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Catholic Dictionary




The celebrated case of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), Italian physicist and astronomer, whose conflict with ecclesiastical authorities has become part of world history. In 1616 he was brought before the Inquisition on the charge of ignoring the implications of the Copernican(heliocentric) theory, which seemed to contradict the biblical story of the stopping of the sun in the Book of Joshua. Significantly, the Polish astronomer Copernicus in the previous century had dedicated to Pope Paul III in 1543 his published theory that the sun ins the center of a great system and that the earth is a planet revolving about it. In obedience to the ruling of the Inquisition, Galileo promised not to teach Copernicus' theory as anything as a hypothesis, as in fact the proofs for the theory (on modern scientific principles) were not conclusive. In 1632, Galileo was again asked to come to Rome, this time for alleged breach of contract, since he had meantime published a satirical work, Dialogue, bitterly attacking his opponents. He was detained for twenty-two days in the buildings of the Holy Office, and he promised not to urge the Copernican system as a proved fact. Before he died in Florence in 1642, he received the special blessing of Pope Urban VIII. No question of papal infallibility was involved. In Galileo's case the Church defined nothing and uttered no doctrine. It made a disciplinary prohibition to protect the faithful from the disturbing effect of a then unproved hypothesis. St. Robert Bellarmine, who was involved in the Galileo affair, wrote that if a real proof were found that the sun was fixed and did not revolve around the earth, "it would be necessary to acknowledge that the passages in Scripture which appear to contradict this fact have been misunderstood." Recent scholarship has shown that the document that led to Galileo's trial in Rome (1633) was a forgery. It had been planted in the Roman Curia by an unscrupulous official. It falsely charged Galileo with having been enjoined seventeen years before from teaching the Copernican system. Galileo's famous trial, therefore, was based on this "document," which he had never before seen. In 1979, Pope John Paul II called for the formal exoneration of Galileo.