You are here

A Commentary to the Contemporary Attitude of Church’s Magisterium toward the Galileo Affair


Galileo. Decisive Innovator, 1994

The Second Vatican Council

The Second Vatican Council, a formal gathering of the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church, met for about two months each autumn of the years 1962 to 1965. One of the most important documents it produced was the pastoral constitution on The Church in the World of Today. Since the principal concern of that document was to address all people of goodwill in a spirit of dialogue and cooperation, it was essential that it should say something about the relation of faith to science, especially since in common perception, and even in actual fact, the Catholic Church(or at least many of its members) still seemed suspicious or grudging in its attitude to the achievements of scientists. A Church which was convinced that there is no endemic warfare between religion and science could afford to implement that conviction in a more appreciative recognition of the proper autonomy of the sciences and of human intellectual and artistic pursuits in general.

In this context it was to be expected that the Galileo case would receive some attention. In fact, several bishops referred to it in speeches or written proposals. Most of them saw it as a warning to the Church not to trespass beyond its remit, though it is interesting to notice that two bishop thought that too much fuss was being made of the Galileo affair. One of the most striking interventions both on the lingering ecclesiastical suspicion of secular culture and on the Galileo case itself came from Bishop Elchinger, coadjutor of Strasbourg, in a speech to the Council on 4 November 1964.

Many people, he said still took the Galileo case as typifying the various shortcoming of the Church in its appraisal of human culture. It was not just a matter of past history: “In this, the fourth centenary of the birth of this worthy man, many scientists throughout the world are celebrating his memory, but right up to today no reparation has been made for that wretched, unjust condemnation. In the world of today acts are more important than words. The rehabilitation of Galileo carried out by the Church, humbly and properly, would be an eloquent action [1].”

Elchinger did not succeed in securing the rehabilitation he requested, perhaps because it was not the kind of work which could be adequately undertaken in the time available by the hard-pressed editors of the document. But he, and those bishops who made similar interventions, were rewarded by a discreet reference in a footnote to a biography of Galileo. This ‘clear allusion,’ as it was officially described in the report to the bishops in Council, made it plain that Galileo was a victim of what the text of the document referred to, namely certain deplorable attitudes, sometimes found even among Christians, which derive from insufficient regard for the legitimate autonomy of science. The consequent conflicts and controversies have led a good number of people to think that faith and science are opposed to each other [2].

A Speech Einstein’s Centenary

Pope John Paul took up the Galileo case again in a speech he delivered in French on 10 November 1979, on the occasion of the centenary of Einstein’s birth. His audience was the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (which, as the Pope noted in passing, counts itself as a successor of the Lyncean Academy), and the College of Cardinals. His general theme was how the Church admires and welcomes the achievements of scientists. I shall pass over his tribute to Einstein and pick out only what he said about Galileo: his greatness, like Einstein’s, is known to all.

But we cannot hide the fact, says the Pope, that Galileo had to suffer much from ecclesiastical men and institutions. He then quotes the passage from the Council which alluded so clearly to Galileo as a victim of deplorable attitudes. Then comes perhaps the most important passage: “To move beyond this position taken up by the Council, I should like theologians, scientists (savants) and historians, inspired by a spirit of sincere collaboration, to go further into the Galileo case, and by impartial recognition of mistakes from whatever source, to remove from many minds the blockage which that affair still puts in the way of a fruitful concord between science and faith, Church and world. I give full support to this task, which will allow the truth of faith and of science to be respected and will open the door to further work together.”

We shall see in a moment the practical support which the Pope had in mind, but first it is worth noticing some further remarks which he made. Galileo, he says, who is rightly called the founder of modern physics, declared explicitly that the truths of faith and science cannot contradict each other. In developing this point the Second Vatican Council uses expressions similar to Galileo’s in his Letter to Castelli. The Pope recalls Galileo’s genuine piety expressed in his Sidereal Message and acknowledges that, in his letter to the Grand Duchess, Galileo formulated important epistemological norms which are indispensable in reconciling scripture and science.

