Science and Religion Friday: The Galileo Affair, Part 3

In previous posts, I’ve noted how the central points of conflict between Galileo and his opponents were between different ideologies and personalities, and not religious in nature. Today, I’m going to talk about the actual period of trials Galileo underwent.

The First Examination of Galileo

Following the sermon by Caccini condemning Galileo, and after Caccini’s superior personally apologized to Galilelo, an investigation was opened into Galileo’s views. Another Dominican and friend of Caccini, Niccolo Lorini, submitted a formal complaint to the Roman Inquisition. This led to the respected theologian Robert Cardinal Bellarmine being appointed to arbitrate between the various sides. In general, it seems Bellarmine had no issue with heliocentrism and, for the most part, was very favorably disposed toward Galileo. At no point during this period was Galileo ever condemned, nor was he ever even under trial. The primary problem that Galileo would need to overcome, as he saw it, would be the issue of reconciling heliocentrism with Scripture. One attempt to do so can be found in Galileo’s lengthy letter, written the summer of 1615, to the Grand Duchess Christina. In the letter, Galileo quotes at length from older theologians, though tending to focus primarily upon Augustine, and affirms the absolute truthfulness of Scripture. At one point saying:

It being true that [these] two truths cannot contradict one another, it is the function of wise expositors to seek out the true senses of scriptural texts. These will unquestionably accord with the physical conclusions which manifest sense and necessary demonstrations have previously made certain to us.

Galileo himself thought that there was no genuine contradiction between the witness of Scripture and his support for a heliocentric universe.

However, in February of 1616, possibly under pressure from the current pope (who may have felt some pressure from the Dominicans), the “qualifiers” of the inquisition gave their report that heliocentrism was somewhat dubious and told Galileo to cease publicly promoting Copernican astronomy. It seems that, for the most part, Galileo complied until a new pope was installed.

More Popes, More Problems (or something like that)

In 1623, Pope Urban VIII was installed as the new Pope. He was considerably more favorably disposed toward Galileo, and so Galileo took this as an indication he could resume his work on the heliocentric universe. Roughly a decade later, in 1632, he published A Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems: Ptolemaic and Copernican, defending his heliocentric ideas. Apparently, this raised the ire of some prominent Domicans, already a bit disgruntled by his lesser known, but equally anti-Aristotelian work, The Assayer. And the inquisition reconvened.

It should be noted that by this time, Galileo’s lifelong nemesis, the Jesuit Christoph Scheiner, whom I mentioned last week, was also in Rome and the records indicate he gave advice to the inquisition that was against Galileo. The result was, as we known, the censure of Galileo’s book, which he was ordered to recant of as “vehemently suspect of heresy” and Galileo was placed under house arrest for the remainder of his life. It seems that not even a friendship with the pope was enough this time. It should be noted that Galileo himself was never condemned of heresy and, barely more than a century later, his book was removed from the censure list.


This brings us back to the primary question of this series, was the Galileo Affair an incident of Religion and Science in conflict. I have suggested throughout that the actual conflict was the result of competing secular philosophies, on the one hand, but more substantially competing personalities, on the other. It wasn’t Galileo’s ideas in and of themselves that were at issue, but the manner in which Galileo treated those he encountered. In other words, he embarrassed the wrong people. I’m not the only one who thinks so. A number of philosophers have suggested that the primary reason for the conflict was Galileo’s approach, not his thoughts, such as atheist philosopher Ernst Bloch. What do you think? Is this a valid example of conflict between science and religion?