You are known to history as a famous inventor, physicist, engineer and—most of all—as an astronomer. As I am none of these, it would be beyond my capacities to comment on such matters. But since you are known to everyone as the man who declared as scientific fact that the sun is at the center of the universe and that the Earth revolves around the sun, and not the other way around, you were given great grief, not only by your foes but also by your friends.
And yet, you held fast to that belief, at great cost to yourself and your reputation. It has been said that even when you were confined to your room, you had a simple declaration put above the door: “And yet it moves.” It was your silent, defiant protest.
Today, Feb. 26, is a day of historical significance and personal travail for you; it is a day I am sure you would rather not remember—but history does. It was the day when an injunction was issued against you for the scientific views you professed as being contrary to the faith and the teaching of the Catholic Church. I am sure you would rather be remembered for a host of other things that you accomplished in your lifetime of 77 years.
So this is why I am writing this letter to you, to ruminate about what it must have been like for you—or for anyone who undergoes such tribulations: an honest man assailed for his work and beliefs, done in sincerity and faith. Though I am writing this letter from the vantage point of the 21st century to you as one who lived in the 1600s, matters such as these know no time or space. As a matter of fact, as I write this, the church has declared this year to be a Jubilee Year of Mercy, a year in which we extend mercy, forgiveness and understanding to one another.
It is appropriate, too, that I write this during Lent, also a time for mercy, forgiveness and understanding. And it is appropriate, in third sense, that of the seven spiritual works of mercy, two are apropos to your situation: “to bear wrongs patiently” and “to comfort the sorrowful.” You had to perform the former; and by this letter, I hope to perform the latter.
There is no doubt that it caused you great pain to be held up as one akin to a heretic by the church you believed in. Yes, it will be noted that as a human being you were a sinner (you had two daughters out of wedlock and you made them become cloistered nuns) and that you were not perfect—but still, you were a believer and counted clergy among your friends, especially the Jesuit bishop, Cardinal Robert Bellarmine. To have your faith and your competence questioned in such a way must have been your own personal via dolorosa.
Again, as I have said, I do not have the competencies to discuss the particulars of your work and discoveries other than the fact of what I do know: You were held up for contempt for stating a basic scientific fact, which unfortunately, other people, high and low, refused to accept. Your belief was transparent: “In questions of science, the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual.” No matter how hard you tried, you could not convince the rich or the powerful of the secular world of your findings.
And to make it more unpalatable and unbearable, you, a man of faith who treasured the intellect God gave you, could not appeal to minds of those who were the caretakers of that faith, the church hierarchy. For them, all you could say was this: “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” And for good measure: “The Bible shows the way to heaven, not the way the heavens go.”
Galileo, you believed that “the sun, with all those planets revolving around it and dependent on it, can still ripen a bunch of grapes as if it had nothing else in the universe to do,” and it vexed you that “they would constrain science by the authority of the Scriptures, and yet do not consider themselves bound to answer reason and experiment.” You believed that the learned councils of the Inquisition had it wrong—backwards actually: “It is surely harmful to souls to make it a heresy to believe what is proved.” But it was to no avail. On Friday, Feb. 26, 1616, the “special injunction” was issued against you and your reputation.
In time—over the centuries—your reputation was slowly revived: Your works were republished and your theories given more serious attention and appreciation. Even “Holy Mother Church” came around. In 1939, shortly after his election to the papacy, Pius XII declared that you were among the “most audacious heroes of research, not afraid of the stumbling blocks and the risks on the way, nor fearful of the funereal monuments.” And in 1992, Pope John Paul II expressed regret for how you and the whole matter of your trial was handled.
Modern scientists, like Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein have lauded you; and a spacecraft named after you has entered the orbit of the planet Jupiter. (And if you were here today, Galileo, you would surely approve of the current pontiff, Francis, who in his encyclical letter, “Laudato Si’,” expressed concerns for human beings and the environment they live in. You, of all people, wouldn’t look askance at a pope who embraces science!)
So, dear Galileo, you have been “rehabbed.” I can imagine you crabbily remarking across the centuries that it is all small comfort. You cannot be blamed for feeling like that; you have every right to such feelings. Though it took an awfully long time, your reputation was given back to you, and in this Year of Mercy, I hope you can find relief in that. You, who looked like an Old Testament prophet, bore your tribulations with patience, faith, hope and a lot of fortitude. That might not have been one of your discoveries, but it is certainly one of your lessons that, scientists or not, we can all learn from.