The Pope recognizes that not all questions arising from the Galileo case are solved by an acceptance of the general principles he indicates in his speech. But the principles (clearly laid down in the Second Vatican Council) concerning the legitimate autonomy of science and religion do help to provide a favorable starting-point for an honest and impartial dismantling of old oppositions. This whole speech was, if not technically a rehabilitation of Galileo, certainly a generous acknowledgement not only of the irreplaceable contribution of the sciences to any fully human flourishing, but also a tribute to Galileo’s own courageous attempt to integrate the resources of both science and faith [3].

The Dialogue Revisited

The practical follow-up to the Einstein centenary speech was the establishment on 3 July 1981 of an interdisciplinary Pontifical Commission to investigate the Galileo case further. During the following ten years members of the Commission produced a series of impressive publications on various aspects of the context and the implications of the Galileo affair. While it was at work the Pope more than once emphasized the importance of cooperation between scientists and theologians for the benefit of humankind. He also used the occasion of a symposium, held to mark the three hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the publication of the Dialogue, to reiterate his support for the work of the Commission. His audience on 9 May 1983 was composed of scientists from many countries, the Cardinals resident in Rome, and other Church dignitaries [4].

From the Galileo affair the Church has learned ‘a more accurate understanding of its own authority.’ At the Second Vatican Council the Church expressed its support for the freedom of research, confident that there can be no contradiction between science and faith. They are, says the Pope, distinct, autonomous orders of knowledge, which finally converge on the discovery of that integral reality which has its origin in God. “So it becomes clearer that divine revelation, of which the Church is the guarantor and witness, does not of itself imply any scientific theory of the universe, and the assistance of the Holy Spirit in no way goes surety for the explanations of the physical constitution of reality which we may wish to maintain.”

Although the Pope does not say so, that statement is certainly much closer to Galileo’s views on scripture than to Bellarmine’s (let’ alone Caccini’s). But the Pope reasonably points out that we should not be surprised if such a complex matter caused the Church great difficulty, and he explicitly reminds his audience that some, notably Bellarmine, did wish to avoid useless tensions and harmful rigidities in the relations of science and religion. Here the Pope is quoting from a speech  he made to Bellarmine’s own Gregorian University on 15 December 1979. The rest of the speech leaves no doubt that the Pope’s interest in the Galileo case is just one important part of a comprehensive attempt to bring the two cultures of science and religion into useful cooperation based on mutual respect [5].

The Commission’s Conclusions

On 31 October 1992 Cardinal Paul Poupard presented the Pontifical Commission’s conclusions in summary form to the Pope in the Sala Regia of the Apostolic Palace. The Cardinal first explained that it was not a question of conducting a retrial. He did not elaborate on this point but it may be suggested that a retrial is a very dubious notion. Unless it could be shown that the procedures in force at the time were not carried out properly, what would it mean to say that the condemnation of Galileo was somehow void? That Church officials should have known better? That the legal procedures in the Church at that time gave inadequate protection to the accused? Or that we now see that Galileo was more in the right than his accusers? It is quite possible that if a genuine retrial were staged (supposing there could be such a thing), it would lead to a similar result, though possibly with a lighter sentence, or perhaps nothing worse than a ‘correction’ of the text of the Dialogue. (This brings out the artificiality of a retrial after three and half centuries.) Could anything that counted as a retrial of Galileo get round the fact that the official intervention of 1616 could not be ignored and that Galileo’s Dialogue would need extremely benign interpretation if it were to be seen as compatible with that intervention? Could there be a ‘retrial’ of the intervention of 1616, which is where it all went wrong, when that intervention could not be called a trial in any clear sense? (It is unfortunate that the Cardinal refers once to ‘the two trials’. ) The whole notion of a retrial is suspect, if it amounts to anything more than a decent wish that the whole episode had never happened or at least not been so needlessly humiliating to a great man. The Commission was surely right in its judgment that interdisciplinary work offered a much more straightforward way of assessing the rights and wrongs of the affair. Their brief, as Cardinal Poupard says, was to answer the questions: What happened? How did it happen? Why did it happen?

The Cardinal first expounds Bellarmine’s insistence that real proof of Copernicanism should be brought before there could be any thought of reinterpreting scripture. Galileo could not produce irrefutable proofs, but neither could his adversaries, then o later, discover a convincing refutation of Copernicanism. The summary of Bellarmine’s position, as presented in the Osservatore Romano, includes a sentence which could mislead a reader: “according to Robert Bellarmine, as long as there was no proof that the earth orbited round the sun, it was necessary to interpret with great circumspection the biblical passages declaring the earth to be immobile [6].”

