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The Confederate Lawyer
August 20, 2009

Was Galileo Guilty?
by Charles G. Mills


GLEN COVE, NY — Was the Inquisition court that condemned the Italian physicist and astronomer Galileo wrong? The answer is complex rather than a simple “yes” or “no.”

The key issue in Galileo’s trial was where the center of the universe is located. The court believed, as did the 2nd-century Greek scientist Ptolemy, that the Earth is the center of the universe. Copernicus and Galileo believed that the Sun was the center of the universe. All of them believed the universe to be a perfect sphere. Later, Newton taught that the universe was infinite and hence had no center. Pope Urban VIII, who enforced the condemnation of Galileo, believed that we did not know with certainty where the center of the universe is. This view is supported by Einstein’s discoveries.

A related issue was whether the Earth circles the Sun as Galileo and Copernicus believed, or whether the Sun circles the Earth as the members of the court, Ptolemy, and Aristotle believed. Today we know that this is not a real question. Scientists today understand the motion of one body only in relation to another body or “fixed” point. It makes practical sense to describe the motion of the Earth with respect to the Sun, but one can also describe the motion of the Sun with respect to the Earth. Before he was elected Pope Benedict XVI gave a talk in which he said there were four different answers to this question.

In 1543, the year of his death, Copernicus published in book form his theory that the Sun was the center of the universe and that the Earth rotated daily and orbited the Sun annually. Although some critics believed the widely read book was heretical, it was circulated in the Catholic world for 63 years. In 1616, as a result of Inquisition proceedings against Galileo, the Church condemned nine sentences in Copernicus’ book, including 10 lines of the preface, and required the publication of an expurgated version.

Galileo was a proponent of Copernicus’ system. In 1613, Galileo wrote to Father Benedetto Castello, a monk and mathematician, defending Copernicus. In his letter, among other objectionable statements, he said that Scripture contained many false propositions in the “naked sense” of its words. Father Tomasso Caccini, a Florentine Dominican, preached against this statement, and Galileo lined up support for himself, especially among Jesuits. Another Florentine Dominican, Father Nicolo Lorini, sent a copy of the offending letter to the Roman Inquisition.

These first proceedings before the Roman Inquisition resulted in a compromise. Galileo was not found guilty of anything, but he was officially forbidden by Cardinal Bellarmine to teach the Copernican theory in any way. The Congregation of the Index required that Copernicus’ book and that of his disciple de Zuniga be corrected before they could again be sold. A more theologically offensive book defending Copernicus by a Carmelite priest, Father Paolo Antonio Foscarini, was condemned and prohibited.

Shortly thereafter, Galileo got in a dispute with some Jesuits concerning the nature of comets and lost the support of many Jesuits, who had been his strongest supporters. The new Pope Urban VIII sided with Galileo in this controversy. Urban VIII apparently hoped that Galileo would write a book that would present the arguments for both the Copernican system and the Ptolemaic system in a fair and balanced way, providing a basis for future scholarship.

Galileo did write a book on that subject in 1632, but it was his downfall. Although it was in the form of a dialogue between a Copernican and a Ptolemaist, it was written in such a way as to make all the Copernican arguments seem sensible and the contrary arguments seem absurd. Moreover, it ridiculed the Pope’s view that man did not yet know which system was the true one. This alienated the Pope, until then a supporter. Furthermore, Galileo argued that the tides proved the theory of Copernicus, an argument already disproven by Kepler. Galileo’s argument that the Earth’s magnetism proved the Copernican theory was another desperate stretch.

Although Galileo negotiated permission to publish the book from both the Roman and Florentine censors, its publication resulted in new Inquisition proceedings against him. His defense was a disaster. He argued that his book only defended the Copernican system as a hypothesis. After that argument failed, he maintained that he had forgotten that he was ordered not to teach the Copernican system in any manner, because a certain certificate given him by Cardinal Bellarmine to help him counter slanders against him did not mention this prohibition.

The Inquisition had abundant expert evidence that his book violated the prior order to him. Some of this expert evidence distinguished Copernicus’ mathematical hypothesis to explain the heavenly bodies from Galileo’s more concrete arguments, holding Galileo’s opinions heretical. The Inquisition judged as heretical the opinion that the Sun was the center of the universe and immobile; it also judged as absurd the opinion that the Earth was not the center of the universe and mobile. The Inquisition sentence was a compromise. He was judged to be vehemently suspect of heresy, placed under indefinite arrest, required to pray the seven penitential psalms every week for three years, and required to abjure his teachings about the Sun and Earth. He was not found guilty of maliciously violating the prior order or of formal heresy.

After a long trip home, with a stop in Siena, where the Archbishop was friendly, Galileo spent the rest of his life in the village of Arcetri. This is usually referred to as “house arrest,” but he was free to walk around the village and visit his daughters who were nuns in a convent there. He was limited in the scholars he was allowed to entertain, but his condition was more like internal exile than house arrest. The requirement that he abjure his prior opinions was something of a public disgrace.

One of the ironies of the Galileo case is that if either Galileo or the Inquisition had applied his discoveries concerning the motion of bodies to the heavenly bodies, as Newton and Descartes later did, they might have found common ground.

Galileo has been gradually but completely rehabilitated. It would be a mistake, however, to put no blame at all on him for his condemnation.

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The Confederate Lawyer column is copyright © 2009 by Charles G. Mills and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, www.fgfBooks.com. All rights reserved.

Charles G. Mills is the Judge Advocate or general counsel for the New York State American Legion. He has forty years of experience in many trial and appellate courts and has published several articles about the law.

See his biographical sketch and additional columns here.

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