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The Papacy and Galileo


Many have unwittingly embraced the myth that Galileo Galilei, a 17th-century Italian astronomer, discovered the heliocentricity of the solar system and, because his discovery conflicted with Catholic teaching, was tortured until he recanted. All this is pure fabrication.


How can the Catholic Church claim infallibility when it officially condemned Galileo for heresy when he declared that the earth revolves around the sun? Add to this the fact that Galileo was cruelly imprisoned and forced to recant under the pains of torture. Modern science now shows that Galileo was right and the "infallible" pope was wrong.

Many have unwittingly embraced the myth that Galileo Galilei, a 17th-century Italian astronomer, discovered the heliocentricity of the solar system and, because his discovery conflicted with Catholic teaching, was tortured until he recanted. It's often said that after recanting Galileo obstinately muttered under his breath, "E pur si muove" (Italian: "And yet it does move"). All this is pure fabrication.

Here are the facts. First of all, Galileo was a brilliant physicist and astronomer, but he didn't discover heliocentricity — the ancient Greeks and Romans advanced the theory at least 2,000 years before him. We know this because both Aristotle (d. 322 B.C.) and Ptolemy (fl. ca. 150 A.D.), attempted to refute the idea. Aristarchus of Samos (d. ca. 160 B.C.), Cicero (d. 42 B.C.), Seneca (d. 65 A.D.), and Eusebius (died 339 A.D.) all discussed the idea in their writings. This is why the Polish scientist Copernicus (d. 1543), who happened to be a Catholic priest, didn't fancy himself the "discoverer" of the theory named after him.

Second, the Catholic Church has never defined — nor could it ever define — any theory of physical science as a matter of faith. There never was any "dogma" which said the earth was the center of the universe or the solar system. The next time people claim Galileo bravely challenged such a "dogma," ask them to identify its official name, the name of the pope who defined it, and the date it was defined. If they can't provide you with this basic information, demand that they cite the source of their "facts."

Although Galileo's heliocentric theories were contrary to the understanding of the Church of his day, it wasn't just with the Church that he found himself at odds. His ideas were contrary to the Ptolemaic school of thought, which was accepted by virtually all contemporary scientists. The ideas he pushed had been challenged by such notable thinkers as Michel de Montaigne (d. 1592), Blaise Pascal (d. 1662), and Alessandro Tassoni (d. 1635), who said, "Stand in the middle of a room and look out at the sun through a window opening toward the south. Now, if the sun stands still and the window moves so quickly [referring to the speed at which Galileo theorized the earth rotated], the sun will instantly disappear from your vision."

One historian points out that there is current scholarship available that indicates that the source of the Galileo controversy with the papacy may actually have been over something different from what most people think:

Pietro Redondi, in a widely-discussed recent book, Galileo Heretic (1983), argues that the real source of conflict between Galileo and the Church was not the Copernican doctrine, as everyone for centuries has supposed and as the documents seem to attest, but a suspicion of heresy in regard to Eucharistic doctrine. Galileo, like many other natural philosophers of his day, took [the scientific theory of] atomism for granted and made occasional use of it in his theorizing. There was a real doubt on the part of some theologians, however, as to whether atomism could be squared with the doctrine of transubstantiation defined by the Council of Trent. Redondi noticed an unsigned denunciation of Galileo's atomism in the files of the Holy Office; starting from this rather slender clue, he constructed an ingenious and highly readable account of what might really have been going on in 1633. (1)

Protestant critics of Catholicism point triumphantly to the Galileo case, but fail to consider that 10 years before Galileo landed in the ecclesiastical hot seat, his scientific peer, Johannes Kepler (d. 1630), a Protestant, was vehemently condemned by the Protestant faculty at the University of Tübingen for espousing the very same theory.

There's a vast difference between a scientist's raising a few eyebrows by postulating unconventional theories and his being persecuted for doing so. One must ask why Galileo was condemned. The answer will surprise and disappoint many opponents of Catholicism.

