Galileo and the Roman Catholic Church:
The Man, The Institution, and the Myth.
"And who can doubt that it will lead to the worst disorders when minds created free by God are compelled to submit slavishly to an outside will? When we are told to deny our senses and subject them to the whim of others? When people devoid of whatsoever competence are made judges over experts and are granted authority to treat them as they please?"
"Galileo's head was on the block. His crime was looking up the truth." So begins the song entitled "Galileo", written by the popular musical group The Indigo Girls. This one line both summarizes my generation's per capita knowledge of who Galileo was, and our view towards the confrontation between Galileo and the Catholic church. We all think that he was persecuted by the church, only because he tried to follow what he believed was right. And we believe that he was tortured and killed. Of course, the truth is never the way "they" tell it; the reality in this situation is much grayer and more ambiguous than these statements make it sound. This essay will discuss these two features of the Galileo story as well as much more of it.
Throughout history, institutions have tried to maintain order and control and peace in the midst of confusion and chaos and war. It is the nature of the animal that those who do something to disturb that peace will be looked upon unfavorably by the institution. And conversely, throughout history, individuals, while enjoying the peace that institutions bring, have bristled when the needs of "order" have created friction against their own personal wants, needs, and feelings. I believe that in the case of the trial of Galileo Galilei, we see one of those rare circumstances in which both parties are doing what they feel is right, and where both parties can, in fact, be seen as both right and wrong; in short, where both are "right", but both disagree. In that sense, then, the confrontation between Galileo Galilei and the Roman Catholic church can be seen as archetypal- disagreement as seen on it's most basic level. I will show that this case fits into the above thesis by looking at four areas. First, we will discuss Galileo the man. Next, the reader will learn about the institution: the Roman Catholic church in Galileo's time. Thirdly, we will cover the trial itself. And lastly, the author will offer some personal commentary on the trial and the parties involved.
So now we begin with the first major section: the life and person of Galileo Galilei. We will look at his life by looking at his family, his professional life, his inventions, and his astronomical discoveries.
The first essential component in understanding Galileo is learning about his family life. In the most general way, "Skepticism permeated the Galilei household" (Reston 9). From his birth, Galileo was, one might say, destined for his confrontation with some institution.
Galileo's father, Vincenzo Galilei was a musician, and though he later came to prominence, while Galileo was a child, the family was often poor because of their "starving artist" father. Perhaps because of the stress of trying to provide for his family, perhaps simply because of his artistic temperament, Vincenzo had a volatile personality. As Reston says, "With Vincenzo Galilei, there could be no middle ground" (10). Perhaps an example would clarify my meaning.
When young Galileo was eleven years old, he was sent away to an isolated, fog covered hill top monastery named Vallombrosa, to live with the monks and to build the firm foundations of high education. By the time he was fifteen, he had not only gotten used to the monastery and the fog, he had come to love them. In fact, he loved the monks so much that he had decided that he wanted to become one of them, and had taken formal vows. The only thing that needed to happen was a visit from his proud father to move on to the next steps in becoming a monk. The day came, and Vincenzo arrived. To the monks' surprise, however, Vincenzo degraded the monks for their treatment of his son, and seized on an eye infection to remove Galileo from the very monastery that he had forced him to attend four years earlier. The young Galileo was understandably hurt.
Throughout Galileo's early years and young adulthood, Vincenzo continued to pressure him, and for some reason, Galileo tried his best to do his father's wishes. Most likely, the reason that Vincenzo pushed so hard was that he knew what it was like to be in a low-paying job, and so he didn't want Galileo to go through the same things he had. This is understandable and has continued to the present day. And like all parents of all ages, Dad wanted Galileo to be a doctor. Galileo was more interested in Mathematics, however.
Galileo's mother, Giulia Ammanananti Galilei "berated her husband continually for his inattention to the family's well-being" (Reston 8). She was high-bred, in every sense of the term. Later in his life, Galileo would complete support his still ungracious and unthankful mother, while for her part, Giulia would hire spies among his servants to pry into his business.
