Galileo Faced Science Deniers in the Catholic Church

In 1633, Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei was the Stephen Hawking of his day – both famous & respected. Nonetheless, he was ordered by the Pope to stand trial before the Italian Inquisition, the most feared and notorious court in all of Europe. His crime – Galileo’s Science, daring to state the sun, not the earth, was at the center of the universe – was pure heresy!

​The Inquisition had been rooting out what it considered sacrilege and witchcraft since the Dark Ages. Throw into this irrational mess Galileo’s evidence disproving long held Church teachings and you had the recipe for a life-threatening stand.

The Catholic Church had in essence become the first Science Deniers.

This was actually the 2nd time Galileo was called before the Inquisition. In 1616, he’d been forbidden from teaching his “heliocentric” beliefs and Galileo agreed at the time to stop.  It’s worth mentioning that the astronomer was actually a deeply religious man who supported the ideals of Christianity.

Amongst his many discoveries was not only did the planet Jupiter have 4 moons, but those heavenly bodies orbited around the planet! He discovered that Venus, like the Earth’s moon, had phases, meaning it too orbited the sun. He published his findings in The Starry Messenger and it became an instant best seller. Unfortunately, this also supported the church-banned heliocentric theories of the late astronomer Copernicus.

You see, Galileo was free to write about anything he wanted, even heliocentricism, as long as he wrote it as a personal hypothesis and did NOT try to pass it off as scientific fact. As a born scientist and stubborn intellectual however, Galileo simply could not abide by such laws.

He convinced his old friend Pope Urban VIII to let him write a book that showed both sides. His book, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, had a fictional argument between two characters who held either view of where the earth and sun stood in the universe. Galileo however made the dim-witted geocentric character to be the clear loser of the debate.

A furious Pope Urban ordered Galileo to appear before the Inquisition in Rome on charges of heresy.

Galileo was no fool and knew the danger he was in; men had been tortured and burned at the stake for lesser crimes. The astronomer however still believed that TRUTH and LOGIC would win in the end, even with the single-minded, religious fanatics in the Inquisition. Alas, how wrong he was.

On the opening day of his trial, he stood before his accuser, the Grand Inquisitor Father Vincenzo Maculano da Firenzuola. Church officials interpreted his Dialogue as a clear violation of his 1616 Agreement.  Galileo disagreed vehemently, but his position hardly mattered.  Heliocentricism flew in the face of centuries of Catholic Church teaching. The court used numerous scripture passages from the Bible’s Old Testament to defend their geocentric views. The Grand inquisitor claimed that his revolutionary telescope was nothing more than a magician’s trick.

Found guilty of heresy, Galileo was condemned to imprisonment rather than death.

He was given an opportunity to recant however, and not spend the rest of his life in a cold, dark dungeon cell. At the time, Galileo was already 70 years old and in poor health.  At his daughter’s urging, he agreed to recant. Wearing the robes of a penitent, he told the Inquisition that he “cursed any heresies which he may have espoused in the past.”

Galileo hoped his old friend Pope Urban would help him, and in the end, he did. Galileo was placed under house arrest rather than prison. Having avoided burning at the stake, one could say he got off with a mere slap on the wrist. He was forced to retire to his estate in Florence, a defeated and dejected man. Although in his own house, he could neither write, teach nor travel without the Church’s permission.  There he remained till his death.

The Catholic Church finally lifted the ban on Galileo’s works over a century later in 1758. In 1992, Pope John Paul II admitted that Galileo Galilei was wrongly charged and regretted the astronomer’s treatment by the church. Perhaps as a posthumous consolation, NASA named a Jupiter probe in his honor and the sturdy satellite thoroughly explored his famous four moons in 1995.

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