It is true that Bellarmine, who correctly thought that Copernicanism was unproven, advised Galileo and Foscarini to be cautious. It is also true that he said that the reinterpretation of scripture should not be ruled out hastily. All this was known to Galileo. But not only did Bellarmine move very smartly to execute the (not very circumspect) orders of Paul V.  He used the phrase ‘ with great circumspection’ to describe how the Church should proceed if a conclusive proof were produced. In his next sentence Cardinal Poupard correctly describes Bellarmine’s allowing that if there were a proof of Copernicanism, then theologians would have to review their interpretation of biblical passages whose meaning was in dispute. Only if such a proof were produced would Bellarmine consider reinterpretation; it is in those circumstances (even in those circumstances) that ‘great circumspection’ would be called for.  This part of the summary would have been a clearer reflection of the scholarly standards of the Commission’s publications if it had stayed closer to Bellarmine’s words throughout (they are correctly quoted in the original Italian in a footnote.) It remains true, of course, that as long as there was no proof of Copernicanism, Bellarmine required circumspection and more from Galileo and Foscarini.

Cardinal Poupard then briefly relates how the general prohibition of Copernican books disappeared from the Index and how the last traces of official anti-Copernicanism were removed in 1822. The Cardinal merely describes this history. The Commission does not seem to have tackled thoroughly the question of why it had taken so long —at least until 1757— for the original mistake to be recognized. Even granted that what could count as conclusive optical and physical evidence of the falsity of geocentrism was not available until the detection of annual stellar parallax or the demonstration of Foucault’s pendulum (the Cardinal seems to allude to these), it is not explained why the Church officially allowed heliocentrism to be taught as true before such evidence was available (unless it is claimed that it was the detection of the aberration of  starlight which clinched the matter). Nor does the Cardinal’s report offer any helpful reflections on the position of theologians in the century after Galileo’s condemnation.

Given that the Inquisition and the Congregation of the Index had intervened in 1616 to rule that Copernicanism could be held only as a calculating device and given the implementation of that ruling in the condemnation of Galileo in 1633, where did that leave theologians? They knew that of course that the decisions taken were reformable; they also knew that technically the condemnation of Galileo was a purely personal matter, but in practice it was implemented as a warning to all Catholics. On any reading of the history it took a long time for any official relaxation of the ban on heliocentrism to be quietly lifted- much more quietly than it had been imposed. If there is a legitimate autonomy for science, should there not also  have been a legitimate autonomy for theology, at least enough to allow theologians, as part of their professional task, to help to correct as soon as possible what later had to be admitted on all hands to have been a mistake? Why did one have to be something of a maverick in the profession to argue openly, during the century after Galileo’s condemnation, that the Church ought to acknowledge its mistakes? Did theologians just have to accept that they were under an authority which was swift to anger and slow to relent? Can mistakes be corrected only when they no longer matter to anyone, when they have the status of fossils? There seems to me to be some further unfinished business arising out of the Galileo case that could be usefully addressed.

The Commission concludes that all those involved in the trial, without exception, have a right to the benefit of good faith, in the absence of extra-procedural documents to the contrary. Astronomy was in transition and scripture scholars were confused about cosmology, so the official scientific and theological assessment of Copernicanism was mistaken (this presumably refers of 1616). Certain theologians failed to grasp the profound, non- literal meaning of the scriptures when they describe the physical structure of the created universe. This led them unduly to transpose a question of factual observation into the realm of faith.

Again, this seems fair and welcome comment. The Commission does seem to have seen its remit as at least implying that certain issues need to be addressed if similar mistakes are not to recur. But whatever the Commission’s terms of reference were, the Galileo case naturally raises questions not just about the judicial procedures of that case, but also about whether anything could be learned to help in future difficulties. What the Commission (and the Pope himself; see below) say about ways of avoiding needless conflict in the future is clear and helpful. Nevertheless one cannot avoid questions about current procedures: would they be adequate if, despite the best efforts of many people, some such apparent conflict as faced Galileo and Bellarmine were to occur now? Naturally the procedures in the Catholic Church nowadays (as in civil law) are very different from those obtaining in Galileo’s time, when torture or even burning was a real threat. Even Bellarmine’s perceptiveness and courtesy cannot disguise the fact that the actual consultation on which the 1616 intervention was based was routine and casual. Advice was given by consultors who were not only mistaken theologically, but were not qualified to understand the scientific issues, so it is not surprising that Caccini and Lorini carried more weight than Galileo.