Given these two people for parents, one can imagine how skeptical young Galileo could be, and where he found his sharp tongue. All of his life, Galileo would be defensive, paranoid of criticism, and unable to let go of the slightest insults. Thirdly, the reader can also see where his lifelong worries about money come from.
In Galileo's professional life, we see a lot of that family background of confrontation coming through. In 1587, he entered into competition for a mathematics chair at Bologna University.
Around 1588, he accepted a challenge from the Academy of Florence to find the actual geographic location of Dante's Inferno. The information I read was not clear as to whether he found this location, but he did invent an equation to determine the size of Lucifer, and delivered an excellent speech about his findings.
This event is important because this is probably where Galileo's use of literature and figurative writing comes from. Perhaps it is also one reason why he later wrote in Italian rather than the Greek and Latin traditional for academic writing. Both of these features were found in the Dialogue, which will be of great importance as we move further into this essay.
On December 7, 1592, Galileo was awarded a position at "Il Bo", which means The Ox. This was the lovingly applied nickname of the University of Padua. The University was one of the oldest and most respected schools in the world at that time. This position would be a good one for Galileo. It was at this time that he was described, while walking through the streets, "His large frame lumbering forward, and his red hair flowing" (Reston 34).
As I implied in the last paragraph, many good things began to happen to Galileo at this point in his life. For years, he had been trying to invent something that would make him lots of money, and therefore end his financial worries. Two first inventions, in 1593, though they failed to make him much money, are still with us: The thermometer (although the mercury-filled thermometer as we know it didn't happen for a few years yet) and the irrigation system. It was also at this time that he met the man who would become not only a good friend, but would give his name to one of the most important literary characters of all times: Gianfrancesco Sagredo.
Sagredo was "a venetian nobleman...whose family could claim a Cardinal, an ambassador to Paris, a doge, and even a saint" (Reston 48). He was known for his floating palace, and for it's collection of exotic dogs, cats, and birds. It was, of course, likened to Noah's Ark.
But in 1596, Galileo finally hit upon the invention he had been looking for- or at least partly. He invented a military and geometric compass, and wrote a guidebook as to it's use. It was apparently very handy, a great invention, and quite a lifesaver as it could be read from the side of the gun barrel, rather than looking straight into it.
But even though the compass made him much money and no little amount of fame, Galileo was not satisfied. As Reston says, "he was in jeopardy of becoming a genuine pest" because of his constant and vocal worrying and complaining about his finances.
It was close to this time that what seemed to be a new star appeared in the sky, and there was much debate as to what it was and what it meant. Galileo delivered three lectures at Il Bo that were extremely enthusiastically received, and as a result was challenged by Cesare Cremonini, the chair of Natural Philosophy at the University of Padua.
"The debate between Cremonini and Galileo was really a debate between Philosophy and Science, between first principles of Aristotle and the evidence of the senses. As such their argument prefigured the later conflict between the church and Galileo, for Galileo's complaint with his distinguished elder colleague now, like his later complaint with he elders of the Catholic church, was over literal-mindedness and blind faith (Reston 69).
And then came the big one, the "invention" that the military compass had only hinted at as far as levels of success go. I use the quotes when describing Galileo's telescope, which is of course the instrument I'm referring to, because Galileo did not "invent" it as we usually mean that word. He heard rumors, that a traveling salesman was visiting the royal houses with a magnifying tube, and he set the political machine in motion, had the Flemish salesman detained, barred from the gate, and improved upon the original invention. I think that it can be said, then, that Galileo perfected the telescope, but did not invent it. However it happened, though, Galileo managed to get all the right buttons pushed, all the correct hands shaken, and this invention made him a great celebrity. This ushered in a new age of the Life of Galileo.
Some things hadn't changed, though. "He protested loudly like a prima donna. Galileo was becoming a very difficult man. ( Reston 94). The procurator...was especially bitter at this breathtaking act of arrogance" [leaving the employ of one town to work for another because he had been offered a higher salary](Reston 104). Or hear it from Galileo's own mouth: "To divine that wonderful arts lie hidden behind trivial and childish things is a conception of superhuman talents" (Reston 98).
