiness … ordered the Most Illustrious Lord Cardinal Bellarmine …
to issue an injunction … against Galileo … to abstain completely from teaching
or defending this doctrine … or discussing it … it he should not acquiesce he
is to be imprisoned.”
This is quite different from Bellarmine’s surety,
which only forbids “defending” and “holding” Copernicanism as fact. He
was free, as John Paul II’s Jesuit dominated Review Commission reiterated, “to
present the Copernican system as a hypothesis” in “teaching” and “discussion”.
There is another document of disputed authenticity
which was issued on the following day, the 26th February 1616, “… the same Most Illustrious Lord
Cardinal warned Galileo (that Copernicanism) was erroneous … and that he should
abandon it … immediately and henceforth not to hold teach or defend it in any
way whatever, either orally or in writing … the same Galileo acquiesced …”
This was a total gag on Galileo. Up to 1900 the world
thought Jesuit Bellarmine had silenced Galileo in 1616, and that Galileo had
only himself to blame for his imprisonment after the 1633 trial. If the 26th
February document is genuine, an internal split between the Jesuits and the
Dominicans in the Inquisition is the obvious alternative solution.
Let us suppose for a moment that Galileo was the
Jesuit’s darling in 1616, and that they were using all their power to protect
him against that formidable Dominican dominated institution, the Inquisition.
After all the Inquisition had only recently adorned the 1600 Jubilee by burning
freethinker Giordano Bruno amidst great pomp in Rome’s Campo de’ Fiore.
Now let us suppose that in 1633, that protection was
withdrawn, or worse, that Galileo had in some way become a threat to the
Jesuits and therefore needed silencing, we would expect a much more severe
outcome. And that is just what we find.
The Jesuits captivated Kings and Princes with
astronomy from the beginning. Fr Coyne, today’s Vatican astronomer, joined the
Jesuits at 18, and is at the head of his field. Father Coyne’s 17th
century predecessor, Fr Clavius, based then at the exclusive Jesuit Collegio
Romano in Rome was an early convert to Galileo’s views.
Galileo who arrived Rome on 29th March 1611 fresh from the
triumphant publication of The Starry Messenger in Florence, “the
following day turned his steps toward the Roman College”. There he found Clavius
and his men “laughing their head off” over a feeble refutation of the Messenger.
On 1st April Galileo wrote, “I have had a long discussion with Fr
Clavius and two other most intelligent Fathers … We have found that our
experiences tally in every respect …”. (Interestingly, within a generation, Fr
Adam Schall had the Chinese Emperor eating out of his hand. Schall was the
Emperor’s Mandarin First Class and Director of his Peking Observatory, which
Schall himself designed.) So the Jesuits had every motive to protect Galileo.
The old established Dominicans on the other hand,
shared the general Scriptural opposition to Copernicus’ theory. What is more,
the ideas of the Greek philosopher Aristotle upon which all science was based
in those days, was the mainstay of Dominican education. Aristotle postulated a
stationary earth at the centre of the heavens. The Dominicans had harnessed
themselves to Aristotle in a way no other order had done. Thomas Aquinas, a
Dominican, had manipulated Scripture and Christian belief into an Aristotelian
mould in his multi volume Summa. This dominated Dominican thought.
Everything was seen though the eyes of Thomas Aquinas’ presentation of
Galileo had provoked generations of students to
laughter by his mockery of the Aristotelians. He was a notable opponent of
Aristotle, and therefore Aquinas, long before his trip to Rome. Galileo had relentlessly exasperated the Dominican
Order. The Dominican’s opportunity for revenge came in 1616. Galileo had
travelled voluntarily to Rome from Florence, incensed by some progress of the Aristotelian opposition. The Tuscan
Ambassador in Rome was horrified. He wrote in December 1615,
“I do not know … whether his temper has improved, but this I know for certain,
that some Dominicans and others who are very influential with the Holy Office
(Inquisition) bear him no goodwill. This is not the place to come to dispute …
nor the time …”.
With Bruno so recently burnt by the Inquisition, the
Ambassador was using diplomatic understatement! So there must have been a
pro-Galileo counterforce at work behind the scenes in the Tribunal for Galileo
to have escaped so lightly. The Jesuits who had power, opportunity and motive
seem the prime candidates for the position of Galileo’s supporters. Why then
did they perform a U-turn later, in 1633, not only withdrawing their support
and therefore exposing Galileo to the full wrath of the Dominicans but, as
recent enquiry suggests, actually betraying him to the Inquisition?
By the 1620’s the Jesuits were building
their baroque churches not only across Europe but to the bemusement of Indians in both Americas, and in India, China and Japan. These opulent mass houses are particularly well exemplified in Prague and Vienna. When lit, these buildings boast acres of pink and blue marble,
gold coving, with surrealistic, dimension defying, frescoes, gold cherubs and
angels, all directing the eye to the central unmistakable dazzling gold
sunburst of ten, twenty or thirty feet circumference with its glass centre
containing the host. The biggest and most gaudy monstrance’s Romanism had ever
seen were the definitive badge of the Jesuit’s Counter Reformation offensive.
‘Try and keep simple folk away from our
dazzling shows, our fully lit, incensed, musical masses in our magical Churches
all centring on our breathtaking, golden sunbursts, Ye Reformers,’ confidently
boasted the Jesuits. ‘How can your simple memorial rival us?’
The Jesuit Counter Reformation weapon
was Transubstantiation presented in the most sensual and irresistible from Rome had yet devised.
And at the centre of the defence of
transubstantiation against the Reformers was Aristotle’s understanding of
matter as found in Aquinas’ Summa. As we shall see DV in the next article,
the wily Jesuits of the Collegio Romano suddenly realised that the implications
of Galileo’s scientific writing threatened to make a mockery of the idea of
transubstantiation, their central counter Reformation strategy. Galileo had to
be stopped and what better way than under the smokescreen of astronomy, letting
the Dominicans do the deed and bear the repercussions. Nobody would ever know
… Or so they thought.