We all know the story. Galileo, the Italian astronomer, insisted that the planets revolved around the sun. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, insisted that the earth was in the center, and all else revolved around us. Galileo was smart, the church was ignorant (to put it nicely), and he was brought before the Inquisition. They convicted him of heresy and forced him to recant. But now we know better—even the Catholics have agreed that Galileo was correct. The conclusion? This all provides yet one more example that scientists are smarter than Christians.
Except… that story is just that—a story. It isn’t exactly true, and leaves out a lot of very important facts.
Yes, Galileo (1564 to 1642) was an astronomer and mathematician living in Pisa. Yes, his observations supported his theory that the earth and other planets revolve around the sun. And yes, he was brought before the Inquisition and convicted for his beliefs.
He also was a strong Roman Catholic, and had even considered studying for the priesthood before he became a scientist.
Galileo wasn’t the first to propose a heliocentric model of the solar system. Copernicus had already published his model in 1543, and he got the idea from Aristarchus of Samos, a Greek astronomer and mathematician who lived around 310 – 230 BC. Kepler published his work in 1609. So this was nothing new.
However, Galileo’s timing couldn’t have been worse. The prevailing view of the time, believed by the vast majority of the scientific community, held that the universe was geocentric, with the earth in the center, the sun, moon, and planets revolving around it, and the stars fixed in the firmament.
There was plenty of evidence to support this belief. It not only fit the facts as they were known, but there was a major problem with the alternative belief in heliocentrism. Where was the parallax shifts in the stars’ positions that you’d expect to see as the earth moved? At that time, astronomers had no concept of the vast distances of interstellar space, and they lacked the instrumentation required to observe the parallax shifts we now know exist.
Remember, also, that the Reformation was under way at this time, and the Church was feeling its effects. Any view that shook what the hierarchy considered foundational to its beliefs was highly suspect, and placing the sun at the center was seen to contradict Scripture In 1616, when Galileo was brought before the Roman Inquisition and warned against promoting heliocentrism, the action was part of a general purge of the theory by the church.
According to “The Galileo Controversy”:
At Galileo’s request, Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, a Jesuit—one of the most important Catholic theologians of the day—issued a certificate that, although it forbade Galileo to hold or defend the heliocentric theory, did not prevent him from conjecturing it.
Accordingly, in 1623 Pope Urban VIII gave Galileo permission to write a new book on the topic, with the constraint that he present arguments both for heliocentrism and geocentrism. The result was Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, published in 1632.
And it was here that Galileo let his frustration and temper get the best of him. One of the characters in Dialog was Simplicio, the foolish proponent of geocentrism—and Simplicio’s argument was the very one the pope had provided. In other words, Galileo used this character to mock the very person who could cause him the most grief! There is some question as to whether this insult was intentional, but the pope took it as such. At the same time, the book attacked one of the Jesuit astronomers, alienating the (previously supportive) Jesuits as well.
As a result, Galileo was brought before the Inquisition a second time, in 1633, and convicted of “a strong suspicion of heresy” (a lesser charge than actual heresy) . Still, the church treated him gently. He could have been tortured or even executed, but they instead simply confined him to a comfortable house arrest.
As usual, there is more than one side to the story.