And what are these hidden arts he is referring to? His astronomical discoveries. First, he looked at "our" moon, and found that it was not a perfectly smooth mirror, as was expected, but a generally round orb, full of mountains and valleys. This shook the scientific community a bit. But then, on January 7, 1610, Galileo began to observe the moons of Jupiter, thinking at first that they were just three stars, then discovering that they were moons rotating around Jupiter when a fourth "star" appeared and then disappeared at regular intervals. This startling discovery single-handedly disproved the Aristotelian belief that all stars rotate around a stationary Earth, and thus almost completely disproved Aristotle. Put more poetically, "As his gaze was drawn skyward, religion inspired science into an artistic act" (Reston 92).
It seemed that Galileo was at the top of the world. Things couldn't improve. Then he discovered spots on the sun. Now, the reader must understand (though I suspect that he knows) the way that the sun was viewed at this time. It was, as the lighter and heater of Earth, perfect. And for Galileo to say that it contained imperfections was tantamount to pointing out problems with the character of God: it just was not acceptable behavior. Nevertheless, Galileo announced to Rome in April 1611 his findings. His book Letters on the Sunspots was published in 1613. This was the second Galileo book to be printed exclusively in vernacular Italian, because as Galileo said, "There are men with horse sense, but because they are unable to read things that are "Greek to them" they become convinced that logic and philosophy are over their heads" (130).
And then the trouble started. In 1615, Galileo was summoned to Rome, accused of being a Copernican. He set out for Rome in December. "It was not in Galileo's nature, not then, anyway, to listen to nervous ambassadors or retreat into diplomatic caution. His nature was to confront, to struggle, to overpower" (Reston 158).
And this trip, that worked just fine. His confidence prevailed, and he was given a warning, a "slap on the wrist": Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, the most powerful theologian of that time, charged him that the view of Copernicanism could not be defended or held. But those were very vague terms. What did it mean to "hold" a view? How far could one go before he was "defending" something? As Reston writes, "The questions are twofold: How did Galileo really view his meeting with Bellarmine? And how would he remember it?"
Galileo's feeling was "vintage Galileo"-"Not only did he want the accusation lifted, but he wanted his ecclesiastical accusers chastised" (157).
And with that we come to the end of the background section on Galileo the man. Hopefully, we have better insight into his life, and the reasons he acted toward authority the way he did. From here, we look to the other side: the Post/Counter Reformational Roman Catholic Church; The Institution.
What Galileo never seemed to grasp, possibly because he was focused on discoveries, or on fame, was that Rome was changing. Italy was changing. In fact, the world was changing. In this section studying the Institution of Italy and the Catholic church, we will look at Italy's lack of confidence, then at the way things were changing from discussion topics to dogma, then at the administration of religion, and fourthly, at the Index of Prohibited Books. At this point, two examples of those who didn't follow the rules will be mentioned. Lastly, we will look at the problem with 'revolution'.
In order to understand where the church stood, we must understand, first, society in general. Sixteenth century Italy, it is said, is "notorious for its return to the rigor of an earlier age" (Lindberg 114). This is sometimes blamed on the Reformation and the resulting Counter-Reformation, but according to Shea, the essayist in Lindberg's book, it is only a symptom of a much deeper problem: a lack of confidence that came over the "Italian mind". Two probable reasons for this lack of confidence were the sacking of Rome in 1527, and the collapse of the Florentine Republic in 1530. This was followed by Spanish domination of Italy that could have done nothing but hurt the confidence of the nation as to its ability to stand alone. The people, Shea writes, became "anxious to exchange the burden of freedom for the security of regulated order" (115). This is the tension that I referred to in my thesis. It is always a matter of balancing these two forces: freedom and safety. Authority was revered more than in recent years. Titles became important, because they symbolized power and therefore safety.