The fact is that for many years, Galileo was held in high regard by many Roman hierarchs and was one of the most celebrated members of the scientific Academy of the Lincei. His work in astronomy garnered him high honors from three successive popes: Paul V, Gregory XV, and Urban VIII.

Galileo: Darling of the Curia

Cardinal del Monte, in a letter to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, reveals that far from being persecuted by "anti-science" Catholic churchmen, Galileo,

during his sojourn at Rome, has been given much satisfaction, and I believe that he has received the same; for he has enjoyed good opportunities to exhibit his inventions, and the best-informed men of the Eternal City regard them as the most wonderful and accurate. If we were living in this olden days of Rome, the worth of Galileo, I think, would be recognized by a statue on the Capitoline.

What, then, caused the row with the Church? The first thing to remember is that Galileo's heliocentric theory, although sternly opposed by theologians who embraced the Ptolemaic model — according to which all heavenly bodies, including the sun, revolve around the earth — wasn't the real source of his ecclesiastical difficulties. Rather, the cause of his persecution stemmed from a presumption to teach the sense in which certain Bible passages should be interpreted (using science as the ultimate criterion), and from charges that he claimed God was merely accidental and not substantial.

She Blinded him with Science

Galileo confused revealed truths with scientific discoveries by saying that in the Bible "are found propositions which, when taken literally, are false; that Holy Writ out of regard for the incapacity of the people, expresses itself inexactly, even when treating of solemn dogmas; that in questions concerning natural things, philosophical [i.e., scientific] should avail more than sacred." Hence, we see that it was Galileo's perceived attack on theology (which is the unique domain of the Magisterium and not of scientists) that elicited the alarmed response from the Church.

In his Illustrious Italians (1879), the historian Caesare Cantú puts Galileo's claims into perspective:

The earth ceased to be regarded as the largest, warmest, and most illuminated of the planetary bodies. It no longer enjoyed a preeminence in creation as the home of a privileged being, but became one of many in the group of unexplored planets and in no way distinguished from the others.

Fearing that science was aggrandizing itself only to war on God, the timid repudiated it. Only later did the better minds understand that the faith fears no learning; that historic criticism can be independent and impartial without becoming irreligious. Then, good sense estimated at their true value the accusations launched against the Church because of the Galileo affair. It distinguished simple assertions from articles of faith, positive and necessary prohibitions from prudential and disciplinary provisions, the oracles of the Church from the deliberations of a particular tribunal.

To such a tribunal [the Inquisition], a denunciation was made that Galileo or his disciples had asserted that God is an accident and not a substance [or] a personal being; that miracles are not miracles at all. Then the pontiff declared that, for the termination of scandal, Galileo should be cited and admonished by the Sacred Congregation.

The Church Finally Acts

So, we see that it wasn't Galileo's heliocentric theories as such which moved the Church to censure him. In fact, a century earlier, Copernicus dedicated his Revolutions of the Heavenly Orbs (1530) to Pope Paul III, saying: "If men who are ignorant of mathematics pretend to condemn my book, because of certain passages of Scripture which they distort to suit themselves, I despise their vain attacks." Although he was opposed by most theologians and fellow scientists for defying the Ptolemaic theory, Copernicus was supported by a number of prelates and was neither prosecuted nor had his theories condemned by the Church.

The Church did condemn Galileo after a lengthy investigation into the charges brought against him. In the end, the Holy Office decided against Galileo and pronounced the decision that his theories "were false and contrary to Holy Scripture" and that he was "gravely suspect of heresy."

The Catholic Church doesn't for a moment try to evade or obscure the fact that Galileo's tribunal erred in its condemnation of heliocentricity (just as Urban VIII did by ratifying the decision), but as much as critics of "Romanism" would like to imagine the contrary, that error neither compromises the integrity of the Church nor violates the doctrine of infallibility.

