Galileo and the Church

Michael Pavón Moya

Science communicator-Writer

Professional nurse, scientific communicator, and a young writer with a passion for subjects such as ancient astronomy.

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When Galileo Galilei exposed his first observations made through a telescope, it caused such a commotion that it shook the foundations of the Church, the only scientific authority to deal with these issues.

“The earth revolves around the sun and not the other way around”. This phrase is not impressive for the present generations, but for those who lived in the 17th century it was a true revolution. When Galileo Galilei exposed it, based on the first observations made through a telescope, it caused such a commotion that it shook the foundations of the Church, the only scientific authority to deal with these issues. With these observations, the Italian astronomer strengthened the heliocentric theory, proposed by Nicolas Copernicus, which contradicted the geocentric model proposed by Aristotle and spread by the Church, generating suspicions that did not please the hierarchs of the time.

In 1609, Galileo heard the rumor of an invention that made distant objects look close, which interested him, and he quickly made a personal prototype of such an invention, by pointing to the sky, marked the beginning of modern astronomy. Years later the philologist Demisani would name the tool that Galileo used as: “Telescope”. [1].

Galileo’s first discovery was the observation of the surface of the moon, where he noticed inconsistencies in the lunar soil. This was contrary to what Aristotle thought, who stated that the heavens are perfect, and in particular, that the moon is a smooth and immutable sphere. Galilei showed some drawings of his observations. in his book Sidereus Nuncius in 1609.

The moon as shown by Galileo in 1609

He also discovered that the number of stars visible with the telescope doubled, and did not increase in size, which was the case with the planets, the sun, and the moon. This inability to increase size was a test of Copernicus’ hypothesis about the existence of a huge gap between Saturn and the fixed stars. On the other hand, he discovered the phases and size variation of Venus, which were only possible if Venus revolved around the sun and not around the earth.

However, the most important discovery was the moons of Jupiter; Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto, which he called “Medicean Stars” in honor of Count Cosimo Medici. Galileo observed them during several nights, from January 7 to March 13, 1610.

The Italian astronomer immediately recorded his discovery in the book Sideral Messenger for fear that someone else would point his telescope at the gas giant and take credit for the find [2]. Galileo wrote open letters in which he argued that the interpretation of the Bible should be adapted to the new times and in the same way, no scientific position could become articles of faith, all this due to the discoveries he made with his telescope, which contradicted the Aristotelian theories adopted and converted into dogmas by the Catholic Church. One of these letters was written in 1613 for his disciple Benedetto Castelli, in which he set out his own vision of the Bible and science and interpreted a biblical passage of Joshua, which says: “And the sun stopped and the moon stood still” claiming that the sacred scriptures proved the heliocentric model right by having a static sun. Benedetto immediately spread the letter and the news would quickly reach Galileo’s enemies. Father Niccolo Lorini gave a lecture in 1614 in which he strongly criticized Galilei’s thought for being contrary to the sacred scriptures and enemies of the Catholic Church. [3]

In 1616, Pope Paul V ordered Robert Bellarmine, the same cardinal who had executed Jordan Bruno, to give a personal and private warning to Galileo to desist from supporting Copernicus’ ideas, otherwise he would suffer the consequences. Faced with such a situation, Galileo accepted and the Cardinal notified the Holy Office that the mathematician had retracted the opinions he had defended [4].

A friend of Galileo would be elected pope in 1623, with fame of intellectual, Urban VIII became the supreme pontiff, and with this Galilei observed the possibility of retaking his heliocentric ideas, got a permission of the Vatican to write his masterpiece “the Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo, Ptolemaic and Copernican”. It was published in 1632 and was immediately confiscated because the clergy considered that Galileo was mocking in an implicit way the teaching of the church, they affirmed that the book defended the vision of Copernicus towards a universe where the sun was the center and not the earth. [5]

Galieo facing the church

Galileo was called to appear the holy office on four occasions, where he was subjected to constant interrogations, on the third occasion he asked for clemency, exhausted by the mistreatment to which he was subjected, and finally in 1633 he was sentenced to formal prison, on suspicion of heresy. His books were banned and he was given some penances. Finally, Galileo would die in abandonment at the age of 77. His remains lie in the church of Santa Croce in Florence [5].

Galileo Galilei, the father of modern science and one of the first scientific martyrs had thought in his youth to become a priest and led his daughter Maria Celeste to the novitiate; so we can say that he was a devotee of the same Church that condemned him. Later, in 1992, Pope John Paul II ended the case of Galileo, stating that this misunderstanding belongs to the past. 

To know more:

[1] José E. (2009). Galileo 400 años de observación con telescopio.

[2] [3] Carlos Q. (2012). Galileo Galilei: Descubrimientos y logros. Santiago: Revismar.

[4] Beltrán M. (2005) El caso Galileo sin final previsible. Barcelona: Universidad de Barcelona

[5] Serna M. et al (2010) Galileo Galilei. Revista digital Lampsakos.

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