Now the successor to the Inquisition, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, does not have a merely negative role: part of its brief is positive; it is expected to make suggestions and proposals and to offer counsel. At the same time it is still entrusted with the difficult task of assisting the Pope in the delicate work of guarding orthodoxy, so it has to be ready to conduct investigations of writings it considers suspect. Even in such investigations, which are always liable to be the occasion of controversy, the Congregation tries to shape its exchanges with the author on the model of a critical dialogue rather than on the sort of high-handed judgment which, as Urban VIII told the Florentine Ambassador, was the way things were done by the Inquisition. (It is tempting to imagine how such a critical dialogue might have gone in 1633.) But the genuine intention to carry out any investigation in the spirit of dialogue does not lessen the need for adequate legal procedures to protect the rights of the person under investigation. The complaint is still made frequently by theologians and Church lawyers that the judicial procedures employed by the Congregation compare very poorly with those which have long been taken for granted by the citizens of many countries. Indeed, the Congregation itself seems to admit that its procedures are in need of improvement, so there is still work to be done [7]. It seems that the work of devising better procedures has been postponed for nearly a decade because the very small staff of the Congregation has been too overworked to attend to it. But one thing the Church is not short of is lawyers competent enough to draw up respectable procedures, so it is hard to see why there should be such delay. If this is new business, rather than something which the Commission on the Galileo affair might have been expected to comment on, perhaps there is a case for establishing another Pontifical Commission to tackle it.

The main conclusion of the Commission is printed in italics in the English translation of the Cardinal’s speech: “It is in that historical and cultural framework, far removed from our own times, that Galileo’s judges, incapable of dissociating faith from an age-old cosmology, believed, quite wrongly, that the adoption of the Copernican revolution, in face not yet definitely proven, was such as to undermine Catholic tradition and that it was their duty to forbid its being taught. This subjective error of judgement, so clear to us today, led them to a disciplinary measure from which Galileo ‘had much to suffer’. These mistakes much be frankly recognized, as you, Holy Father, have requested.”

It is clear from the appended list of the Commission’s publications that the Cardinal could have given a much fuller presentation of the members’ work and conclusions. But on this occasion the important speech, though no doubt written at least in part by the Commission, had to come from the Pope and there would have been little point in having everything said twice or in putting all the interesting bits in the Cardinal’s summary presentation of the Commission’s findings.

Pope John Paul’s Speech

In his speech of reply to the members of the Pontifical Academy and other distinguished guests, the Pope thanked Cardinal Poupard and all who had taken part in the work of the Commission. He thanked them especially for their scholarly publications, which he valued  highly. In future it would be impossible to ignore the Commission’s conclusions. But why did he wish to return to the Galileo case? ‘Has not this case long been shelved and have not the errors committed been recognized?[8]’ True though that is, says the Pope, one cannot exclude the possibility that a similar situation could arise, one which would require both sides (science and faith) ‘to have an informed awareness of the field and of the limits of their own competencies.’

What about the debate which centred on Galileo? Well, continues the Pope, Galileo, like most of his adversaries, did not distinguish between the scientific approach to natural phenomena and the philosophical reflection usually called for by that approach. ‘That is why he rejected the suggestion made to him to present the Copernican system as a hypothesis, inasmuch as it had not been confirmed by irrefutable proof.’

What I have suggested in earlier chapters about Galileo’s over-confidence in the case for Copernicanism is less tidy than the kindly but summary explanation which that Pope gives in this passage. I would rather say that both Galileo and his adversaries habitually devoted time to reflection which we would count as philosophical, but they still remained at cross-purposes and neither party could solve all the philosophical issues involved in their dispute. I also think that even a very brief summary of the episode, if it is not to be misleading, has to touch on the ambiguity of the crucial word ‘hypothesis.’ One could certainly say that neither Galileo nor Bellarmine was completely successful in sorting out the status of hypotheses, but there were solid reasons why Galileo could not accept the advice offered him (by Bellarmine). Pope John Paul moves on to theologians: “The problem posed by theologians of that age was, therefore, that of the compatibility between heliocentrism and scripture. Thus the new science, with its methods and the freedom of research which they implied, obliged theologians to examine their own criteria of scriptural interpretation. Most of them did not know how to do so.”

