“The catholic church gripped onto tra­di­tion much tighter”


This was not a clear-cut case of sci­ence ver­sus re­li­gion, of who was right and who was wrong. The pos­si­ble ram­i­fi­ca­tions of Galileo’s con­clu­sions were terrifying to the Catholic Church. The Protes­tant Re­for­ma­tion had dom­i­nated Europe through­out the 16th cen­tury, shak­ing Western Chris­tian­ity to its core. In or­der to main­tain its author­ity dur­ing a time of great in­sta­bil­ity, the Catholic Church gripped onto tra­di­tion much tighter than they ever had be­fore.

The last thing the pa­pacy needed was Galileo ad­vo­cat­ing for Coper­ni­can­ism, which not only threat­ened the tra­di­tional in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the Holy Scriptures, but also the author­ity of the Church it­self. This was a dan­ger­ous and sen­si­tive time to go up against Catholi­cism, as Galileo had dis­cov­ered. How­ever, despite the ban, he was still al­lowed to dis­cuss Coper­ni­cus’ the­o­ries on the con­di­tion that he treated them in a purely hy­po­thet­i­cal sense.

Qui­etly wait­ing for the whole de­ba­cle to sub­side, Galileo con­tin­ued his work. Despite the con­tro­versy, he had not wa­vered from his sup­port for he­lio­cen­trism but by this point he was in his 50s and suf­fer­ing from re­cur­ring pe­ri­ods of ill health, which made his re­search slow down sig­nif­i­cantly.

Then in 1623, seven years af­ter his con­dem­na­tion, it ap­peared that Galileo’s luck was fi­nally about to change. His long-time friend and sup­porter Car­di­nal Bar­berini – who had valiantly de­fended him dur­ing the In­qui­si­tion – was elected to the head of the Catholic Church as Pope Ur­ban VIII. Galileo was ec­static. Although he was still banned from openly ad­vo­cat­ing he­lio­cen­trism, he be­lieved that with his friend as the head of the Catholic Church, the op­por­tu­nity to have his re­search ac­cepted was now within his grasp.

With re­newed vigour, Galileo started to work on a new book, which com­pared the Coper­ni­can and Ptole­maic sys­tems. He

re­ceived per­mis­sion from the pope to do so dur­ing a visit to Rome in 1624, un­der the con­di­tion that Coper­ni­can­ism would be treated purely as a the­o­ret­i­cal hy­poth­e­sis. Af­ter re­ceiv­ing ap­proval from the watch­ful Vat­i­can cen­sors in 1630, Galileo fi­nally pub­lished his Di­a­logue on the Two Chief World Sys­tems two years later in 1632.

Di­a­logue con­sisted of a se­ries of con­ver­sa­tions be­tween three char­ac­ters, Salviati, Sagredo and Sim­p­li­cio. Salviati, a Coper­ni­can sci­en­tist, ar­gues in favour of Galileo’s the­ory, while Sagredo acts as an im­par­tial scholar. Sim­p­li­cio sup­ports geo­cen­trism and is de­picted by Galileo as an id­iot, em­pha­sised by Sim­p­li­cio’s deroga­tory name, which trans­lates to ‘sim­ple­ton’ in Ital­ian. Af­ter years of strug­gle, Galileo’s am­bi­tion had fi­nally been achieved. His de­fence of Coper­ni­cus was printed in black and white for the world to see. He had de­vi­ously dis­re­garded the stip­u­la­tion that he­lio­cen­trism must be por­trayed as mere the­ory – and he had even man­aged to do it all with the Church’s ap­proval. Galileo basked in his suc­cess, un­aware that his down­fall was right around the cor­ner.

Galileo had taken on the Catholic Church all those years ago but now the bat­tle­field was com­pletely dif­fer­ent. Coper­ni­can­ism had not ac­tu­ally been banned un­til the In­qui­si­tion in 1616 and the is­sue had not been about Galileo him­self, rather the threat he­lio­cen­trism posed to the power of the pa­pacy. Now Galileo had crossed a line by pub­licly pro­mot­ing a the­ory that had been of­fi­cially con­demned by the Church.

To make mat­ters worse, he had of­fended his pow­er­ful one-time ally, the pope – the one man who could have re­ally helped him. When Pope Ur­ban gave Galileo per­mis­sion to write his Di­a­logue, he asked that the as­tronomer in­clude his pro­geo­cen­tric ar­gu­ments in favour of Ptolemy. Galileo’s cre­ation of Sim­p­li­cio in­sin­u­ated that, along with those who sup­ported the Ptole­maic sys­tem, the head of the Church was a fool. He had sin­gle-hand­edly en­sured that any help he could have re­ceived from Pope Ur­ban was now just a pipe dream.