Church tribunals have juridical and disciplinary authority only, and neither they nor their decisions are infallible. Only a pope (or an ecumenical council) is personally promised the charism of teaching infallibly. Remember that in order for a pope to exercise the charism of infallibility, three conditions must be present: (1) He cannot speak as a private theologian but in his official capacity as vicar of Christ and head of the Church; (2) He must officially define a doctrine relating to faith or morals (unfortunately, the pope is not infallible when it comes to science, politics, weather, and the outcome of sporting events); and (3) The pronouncement must not be directed only to a single individual or particular group of people, but it must be promulgated for the benefit of the entire Church.

In the Galileo case, the second and third conditions were absent and, possibly, also the first condition. At best, one can make a strong case that the Catholic Church of that day was under-informed in its views on physical science — but then so was the rest of the world. In the Galileo affair, no case can be made which "disproves" papal infallibility.

Was the Church wrong to ban Galileo's writings? A good case can be made that it was not. Although the bishops who condemned his theories were wrong with respect to science, they were certainly not in error for wishing to protect the faithful (most of whom were uneducated peasants) from what appeared to be a dangerous scientific theory — dangerous because it was offered in a "package deal" with certain ancillary — and certainly wrong — exegetical principles. Besides, Galileo may have been right so far as the basic scientific theory went, but he got the reasons for it all wrong.

As Frs. Rumble and Carty explain in their three-volume work Radio Replies (1979):

Galileo could not prove it [heliocentricity] and not one of the arguments he advanced for it is accepted today as scientifically demonstrative. All his arguments gave a probability only. In the present state of general education, we all know that there is no doubt on the subject, and that the movement of the earth is in no way opposed to Sacred Scripture rightly understood. But people did not know that then, and they were not ready for the new knowledge.

Its general publication could result only in widespread disturbance due to a lack of preparatory knowledge. Galileo made the mistake of going outside the realm of science to invade the field of theology. He set himself up as an exegete of Scripture and thus brought upon himself the censures of lawful religious authorities. The conservatism of the Church was prudence itself in the face of these novelties not yet proved.

 What about Torture?

What about the charge that Galileo was imprisoned and brutally tortured in order to extract a confession from him? The astronomer made his first appearance before the Inquisition in 1615 and was neither imprisoned nor tortured but received a mild censure and was sent on his way. By 1633, he was again summoned to Rome to face the charges that he had persisted in promoting his theories as though they were matters of faith and provable by the Bible.

During his second stint before the Inquisition, Galileo was incarcerated, not, as is commonly thought, in some gloomy, rat-infested dungeon, but in the palace of Niccolini, the Tuscan ambassador to the Vatican and an ardent supporter of Galileo. If there had been treachery on the part of the Inquisition, surely Niccolini, one of Galileo's most enthusiastic fans, would have mentioned it.

In a letter of February 13, 1633, to the King of Tuscany, Ambassador Niccolini described the surprisingly benign treatment accorded the astronomer:

The pope told me that he had shown to Galileo a favor never accorded to another in allowing him to reside in my house instead of the [apartments] of the Holy Office. . . . His Holiness said he could not avoid having Galileo brought to the Holy Office for the examination and I replied that my gratitude would be doubled if he would exempt Galileo from this appearance, but he answered that he could not do so. . . . He concluded with the promise to assign Galileo certain rooms which are most convenient in the Holy Office.

On April 16, Niccolini mentioned, "He has a servant and every convenience. The Reverend Commissary assigned him the apartments of the judge of the tribunal. My own servants carry his meals from my house." Niccolini's June 18 dispatch revealed that, "In regard to the person of Galileo, he ought to be imprisoned for some time because he disobeyed the orders of 1616, but the pope says that after the publication of the sentence he will consider with me as to what can be done to afflict him as little as possible."

In his July 3 missive, after the sentence of censure had been delivered by the Inquisition, Niccolini wrote, "His Holiness told me that although it was rather early to diminish the penance of Galileo he had been content to allow him to reside at first in the gardens of the Grand Duke, and that now he could proceed to Siena, there to reside in a convent or with my lord the Archbishop."

