1633 Letter Resolves the Legend About the Galileo Case, Says Vatican Aide

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Date: 2003-08-21

1633 Letter Resolves the Legend About the Galileo Case, Says Vatican Aide

Urban VIII Was Sensitive Toward Astronomer's Health, Document Indicates

VATICAN CITY, AUG. 21, 2003 (Zenit.org).- A recently discovered letter confirms that Pope Urban VIII was concerned that the case brought against Galileo Galilei be speedily resolved given the astronomer's frail health.

The letter was discovered days ago by historian Francesco Beretta, professor of the history of Christianity of the German University of Freiburg. He found it in the archives of the former Holy Office, now the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

It is a letter of the Holy Office's Commissioner Vincenzo Maculano da Firenzuola, dated April 22, 1633, and addressed to Cardinal Francesco Barberini, to express the Pope's concern for the scientist accused of heresy.

According to professor Beretta, the preparation of the June 22, 1633, sentence against Galileo, at least in its essential parts, is probably due to that same commissioner of the Holy Office.

"Undoubtedly, for some today Galileo is synonymous with freedom, modernity and progress, while the Church is synonymous with dogmatism, obscurantism, stagnation. However, the reality is very different from this perception which arises from fantasy," explains Archbishop Angelo Amato, 65, the new secretary of the doctrinal congregation.

Following the discovery of the letter, the Salesian recalled aspects of Galileo's trial.

"When, in 1610, Galileo published 'Sidereus Nuncius,' in which he upheld the centrality of the sun in the universe, he received the applause both of Johannes Kepler, the great astronomer, and of the Jesuit Clavius, author of the Gregorian calendar," Archbishop Amato told the Italian weekly Famiglia Cristiana (www.stpauls.it/default.htm).

"He even had great success among the Roman cardinals," he said. "In fact, all of them wanted to look at the sky through his famous telescope."

"Those who opposed him were above all the philosophers, especially those of the peripatetic school of Pisa, who were inspired in Aristotle, and they started to bring sacred Scripture into play," the archbishop said. Because of these pressures, the Holy Office intervened.

In October 1992, a special commission of theologians, scientists and historians, established by John Paul II in 1981, presented its conclusions. The commission, presided over by Cardinal Paul Poupard, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, examined the possible errors committed by the ecclesiastical tribunal which condemned the famous astronomer in 1633.

On Oct. 31, 1992, John Paul II acknowledged these errors publicly. "Allow us to deplore certain mental attitudes ... derived from the lack of perception of the legitimate autonomy of science," he said before the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

Archbishop Amato called for an end to the legend surrounding Galileo, "transmitted by a false iconography according to which Galileo was incarcerated and even tortured so that he would abjure."

"When he resided some 20 days in the Holy Office, his room was the apartment of the attorney -- one of the highest officials of the Inquisition -- where he was assisted by his own servant," he explained. "During the rest of his stay in Rome he was the guest of the Florentine ambassador at the Villa Medici."

In a past interview with ZENIT, Cardinal Poupard said that "of course, Galileo suffered much; but the historical truth is that he was condemned only to 'formalem carcerem' -- a kind of house arrest. Several judges refused to endorse the sentence, and the Pope at the time did not sign it."

"Galileo was able to continue to work in his science and died on Jan. 8, 1642, in his home in Arcetri, near Florence," the cardinal added. "Viviani, who stayed with him during his illness, testified that he died with philosophical and Christian firmness, at 77 years of age."

The Vatican commission that served to rehabilitate Galileo stated that "the abjuration of the Copernican system by the scientist was due essentially to his religious personality, which tried to obey the Church even if the latter was in error. Galileo did not want to be a heretic; he did not want to be exposed to eternal damnation and therefore accepted the abjuration so as not to sin," Archbishop Amato said.

Following the commission's investigation and the Holy Father's rehabilitation of the famous astronomer, Galileo's case can be considered closed, the archbishop said.

This episode, he concluded, has taught us not to highlight "the opposition but rather the harmony that must reign" between reason and faith, "the two wings with which the Christian can fly to God," as "John Paul II has synthesized it in the encyclical 'Fides et Ratio.'"

The believing scientist, the archbishop emphasized, has the task "not to be afraid to carry out his work of research of the truth."

-- Bill Nelson (bnelson45@hotmail.com), August 21, 2003


Thanks, Bill.

-- J. F. Gecik (jfgecik@Hotmail.com), August 21, 2003.

In other words the whole charge that the Church was dogmatically teaching as fact that the sun orbited the earth etc. is false.

The Church NEVER taught cosmology at all! It wasn't a concern of the medieval church or the Church in the 1600's. It didn't make a bit a difference whether the earth orbited the sun or vice versa - the only thing that mattered was that the calendar functioned properly - and the Gregorian calendar (which the whole Western world still uses) was created before all these problems erupted, and hasn't failed us since.

