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The Case of GALILEO GALILEI. Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, Prefect of the Holy Office


Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, Prefect of the Holy Office

The Magisterium and Galileo Galilei

Cardinal Bellarmine

The fourth Sunday of Advent 1614 was a black day in the life of Galileo Galilei, then greatest scientist of Europe. In the chapel of Christina of Lotheringia, the Grand-Duchess of Pisa, he was publicy decried as an unbeliever and a heretic because his scientific research seemed to contradict the Bible....

On February 24th 1616 Galileo’s scientific views were condemned by a special commission of theologians at Rome, presided over by Cardinal Bellarmine. He was forbidden to ‘hold, teach or defend his opinion in any way, either verbally or in writing’.

On February the 13th 1633 Galileo was again summoned to an ecclesiastical court. He was found guilty as ‘suspected of heresy’. He was made to kneel down and abjure his opinion. Until his death, in 1642, he was kept under house arrest ....

And his crime ? ?

Because he had proved that it is not the sun that moves but the earth; that day and night come about by the earth rotating round its own axle -a truth now universally admitted by all people!

“The statement that the earth is not the centre of the world; that the earth is not immovable, but that it moves, and also with the movement of a full day, is absurd, false philosophically, and, theologically considered, erroneous in faith’’.

Text of Condemnation by the Holy Office, 13 February 1633

Galileo s conflict became the best-known example of the clash between academic research and religious authority.

What was it all about?

sun moving over the earth

The traditional view of the flat earth still widely prevailed, in spite of some learned people, since Greek times, suspecting that the earth was a globe. Most people still believed that the earth was flat and that the sky was like a huge ceiling, a dome which covered the space above the earth as a roof. This is actually the way the universe looks to us when we look round us without the knowledge of science It was popularly believed that the sun, moon and stars were balls of fire that moved along the sky from one side of the earth to another. The sun was supposed to rise in the East and travel along the sky during the day, then set in the West and travel along the horizon during the night so that it could rise again the next day.

The earth was presumed to be held firm as it rested on pillars. Underneath the earth, people thought, was a great abyss, a deep ocean in which there was place for lower gods or for the dead (hell).

As this was the popular conception of the world with all humankind, we are not surprised to find the idea expressed in Sacred Scripture too.

“O Lord God, you are very great!
You have stretched out the heavens like a tent ......
You have set the earth on its foundations so that it could never be shaken ......
You have made the moon to ma rk the seasons.
The sun knows its time for setting .”

Psalm 103

“The sun rises
and the sun goes down
and hastens to the place where it rises. ”

Kohelet 1,5

“The sun stood still in the midst of heaven and did not hasten to go down for a full day.”

Sun miracle, Joshua 10,13

earth and sun

The popular conception of the universe began to crumble when scientists in the 15th century discovered that the earth is round and that it rotates round its own axle. Copernicus and Keppler had already discussed this before Galileo. But Galileo added additional proofs. Through his telescope he could see that the moon is round and that there are planets circling round Jupiter. He became the most outspoken defender of the new understanding of the universe.

As usually happens with new discoveries, many did not accept it. Moreover, they thought that the position of the earth relative to the sun had been taught as divine revelation in the sacred writings. This was the origin of the clash of which Galileo became the victim.

The religious authorities of his day, the Pope and his chief theologians, stuck to a literal understanding of the Bible and refused to accept the evidence that Galileo had collected through his scientific observations. As a result, his views were condemned and he was treated as an unbeliever.

Cardinal Bellarmine’s Mistakes

The first mistake was that Bellarmine stuck to a literal interpretation of the Scripture texts.

“The Council of Trent forbids the interpretation of Scripture in a way contrary to the common agreement of the Holy Fathers. Now, if you will read modern commentators on Genesis, the Psalms, Ecclesiastes [=Kohelet] and Joshua, as well as the Fathers, you will find that all agree in interpreting them literally as teaching that the sun is in he heavens and revolves round the earth with immense speed . . . . ”

Letter of Cardinal Bellarmine to Fr. Foscarini OCD, 12 April 1615

Bellarmine’s second mistake was that, when Galileo erected his telescope on the roof of the Holy Office and asked him and other members of the Holy Office to see the satelites of Jupiter for themselves, he refused saying that the Scriptures were enough.