That is crisp enough for anyone (though theologians could defend their predecessors by saying there wasn’t much room left for examining their criteria once the official ruling of 1616 had been made). The Pope caps this with a generous tribute to Galileo the theologian: “Paradoxically, Galileo, a sincere believer, showed himself to be more perceptive in this regard than the theologians who opposed him.”

On this particular occasion it would not have been appropriate for the Pope to mention the incidental shortcomings of Galileo’s Letter to the Grand Duchess. Instead, with justified magnanimity, he says it is like a short treatise on biblical hermeneutics. By implication we can see that Galileo did engage in the ‘epistemological reflection on the biblical sciences’ demanded by the Copernican upset, whereas theologians contemporary with him did not, or at least did not do so with any very helpful results, so that the ‘abundant fruit in modern exegetical works’ came only much later.

Naturally the Pope recognizes that the “pastoral judgement which that Copernican theory required was difficult to make, in so far as geocentrism seemed be a part of scriptural teaching itself… Let us say, in general way, that the pastor ought to show a genuine boldness, avoiding the double trap of a hesitant attitude and of hasty judgement, both of which can cause considerable harm.”

The Pope we may presumes, is well aware that such a generality is only a limited help, given that it was more or less the position which Bellarmine took, and conveyed to Galileo through Dini. Generalities of this kind undoubtedly have their uses, if only to remind us that anyone can be too hasty or too hesitant and that there is no recipe  for judiciousness that can be applied without hard intellectual work. To advocate ‘genuine boldness’ does nothing to identify what is the genuinely bold decision in particular circumstances, but it is a useful reminder that there is such a virtue, even if it is liable to be classed as hastiness by opponents. In this instance some bite is given to the generality when the Pope gives an example of a ‘hasty and unhappy decision.’ Referring to a new understanding of the Bible and the biblical world made possible by advances in the historical sciences at the end of the last century and the beginning of this, he says that certain people, in their concern to defend the faith, thought it necessary to reject firmly based historical conclusions. He also pays a tribute, which is handsome enough even in the lumpy English of the translation: “The work of a pioneer like Fr. Lagrange [a Dominican scripture scholar] was able to make the necessary discernment on the basis of dependable criteria.”

There is no mention of the face that the ‘certain people’ included the Pontifical Biblical Commission and Pius X. That  is the usual style of such documents. The frequent papal custom of quoting predecessors is considered inappropriate except to establish continuous development, which is why Paul V and Urban VIII are not mentioned in connection with Galileo. But the positive thrust of the speech is clear: “It is a duty for theologians to keep themselves regularly informed of scientific advances in order to examine, if such be necessary, whether or not there are reasons for taking them into account in their reflection or for introducing changes in their teaching.”

This point is reinforced by quotation (admittedly selective) from Bellarmine and Augustine: a reader could be left wondering how Bellarmine did not manage to get it right. It may be that the Pope is merely extending to Belliarmine the sort of benign interpretation he gave to Galileo’s Letter to the Grand Duchess.

One would not expect the Pope, or even the Commission to give a survey of the work of theologians, philosophers and scientists in the three and a half centuries since Galileo’s death. But the Pope’s mention  of ‘boldness’ is more than an empty generality. In this short sketch of Galileo’s life and works I have included a fair amount of material on the work of Jesuits contemporary with Galileo. The Society of Jesus is rightly credited with many achievements which only boldness could have secured, but at the time that mattered to Galileo their official policy in philosophy (including science) and theology was avowedly and deliberately cautious. I have tried to sketch that cautious policy sympathetically, since it is not harder to sympathize with a Grienberger, a Guldin or a Grassi. But it is harder to respect the decision to reinforce that policy in the eighteenth century. There much come a stage when unremitting caution brings greater damage to theology and philosophy than does the occasional bold sally, which may or not be successful . At all events, Pope John Paul does envisage that scientific advances may give theologians reasons for introducing changes in their teaching, so it cannot be excluded that such changes would help to reshape the official teaching of those in authority in the Church.