Because of this national worry about safety, things which were once the fodder for interesting and heated discussion- like Aristotle- became more entrenched, again because the people needed things that they could count on. As Shea says, they were "turned into rigid dogma and a mechanical criterion of truth" (115). The natural consequence of this mechanization was that any system other than that dogmatized one became bad and suspect.
Religiously, this tone of society was seen in the fact that "the articulation of Catholic belief almost became an administrative problem, and Bellarmine an administrator of doctrines" (115). Bellarmine was an organizer. He systematized things, most likely as a means to making things seem less frightening to the world outside. It is said he even systematized the views of his opponents, so as to make confrontations easier.
Another sign of a frightened time was the Roman Index of Prohibited Books. If anything deserves to be singled out and remembered as the suppression of knowledge, perhaps this list, and not Galileo, is what people should use as their banner. All translations of the Bible into the languages of the people (vernacular) were banned. As were all the works of Erasmus (presumably because of his Greek New Testament). It would be easy to scoff and cry "suppression!", but instead, think of what this says about how scared these people were. Any one of these ideas could topple the world as they knew it, and they were deathly afraid that this would happen.
Two examples of what the peoples' fear accomplished, which were surely in Galileo's mind were those of Giordano Bruno and Francesco Pucci. Both of these men were burned at the stake for their ideas, which were considered heretical, and for refusing to back down from their stances on these issues.
"Thus, by the end of the sixteenth century, the Catholic church appeared to have emerged from the struggle against Protestantism with renewed strength....now it extended its vigilance beyond the religious realm to ethics, politics, philosophy, art, and even manners and customs" (Lindberg 117). We can understand now why the people allowed and probably encouraged this to happen, but when one thinks of human nature and the natural rebellion against authority, it is easy to see problems coming.
"In this climate of opinion, a revolution in science or any other field of human endeavor could easily be perceived as a threat, unless shown to agree with the teachings of the church" (Lindberg 118). This quote summarizes the climate that Galileo was dealing with. Looking back now, it is almost too perfect, the way the sides are setting up, as if it is a simplistic movie plot. The scientist, making earth-shaking discoveries and wanting to share them with the world (Galileo in particular would be of this sort, because he loved the approval of others) while at the same time, the sinister power is growing in strength, ready to crush anyone who shakes the earth the least bit. The reader is on the edge of his or her seat, as we move on to the next section: the trial of Galileo.
For this section of the essay, we will look at the contents of Galileo's Dialogue: what was all the fuss about? Then, the start of the trial, noting Galileo's attitude. Thirdly, we will note the questions that must have been in his mind at this point of the trial. Fourth, some important developments are discussed. And lastly, the sentence is discussed.
And for this section, we begin with the ball in Galileo's court again. When Urban VIII became Pope, he had been a supporter of Galileo. He had, in fact, had meals with Galileo, talked fairly intimately with him. The two of them were, you might say, friends. This is important and will come up soon.
After the visit to Rome in which Bellarmine warned Galileo not to defend or hold Copernicanism, knowing all that we know now about the political atmosphere of the time, it would seem that any aware individual would take those words beyond their face value and view them as a threat of some sort, and would stay far away from Copernicanism. But not Galileo. Mysteriously, he seemed completely oblivious (whether he actually was is another story) as to the danger he faced.
Whatever he was thinking at that time, when Urban VIII became Pope, Galileo was encouraged by the fact that he was in the Pope's favor, as well as encouraged by the words of the Pope's confidants, who were saying that if he were ever going to attack Aristotle, then this was the time. And so he began work on the Dialogue on the Great World Systems, his master work.
In this book, three characters named Simplicio, Sagredo, and Salviatus discuss Copernicanism and Aristotleanism, with Sagredo being the neutral, unconvinced man, and both of the others trying to win him to their side. Salviatus represents the Copernican, and speaks as the voice of Galileo himself, it is commonly held. Simplicio represents Aristotle and his followers, and is often said to represent the Pope, Urban VIII.
In the book, Simplicio wins out in the end, by the simple fact that Salviatus and Sagredo leave. So it is unclear who exactly has won, though Salviatus has made Simplicio look foolish.