To save face, the Church needed to make an ex­am­ple of the man who was caus­ing so much trou­ble. Af­ter all, if Galileo could openly ex­press his sup­port for he­lio­cen­trism, what would stop oth­ers from start­ing to voice their own in­ter­pre­ta­tions of the Bible and its scriptures? De­nounced as a heretic, Galileo was sum­moned to Rome in 1632 to face trial, while his Di­a­logue was for­bid­den from sale.

By now, Galileo was al­most 70 years old, frail and suf­fer­ing from poor health. It took him an ex­haust­ing five months to reach Rome, so his trial did not be­gin un­til in Fe­bru­ary 1633. When he ar­rived, he was con­fined and in­ter­ro­gated as his ac­cusers tried to coax a con­fes­sion out of him. He had been charged with vi­o­lat­ing the 1616 in­junc­tion against him – some­thing he ve­he­mently de­nied.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tors hoped that by threat­en­ing Galileo with the prospect of tor­ture, he would soon re­lent and ad­mit to his wrong­do­ings. In­stead, he stayed true to his ideas and in­sisted that he had fol­lowed the rules set be­fore him by merely dis­cussing Coper­ni­can­ism. He even added that his Di­a­logue had been ap­proved by the Church it­self. How­ever, af­ter a cou­ple of months, Galileo was strug­gling to main­tain this tricky stance as his health con­tin­ued to de­te­ri­o­rate. Fi­nally, he gave in and told the in­ves­ti­ga­tors what they wanted to hear – that his Coper­ni­can ar­gu­ment had been too force­ful.

The weak and el­derly sci­en­tist clung to the hope that the In­qui­si­tion would take pity on him, con­sid­er­ing his age and con­di­tion, but he had no such luck. In June, Galileo was con­victed of heresy and forced to pub­licly re­nounce his sup­port for Coper­ni­cus’ the­ory and he­lio­cen­trism. At the same time, he also had to an­nounce that he whole­heart­edly be­lieved in the Ptole­maic sys­tem, with the Earth well and truly po­si­tioned at the cen­tre of the uni­verse. Mean­while, his Di­a­logue was of­fi­cially placed on the Church’s list of pro­hib­ited books.

Galileo’s pun­ish­ment did not end there. Ini­tially given life im­pris­on­ment, his sen­tence was com­muted to house ar­rest and he spent the rest of his life cooped up in a Floren­tine villa. But this did not pre­vent him from con­tin­u­ing to work on his the­o­ries, even though he was slowly go­ing blind. Choos­ing a less con­tro­ver­sial topic, Galileo re­turned to his in­ves­ti­ga­tion into me­chan­ics. Dur­ing his last years, he wrote one of his most fa­mous works, Di­a­logues Con­cern­ing Two New Sci­ences. This mag­num opus sum­marised ap­prox­i­mately three decades of Galileo’s re­search in the field of physics, in­clud­ing his ideas on the laws of motion.

As for the Catholic Church, it would take them over three cen­turies to ad­mit that Galileo had been right all along. Despite the ob­sta­cles he faced, there is no doubt that Galileo helped to es­tab­lish sci­ence in the in­tel­lec­tual world, even if this was not achieved dur­ing his life­time. It is a tes­ta­ment to the man’s tenacity that 80 years af­ter his death, his he­lio­cen­tric the­o­ries were even­tu­ally vin­di­cated by an­other great sci­en­tific mind, Isaac New­ton. Galileo con­tin­ues to be a sci­en­tific in­spi­ra­tion to this day. In 1989, an un­manned space­craft sent to study Jupiter and its moons was named af­ter the Ital­ian sci­en­tist, so his legacy lives on – even in the stars.

RIGHTGalileo Galilei, the man who chal­lenged the Catholic Church

Galileo demon­strates his te­le­scope to Vene­tian en­thu­si­asts in Pi­azza San Marco, Venice, in 1609 BE­LOWIn the In­qui­si­tion court, Galileo is ques­tioned by a jury

ABOVE One of the ear­li­est tele­scopes Galileo cre­ated was the re­fract­ing te­le­scope, which gath­ers more light than the hu­man eye

LEFTThe strength of rods and beams, as shown in Galileo’s fi­nal work Two New Sci­ences

ABOVE Galileo be­fore the Holy Of­fice in the Vat­i­can, af­ter the In­qui­si­tion con­demned him

BE­LOW Galileo’s tomb, lo­cated at the Santa Croce Basil­ica in Florence, Italy

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