Pope John Paul next describes the way that since the Enlightenment the Galileo case has been made into a sort of ‘myth,’ the myth of dogmatic obscurantism opposed to the free search for truth. ‘A tragic mutual incomprehension has been interpreted as the reflection of a fundamental opposition between science and faith.’ This sad misunderstanding now belongs to the past. Galileo comes in for handsome praise as ‘a brilliant physicist,’ who ‘practically invented the experimental method.’ The Pope’s laconic remark that in fact the Bible does not concern itself with the details of the physical world is the voice of Galileo, of which the following passage is also an echo: “There exist two realms of knowledge, one which has its source in Revelation and one which reason can discover by its own power. To the latter belong especially the experimental sciences and philosophy. The distinction between the two realms of knowledge ought not to be understood as opposition. The two realms are not altogether foreign to each other; they have points of contact.”

The remainder of the speech is taken up with outlining how the Pontifical Academy promotes the advancement of knowledge, with respect for the legitimate freedom of science. “What is important in scientific or philosophic theory is above all that it should be true or, at least, seriously and solidly grounded. And the purpose of your Academy is precisely to discern and to make known, in the present state of science and within its proper limits, what can be regarded as an acquired truth or at least as enjoying such a degree of probability that it would be imprudent and unreasonable to reject it. In this way unnecessary conflicts can be avoided.”

After further wide-ranging reflections on the relations of science and faith the Pope leads into his concluding thanks with this: “[The] intelligibility, attested to by the marvellous discoveries of science and technology, leads us, in the last analysis, to that transcendent and primordial Thought imprinted on all things.”

This is an eloquent conclusion, which Galileo would have applauded, to the ‘eloquent action’ which Bishop Elchinger had asked for. The ‘rehabilitation’ is ungrudging in its acknowledgement of what Galileo suffered and what he achieved, both as a scientist and a theologian. However belated, it is a posthumous Roman triumph for the decisive innovator.

1. Acta Synodalia Sacrosancti Concilii Oecumenici Vaticani II,  volume III, pars VI, Vatican Polyglot Press, 1975, p. 268.

2. Acta Synodalia Sacrosancti Concilii Oecumenici Vaticani II, volume IV, pars I, 1976, p.544 (‘clear allusion’);  volumen IV, pars VII, 1978, pp.755 and 758 (text of document and footnote). Translation in Austin Flannery (ed.), Vatican Council II: the Conciliar and Post Consiliar Documents, Dominican Publications, Dublin, 1975, p. 975 (paragraph 36 of the document).

3. The French text of the Pope’ s speech is in Acta Apostolicae Sedis, 71 (1979), pp. 1461-8.

4. The French text of the Pope’s speech on 9 May 1983 is in Acta Apostolicae Sedis, 75 (1983), pp. 689-94.

5. The reference is to Acta Apostolicae Sedis, 71 (1979), p. 1541. Perhaps the clearest account of what the Pope has in mind is to be found in his message, published with the papers of a study week held at Castel Gandolfo in 1987 to celebrate the third centenary of the publication of Newton’s Principia.See Robert J. Russell, William R. Stoeger and George V.Coyne (eds), Physics, Philosophy, and Theology: A Common Quest for Understanding, University of Notre Dame Press - LEV 1988, separate pagination 1-14, after p. 14 of preface. See also the same editors’ John Paul II on Science and Religion: Reflections on the New View from Rome, University of Notre Dame Press - LEV 1990.

6. I have used the text printed in the English weekly edition of L’Ossarvatore Romano, 4 November 1992, p. 8.

7. See the Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian, published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. English text in L’Osservatore Romano (weekly edition in English), 2 July 1990, pp. 1-4, especially paragraph 37; the Latin original is Instructio de ecclesiali theologi vocatione in Acta Apostolicae Sedis 82 (1990), pp. 1550-70, especially 1567.

8. L’Osservatore Romano, 4 November 1992, p. 1.

M. Sharrat, Galileo. Decisive Innovator (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 2nd ed., pp. 211-222.