And here is where the whole thing begins to gain momentum. "One remark by Pope Urban VIII explains the entire Galileo affair: 'He did not fear to make sport of me' (Reston 237). And so, it comes back to Galileo's confrontational upbringing, and back to the fact that any other person would have backed off after the first visit to Rome. When one of his Ambassadors tried to get him to go easy on Galileo, after the church had ordered him back to Rome, once the Dialogue had started a fury, "the volatile Pontiff exploded in anger, charging Galileo with inserting himself into the most serious and dangerous topics that could possibly be imagined at this troubled period of Church history" (236). You see the problem. The Pope, once a friend of Galileo, now feels personally betrayed and mocked. And some Cardinals were starting to say that Urban VIII was soft on heretics. This seems a fitting time to quote Father Horatio Grassi, a contemporary of Galileo: "He has been ruined by himself...It is not surprising that everyone conspires to injure him" (234).
The trial began calmly enough. Galileo was provided with a three room suite at the Vatican, which had priceless icons in it, and special meals were prepared for him. He had a servant to do his bidding.
As questioning started, the prosecutor was shocked. "This was not a contrite man who stood before him. Not shame but pride marked his demeanor". Galileo still thought that he could talk some sense into them, that if he could just get them to listen to his defense, all would be well.
His head was spinning with questions, though. "Should he mention all the encouragements to write his masterwork? Should he invoke the conversations he had had with Urban VIII himself nine years before when the new Pope had invited further examination of the Copernican Hypothesis?" (Reston 249). He said around this time, "Not only do I repent having given the world a portion of my writings, but now I feel inclined to suppress those still in my hand" (239)
It was after this first stage of the trial that things begin to get gray. The church produced a document that said Bellarmine had told Galileo not to teach or hold the opinion of Copernicus. Galileo, however, then produced a document with Bellarmine's signature and seal (which the first document did not have) which make the church's document look like a forgery.
It really was no use trying to convince the prosecutor. But Galileo persisted. Reston says, "The Pope would not be assuaged, no matter what the scientific evidence. That was a fact" (253). And it was around this time that the word "torture" began to be thrown around, or at least implied. Galileo of course was over seventy years old, "terrified of sickness and physical pain and well aware of the church's readiness to inflict them" (252).
And then comes the outright evil part, in my opinion. Maculano, the prosecutor, threatens torture in a private meeting with Galileo: specifically this time- the rack and the heretic's fork (two pointed ends-one goes in neck and one in chest. It reads "I recant" on the handle). It is during this private meeting that Galileo is understandably broken. He agrees to relent on his views.
Before the assembly the next day, he said that "It had dawned upon him finally how the book could be misinterpreted: he had been careless in weighing the arguments 'On the false side'"(255). How did he propose to fix the problem? Add another day, another 100 pages to the book, so that the Copernican obviously loses! (No one actually thinks that he was proposing to do only that, though).
The church was insulted. When the day finally came for sentencing, Galileo was told: "We condemn you to formal imprisonment in this Holy Office at our pleasure. As a salutary penance we impose on you to recite the seven penitential Psalms once a week for the next three years" (260).
Galileo had been humiliated. He was a prisoner of the Inquisition, with an indefinite sentence, and the message that was truly sent by the sentence was that the church and not the truth of science was the ultimate determination of what was true. Might made right. Galileo was held up as an example of what would happen to any scientist who went against the Bible.
However, we must look from the church's side again. They were between a rock and a hard place. They were afraid that if a revolution of any kind happened, they'd lose all hold on society. And Galileo offered no concessions, no way out, other than to sentence him, which would bring trouble, or to set him free and apologize, which would bring trouble.
To the church's credit, Galileo was not put into prison, but sent back home and allowed to continue his work, although one suspects his heart was not in it as it once had been.
What went wrong? Galileo, when he was told to renounce, only got more stubborn. He overdefended himself.