So much for the charge that Galileo was subjected to harsh imprisonment.

But what about torture? While it's true that a decree issued by Pope Urban VIII instructed that Galileo "should be questioned as to his intentions and that he should be menaced with torture," no torture was ever carried out.

It seems that the pope, knowing full well that Galileo had no intention or desire to become a martyr for science, simply wanted the astronomer to be "scared straight."

In the fourth interrogatory, Galileo gave his answer to the charge against him:

I have not held the Copernican system since I was ordered to abandon it [referring to his censure in 1616]. But I am in your hands. Do with me what you will. For some time before the determination of the Holy Office, and before I received the command [in 1616], I had been indifferent as to the two opinions of Ptolemy and Copernicus, and had held that both were disputable and that both could be true in nature. But after being assured by the prudence of my superiors, all my doubts ceased, and I held, as I now hold, the theory of Ptolemy as true, that is the earth does not, and that the sun does move.

Most scholars agree that Galileo was never tortured — there's simply no evidence to support the claim that he was — nor even that he was shown the instruments of torture. Galileo had given the inquisitors what they wanted — he had submitted (although admittedly under coercion) to the authority of the Church. This being the case, the inquisitors were forbidden by the code of regulations imposed on them to use torture. The Directory of Inquisitors (Venice, 1595), by Friar Nicholas Eymerie, O.P., was the official guide for the Holy Office and was followed assiduously. The specific section which deals with torture is part 3, on the "Practice of the Inquisitorial Office," particularly, the chapter on "the Third Way of Ending a Trial for Faith."

The official record of the tribunal mentions that in the fourth interrogatory the judges had "deemed it necessary to proceed to a rigorous examination, and thou didst reply like a Catholic" (respondisti Catholice). Because of his abjuration, Galileo could not be subjected to torture. There is no mention of maltreatment in any of Galileo's subsequent letters or essays.

Was the Galileo case an embarrassment to the Church? Yes. Was the situation rectified later? Yes — in 1825, in an official document by Dom Olivieri, the General of the Dominican order and commissary of the Holy Office, which apologized for the condemnation and rehabilitated Galileo and his work.

The Galileo story, when painted inaccurately, seems to stain the credibility of the Catholic Church. But, understood correctly and in its historical context, the Galileo case really proves nothing, except perhaps that the Catholic Church is very serious (and certain of her members can be overzealous) in her efforts to safeguard the flock from error or scandal.

In 1989, Pope John Paul II discussed the mistakes the Church made in its handling of the Galileo case. He apologized for the Church's handling of the case, further rehabilitated Galileo's name, and pointed out once again that the province of the Church is theology and revelation, not science or astronomy. Throughout the Galileo affair, the pope was not acting in his capacity of teacher, but of prudent guardian. Though Pope Urban VIII and his zealous Roman clergy who prosecuted Galileo were dead wrong in their scientific theories regarding the orbits of celestial bodies, and even though their prosecution of Galileo seems to us today to have been heavy-handed and uncalled for, this vexing case doesn't conflict with the Catholic teaching of papal infallibility.


  1. Ernan McMullin, foreword, in Richard S. Westfall,Essay on the Trial of Galileo (Rome: Vatican Observatory Publications, 1989), ix.


Madrid, Patrick. "The Papacy and Galileo." Lay Witness (April, 2000).

This article is reprinted with permission from Lay Witness magazine. Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.

The Author

madrid11 madrid Patrick Madrid is the author or editor of twenty books on Catholic themes, including Why Be Catholic? Ten Answers to a Very Important QuestionSearch and RescueWhere Is That in the Bible?, and Pope Fiction. He also hosts Right Here, Right Now, a daily radio broadcast heard on 240 stations coast to coast. He an adjunct professor of theology at Holy Apostles College and Seminary and he is president of the Catholic Apologetics Academy. Patrick and his wife, Nancy, live in Ohio along with the rest of their family, which includes the blessing of eleven children and fifteen grandchildren.

Copyright © 2001 LayWitness
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