And truth be told, if you have actually read Galileo (which I have) you won't find a clear slam-dunk case for Heliocentrism. It's just not there in his works. He believed it and taught it, and wanted the Church to use its moral authority to weigh in on his side in a turf war with the Aristotelians...but neither he nor anyone else for that matter PROVED the theory was anything more than a theory...

He spoke of mountains on the moon. Fine. You can see them through the telescope. He offered data and evidence of the planet's rotation on its own axis. He conjectured that the sun was fixed (which it's not, technically) and that the planets all spun around it in perfect circular orbits.

His case was plausible and at least as believable as the Aristotelians. But it wasn't a clear and complete case.

Galileo's telescope was too weak to prove the orbital motion of the earth. Sure he argued that the earth spun on its axis. And that the moon orbits the earth. He argued that Heliocentrism does explain the motion of Mars and Venus better than Ptolmy's theory. But without discovering a stellar paralax, he could not prove that the earth itself orbited the sun! And even had he tried to, he still believed in perfect circular orbits rather than eliptical ones, so if anything, he was only half-right.

So what happened?

Galileo became famous with this theory - and had plenty of Popes, Cardinals, and other influential Churchmen "on his side". But without clear evidence proving his theory, he used hype and rhetoric showing the flaws in the reigning scientific theory of his time - the Aristotelian one.

Now the Aristotelians fought back, in part using some isolated lines in scripture (which until then had NOT BEEN PREACHED ON or evoked by the Church in any systematic way to claim that the sun orbited the earth).

Galileo responded with arguments against a literalist interpretation of two biblical passages as well as personal insults and other strawmen arguments. Being perhaps less a diplomat than a rhetorician, he made enemies who then abused the Holy Office to have him silenced.

So far nothing has happened to Galileo which HASN'T HAPPENED to modern day scientists who have dared challenge an accepted theory! Scientists today are routinely canned for questioning evoltionary theory or for proposing (as one did recently) that some water comes to the earth via extra-terrestrial meteors.

If you question whether green house gases rather than volcanoes cause "global warming" you can loose your job - and your reputation. And this is more about politics than "science" because all scientists are human and have passions and vested-interests like the rest of us.

What happened to Galileo was not the exception, but the norm. If the Church "failed" it was a mistake of individual proportions, not institutional ones.

But one thing should be clear: the Church as such didn't get involved one way or the other in this scientific debate. It did get involved once the scientists began acting like theologians and started interpreting scripture as though revelation was on par with deduction and conclusions based on evidence.

Science only accepted the heliocentric theory as more data came in and better models were developed - such as the ellipse - and telescopes proved that stellar paralaxes exist, proving that the earth does change position respective of those stars from one time of the year to the next.

But in the 1600s - most people saw the sun and moon "rise and set" - and didn't feel the planet move, and couldn't account for gravity. They knew the world was round - even the Greeks and Romans knew that (why else would they call the world an "orb"?), but this bit of knowledge didn't have any practical use in their lives.

They were concerned with "going to heaven, not with understanding how the 'heavens' go".

Galileo crossed the line when his defense of his theory crossed the line into questioning scripture (which didn't attempt to teach physical truths). Had he exibited a bit more self control, and had the Aristotelians not begun throwing scripture into a non-theological debate to begin with, none of this would have happened.

The black legend that the Church as such - from the Pope to the lowest priest - taught as a matter of doctrine and dogma that the sun orbited the flat earth, is a complete fabrication of history, which has unfortunately been accepted as one more anti-catholic myth.

Urban myths and legends didn't start with the internet!

-- Joe (joestong@yahoo.com), September 02, 2003.

Eppur si muove.

-- Rob (idont@thinkso.com), September 04, 2003.

Rob, those words are from a persistent myth. Please don't be an anti-Catholic.

-- J. F. Gecik (jfgecik@hotmail.com), September 04, 2003.

Rob, in simple, layman's terms can you prove to us that the world actually moves on its own axis? You think it does. I think it does. Now, based on the evidence we know from our 5 senses...how do you prove it?

I'm not talking earthquakes here. I'm talking about the planet moving.

It's not as easy as us modern people think it is - and so "and yet it moves" is more rhetorical than scientific.

Tides? The tides could be explained by the effect of the moon alone. What "proof" did Galileo present for a moving earth? He did have arguments...but proof... as I mentioned before, that requires astronomy, math, and conceptualizations not immediately evident to "the naked eye" or to "common sense".

In today's intellectual world many so-called intellectuals reject metaphysics as a science because the words are unfamiliar and the concepts are not perceptions - well, much the same problem faces the person who tries to explain that the earth's rotation and orbit can't be proven except with technical terminology and extraterrestrial "signs".

-- Joe (joestong@yahoo.com), September 04, 2003.

What's this? A bookmaker in our forum? Did you know Pius XII personally? Do you think dead men can defend themselves against the slander of living men? Would you defend your own father if a liar brought charges against him? Probably not.

-- eugene c. chavez (loschavez@pacbell.net), November 01, 2003.

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