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Monday, September 25, 2017
Date Posted:

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642)

Part 2. Galileo, The Roman Inquisition and the Mass: The Historical Puzzle

Dr Clive Gillis

In 1979 Pope John Paul II set to work to re-instate Galileo.

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 Report

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 faith.”

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 Reformers

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.

Jesuit Astronomers

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 Aristotle.

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.

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