This was wrong, as Galileo pointed out:

“It is not in the power of any creature, not even of the highest religious authority, to make statements true or false, otherwise than if of their own nature and in actual fact they are true or false.’’
“It is surely harmful to the religious good of people if the authorities make it a heresy to believe what has been proved to be a fact.’’

Galileo Galilei in The Authority of Scripture in Philosophical Controversies

Robert Cardinal Bellarmine, representing the papal Magisterium, thus made a colossal error of judgment.

Galileo's book remained on the Index of Forbidden Books until 1834!

Galileo’s correct theological judgment

While the Magisterium of his day miserably failed, Galileo himself held the correct theological understanding of Scripture, as this extract from one of his letters shows.

§ 1. “With regard to the standing still or the movement of the sun and earth, the inspired Scriptures must obviously adapt themselves to the understanding of the people and this is what they achieve through the chosen expression, as experience shows. Even today the ordinary people, though they are no longer so uneducated, still have the same idea. To change the people from this idea would be a waste of time since the people cannot understand the arguments against it. Even if the immovable sky and the moving earth had been proved with certainty for the scholars, one would have to express themselves differently for the crowd. If you were to ask a thousand people, one would hardly hear from one the reply that he believes the earth moves and the sun stands still.”

§ 2. “However, we may not see in this uniform agreement a proof of its correctness. When we ask these people to substantiate their belief, and when we compare this with the insights and experiences on which a small group base their opposite opinion, we find that the small number have weighty evidence whereas the others appeal to appearance and to observations which prove nothing.”

§ 3. “That is why the Bible clearly has to speak of a non-moving earth and moving sun. Otherwise the people, with their limited imagination, would easily be brought into confusion, and would not be ready to accept those (religious) truths which are far more important as direct object of faith.”

§ 4. “I will also add this: not only people's limited understanding, but the general world view of those times is the reason why the sacred Scriptures, with regard to everything that is not really necessary for salvation, have more regard for the local ways of expression than the factual situation.”

§ 5. “Someone might say: ‘A statement in Scripture which concerns natural things become as certain as statement of doctrine, through the agreement with which the Fathers have understood it’.”

§ 6. “In my opinion this could at most hold true only for such thins in which the Fathers have undertaken the most careful study and research, in which they have weighed the pros and the cons for both opinions, and in which they then all decided that the one opinion should be followed, the other rejected. The movement of the earth and the non-movement of the sun does not belong to this category.”

§ 7. “The ancient Fathers have obviously not undertaken such special investigations, but they could have initiated them through the scholars of those times. Only after checking the experiences, observations, reasons and argumentations which philosophers and astronomers presented for the one or the other opinion, could the Fathers with adequate certainty have determined what divine revelation was telling them.”

§ 8. “People who subject themselves to the Church, but request to be allowed to present evidence instead of seeing their opinion condemned, are far more concerned about the honour of the holy Churdch than those people who, in self-denying blindness or with malicious intent, demand that the Church swing her sword without ado since it has a right to it -- forgetting that it is not always judicious to do everything that lies in one's power.”

§ 9. “Such people should first take the trouble to refute the reasons presented by Copernicus and others, and then leave it to the responsible authorities to condemn the opinion as erroneous or heretical. But, in their passion and selfishness, they have to give up the hope to receive rash decisions from the circumspect and wise Fathers and the wisdom of those who cannot err.”

§ 10. “As long as the truth of a statement is still considered possible, its condemnation as heresy is impossible. The attempts of those who want to condemn the doctrine of the moving earth and unmoving sun will be in vain until they have proeduced the proof for the impossibility and falsehood of that doctrine.”

Galileo Galilei, in a letter to Duchess Christina of Lotheringia, 1615; Briefe zur Weltgeschichte, ed. Karl Heinrich Peter, Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag 1964, pp. 80-82; translated and provided with paragraph numbers by John Wijngaards.

Return to Summary of Bellarmine’s teaching?

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