Which brings us to the fourth major section. We have discussed, Galileo's life, the state of the Church and nation, and the trial itself. Now we come to some personal commentary of the author. As I said in my introduction and thesis statement, all of life can be seen as a balance between order and individuality. And that, I think is how the accusation and trial of Galileo Galilei must be looked at. Try as I might, I cannot come down on one side. At first, I was going to rant about what a jerk Galileo was, how conceited he seemed to be. The problem is, he has some very valid arguments. The other problem is that it's hard to take the Roman Catholic church's side in this, either.
Galileo was only trying to get his points out to people? That can be defended by the fact that his books were published in Italian. But if his only interest was in dispensing knowledge, why was he so sure of himself? Why did he have to defy orders? Why did he have to take on people that should have been left alone? Why did he not see what was happening to the society around him? Surely it didn't take much to realize that people weren't as interested in new ideas anymore. What did he think was causing this closing of their minds?
It seems hard to believe that someone could be this hard-headed and stubborn. He was obviously an extremely intelligent man. Did he lack common sense? Is it possible that he really didn't know what was going on all around him? I don't know the answer to these questions.
I can respect Galileo for stubbornness in the face of the trial, when he was being threatened with torture by men who didn't even understand what they were trying him for. But I cannot understand why he didn't moderate his position before he arrived there. He knew the rules: why did he have to break them? Was it Vincenzo Galilei all over again?
I can comprehend the situation on the Catholic side as well. However, I have just as many questions for them. I know why they needed to silence Galileo. But why the fake document? And why was Cardinal Robert Bellarmine not more clear about what wasn't allowed when he met with Galileo? And the big question, why did they threaten to torture Galileo?
In the same way that I would ask Galileo how he could possibly not have understood that the political climate was not ripe for earth shaking new discoveries, I ask the church, did they not know the principle of martyrs, even though they had practically invented the concept themselves? I think that if I were prosecuting the man who had discovered that Jupiter had moons that didn't orbit the earth, and that the moon was not a mirror, and that the sun had spots, when he was an old man, no less, I would realize that people were probably going to remember the outcome for a little while.
What was Maculano thinking? Did he think at all? Was he given orders from higher up, and if so, by who? Urban VIII? I know that the church needed to silence Galileo. That is clear. And I know that he would never be quiet simply because they had asked nicely. But it seems that they should have been able to see that Galileo was a person who had to be treated gently, if only for the sake of image.
I know that I'm reading back today's society into their time. Telescoping. But surely, they could see that threatening to torture an old man who had made revolutionary discoveries was not a good idea, or a "good witness" of Christ's love.
Which brings me back to a gray area. Galileo was right and wrong. The church was, if not right, understandable in its actions, but wrong in their methods.
And so you see the reasoning that brought me to my thesis: Then, as now, the world was made up of imperfect, sinful people. A brilliant scientist who is defensive and unforgiving, oblivious to the effect of his discoveries on the world outside in his search for approval. The leader of a recently separated Church Universal, trying to raise the Roman Catholic church back to its former glory, and feeling personally insulted by the man who he thought was a friend but it turns out could make the whole world crumble. Then, as now, individuals were a mixture of good and bad. And so it was with Pope Urban VIII, doing all he could to keep the universe from losing all meaning through being 'just another planet', and Galileo Galilei, following the Truth of Nature wherever it led him, but unaware that his earth shaking findings were tearing his society apart. This is The Myth referred to in the title of this essay: that this whole fiaso was about an institution overpowering one man. It was about two major world changing systems meeting in two men: Urban VIII representing societal change,and Galileo representing scientific change.
Therefore, the reader can see that I have shown that this case is indeed disagreement at its most basic level. We have looked at Galileo's life, as it led up to the trial. We have studied the Italian society in the years leading up to the trial. We have analyzed, in brief, the trial itself. And fourth, the author has explained his views on the topic, and how he came to his thesis: that the trial of Galileo Galilei by the Roman Catholic church as led by Pope Urban VIII is an example of disagreement at it's most archetypal level: two world views that are mutually exclusive, meeting in a power struggle. Ultimately, Galileo played into this power struggle as much as the Church did, with his prideful remarks, and his obstinate demeanor. And unfortunately he lost.