400 years after his condemnation, a letter to Galileo

Galileo Galilei, February 15, 1564-January 8, 1642: "When the senses fail us, reason must step in."

Dear Galileo,

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.

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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.

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J Cosgrove
2 years 5 months ago
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.
Not true on a couple accounts. Galileo was not the first one to show the earth revolved around the sun. Copernicus preceded him by around 50 years and so did Kepler. There were others who also speculated about heliocentricity. Even Galileo and Copernicus did not prove anything. So there is no way it was a scientific fact. It wasn't till 200 years later that scientists solved the wind and parallax problem and could say that heliocentrism was a fact. The idea for his thesis came from Pope Urban who also later had to approve the trial of Galileo. Galileo did not go to trial because of his ideas on science but because he mocked Urban under the seal of the man who was trying to depose Urban. It had to do with the 30 year War (1618-1648) and Galileo's trial was right in the middle of it. So Galileo essentially was tried for supporting an effort to depose the pope. He was sentenced to the comfy chair (house arrest) and was allowed to continue writing.
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.
Not true. He was treated mildly. In England he would have lost his head. He did not do it in sincerity. He mocked the pope who was his friend and mentor. He was an arrogant man who thought he knew better but could not prove his assertions.
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. … To have your faith and your competence questioned in such a way must have been your own personal via dolorosa.
He was tried for political purposes not his science which was approved by the Pope. Galileo was arrogant who thought he knew better even though he could not prove his premises. If he hadn't been an impatient inconsiderate know it all, he would have never came to trial. His original thesis was nonsense and Urban suggested he change it. He wanted to use the fact that the world had tides as proof that the earth moved. He was talked out of it by Urban.
You were held up for contempt for stating a basic scientific fact, which unfortunately, other people, high and low, refused to accept.
Nonsense. First, it was not a fact then as it took 0ver 200 years to verify it and second even the pope accepted it as probably true. This OP is so full of nonsense that it should be recalled.
L J
2 years 5 months ago
Your comments are true about the science the author claims belonging to Galileo. Galileo did not prove the Sun as being the center but rather Copernicus. Kepler also preceded Galileo as you stated. Galileo stood with a telescope and looked up at the night sky to observe what we all observe today. Yet again, it was not Galileo who invented the telescope. The Dutch did Interestingly enough, Galileo blamed all of his problems on the Jesuits. It seems Galileo had a personality disorder, thinking perhaps he was the center of the universe. http://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007%2F978-94-009-2997-5_4 For the record, there is no center of the universe. Thus heliocentrism is an oxymoron. Einstein mentioned this years ago and I believe most of us know we are not "it". We are not the center of the universe. Just dont tell Donald Trump that
J Cosgrove
2 years 5 months ago
This has nothing to do with Galileo but with the concept of the Earth as special. There is a documentary video that is an hour and 20 minutes long and is fascinating called the Privileged Planet. It used to cost about $15 but now is free on youtube. We are actually quite privileged and positioned quite propitiously in the solar system and in the galaxy. None of which the geocentric or heliocentric proponents knew about. http://bit.ly/1OE46U1 Earth may be unique in the universe but not the center of it. As you said there is no center.
William Rydberg
2 years 5 months ago
I don't know what the full back-story was in the Galileo case, but growing up in the Anglosphere, Dominated by Protestant England, I never heard much good about Galileo's opponents, at one time I was told that Galileo was even responsible for directly disproving that the Papacy was wrong about the Earth being flat. Which is really odd in retrospect, since Christopher Columbus had found the "New World" a few generations before. Suffice to say that I am satisfied at the Statement around St John Paul's explanation of the sad Galileo Affair wherein it was stated that Pope Urban at the time got wrong advice from his Theologan Advisors. I am OK with that... Another case of a Pope getting wrong advice in my opinion occurred December 10th, 2015 and is contained in a Release by the Swiss-German Cardinal Koch. Sadly, I fear that the document will be subject to another sad Galileo "walk back" by a future Pope in a 100 years or so in my opinion... in Christ, Have a good Lent...
J Cosgrove
2 years 5 months ago
If you want to understand what the Galileo affair was really about, there are two good sources but I am not sure how easy they are for those outside the US. Both are by the Teaching Company or The Great Courses. One of their courses is entitled Science and Religion and in it are two lectures on Galileo. The good guy is Urban VIII (Maffeo Barberini) and the bad guy is Galileo. In early 1624 just after Urban was elected pope, Galileo went to Rome and met with the pope who was his good friend; he was warmly received. He had just recently published Il Saggiatore, dedicating it to the new pope. They discussed the Earth’s motion, and the pope said that Galileo could write about it, provided that he included one particular epistemological argument. This argument was Urban VIII’s contention that because God is omnipotent, the determination of ultimate causes can never be absolutely certain; that is, a given phenomenon could have various causes. In 1630 after spending the intervening years writing his book, Galileo went to Rome to print the book; he received approval from Niccolò Riccardi, Vatican secretary and chief censor and got approval. Problems (death, plague, and delays) intervened, and Galileo moved to publish the work in Florence. The secretary sent a list of alterations and transferred authority to publish to Florence. The book was finally published in 1632. Galileo put the pope’s argument only on the last page of the book and into the mouth of a fool. At that time the Duke of Tuscany was trying to depose Urban because Urban would not support the Hapsburg's in the 30 Year War. We are told that the 30 Year War was a war of religion but on one side were the Catholic Hapsburg's and on the other side was Catholic France supporting the German Protestant states and the Scandinavians. Urban had been the Vatican ambassador to France and did not want to favor one Catholic country over another and was trying to broker a peace. The Duke of Tuscany was working to depose Urban to get a more friendly pope to endorse their side in the war. Along comes Galileo who publishes his treatise under the seal of the Duke of Tuscany and in it makes the pope appear as a simpleton. Hence Urban's supposed cry of "Deception." Galileo had betrayed his close friend and spiritual adviser and the one who suggest the content of his treatise. Galileo was lucky to get off with house arrest and Urban's nephew, a member of the Inquisition and second most powerful man in Rome, failed to sign the declaration that sentenced Galileo to this minor punishment. Galileo went on to write while in exile but was not allowed to publish. We celebrate Galileo's science today and we should but he had a lot of erroneous views on the world and his ideas could not solve major issues of the day. He is truly the father of modern physics and Newton stood on Galileo's shoulders. But he was an arrogant man who did not suffer fools and could alienate people very quickly. One has to ask why he betrayed Urban who was his good friend, mentor and spiritual adviser. Just imagine if this had been Henry VIII. How long would Galileo have kept his head. It is not Galileo who we should be rehabbing but Urban who was the real hero at the time.
Patrick Murtha
2 years 4 months ago
It is an odd thing, Mr. McAuley, that you are asking for mercy for Galileo. If he has committed no crime, how can mercy be granted him? If a man does not speed, is it mercy that frees him from a false fine? If a man has not murdered, is it mercy that grants his escape from an electric chair? I would say that what allows an innocent man to escape a fine or a death is nothing but justice. If Galileo has no crime to confess, why do you ask for mercy when you ought to be asking for justice? But the problem is in a certain cloudiness of meaning: "mercy" is mumbled about with the same thoughtlessness that "tolerance" is tossed around. A man might be tolerant as a man might be merciful; not to a good-doer or for a good done, but to an evil-doer or for an evil done. So based on your letter, I will have to assume that Galileo is guilty and, by a certain repentance or realization, is worthy of mercy. And since mercy and justice are inseparable, when you judge those who judged Galileo, don't forget mercy when you ask for justice.

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