In the last two couple in this series we’ll wrap up Galileo’s story and see what lessons there are in it for us today. Last time, we left Galileo before the Inquisition, in 1616. Kirsten Birkett explains how the trial went:
All that the theologians saw, it seems, was yet another challenge to church authority by an isolated troublemaker. It would be nipped in the bud. Copernicus’ book was condemned, and Galileo was told not to hold or defend the theory. Galileo himself was not officially mentioned in any condemnation, nor was he disciplined, probably due to his powerful court connections.
For the time being, it was over. Galileo had been silenced—but not discredited or humiliated, which is probably what his opponents wanted. Nevertheless it was for his opponents a victory of sorts. In the battle of new science against old science, at this stage old science had won. The Aristotelians who were not convinced about Copernicanism on scientific grounds, who had failed (due to Galileo’s clever tactics) to defeat it in academic circles, had finally seen it come to grief against church power. So far, the story has yet to show much of a battle between Christianity and science. The church was brought into the debate by others; there was no inevitable clash. The clash that finally occurred demonstrates a collision between two worlds. Bellarmine, living in an old-world Aristotelian universe, was not prepared for the arguments of the new-world Galileo. Bellarmine saw no reason to change his belief that the Bible taught a stationary earth. At one point, he had asserted that given sufficient proof, he could change his mind about the Bible; but it was clear that he never considered an astronomer capable of giving proof weighty enough to challenge the Church fathers. (Remember, also, that Galileo did not have any proof in favour of his theory, he merely had arguments against the Aristotelian view.) The arguments were conducted on different terms. It so happened that Bellarmine held the power, so he won.
The story doesn’t end there, because over the next decade and a half Galileo started publishing books again, got very popular again, and even had an old supporter get elected Pope (Urban VIII, that is). This Pope even granted him permission to write a full treatise on Copernican theory in 1624. The problem was, he used the occasion to totally lampoon his adversaries, even putting one of the Pope’s own ideas into the mouth of a character named “Simplicio”– an Aristotelian philosopher created for the purpose of mocking the old scientific ideas. It didn’t go over well at all, especially in the halls of political-religious power. Back he went to the Inquisition for another trial.
Birkett continues the story:
Galileo’s fall was more or less inevitable. It was inevitable because of the politics involved, not because of Christian antipathy to new learning. The Pope, the most powerful figure in Galileo’s final downfall, had nothing against the new science; he celebrated it and promoted it. What he objected to was that Galileo did not play the court game as he wanted him to. Galileo was sentenced as suspected of heresy. This was in many respects an unfair decision; Copernicanism had never been infallibly pronounced heretical…
He was never sent to prison, and his daughter (a nun) was granted permission to say the penitential psalms in his place. Was the Pope thereby admitting Galileo was not really guilty, just a scapegoat? Or were Galileo’s court connections still at work? Whatever the reason, Galileo spent the rest of his life working at home, under a type of house arrest, producing solid scientific treatises, but never again enjoying the glittering celebrity he once had.
A few Galileo legends need to be laid to rest. Galileo was never tortured by the Inquisition. The Pope alone, in his official statement concerning Galileo, said that Galileo should be made to abjure on threat of torture; yet this was never part of the judges’ sentence, and Galileo was never tortured nor shown the instruments of torture.
Seriously, all the details are very interesting, and I encourage you to print out the whole article to read it for yourself. In the next post we’ll get to why I wanted to do this series in the first place: to see the connections to discussions of science and faith in our own day.