David Walker

Dr Noel Roberts (July AD2000) perpetuates the myth of obscurantism on the Church's part in the Galileo affair.

Galileo was first accused of unorthodoxy following his response to two small works published by Sizzi and delle Colombe in 1611, in which they attacked Copernican doctrines as being contrary to Scripture.

Galileo was so violently moved that he immediately consulted his friend Cardinal Conti. Conti replied that the biblical texts at issue could be interpreted as Galileo suggested, namely as a popular way of speaking and not in their literal sense, but that it would be very difficult to get this interpretation accepted unless it were proved absolutely necessary: the necessity would have to be proved by the multiplication of scientific arguments.

Unhappily, Galileo declined to follow this advice and instead of confining himself to science, where he was on his own ground, resolved to set himself up as a biblical exegete.

The Inquisition initially decided it had no real occasion to worry about Galileo. But Galileo was not content with this negative reply to his accusers. He demanded a decision on the actual matter at issue. This was to put himself in a false position.

Most men of science still maintained at this time the Ptolemaic system, and no completely convincing proof had yet been found in favour of the system of Copernicus. As Dr Roberts admits, Galileo never succeeded in proving his contentions. Moreover, at a time when heresies concerning the Bible were rife, the claim that the Bible might and should be interpreted by the individual Christian according to the light given him could not but raise the spectre of Protestantism.

Galileo had entered a field outside his competence. In these circumstances there was no hope of getting the Inquisition to give a favourable decision: it was too deeply embroiled already in the struggle with dangerous innovations. Even so, it was only in 1632 that Galileo was again brought before the Inquisition and charged with having abused the good faith of the Church by breaking his promise not to promulgate his doctrines further.

In fact, having obtained an imprimatur by trickery, he had published his famous Dialogo, in which, while protesting his obedience, he ridiculed the authority of the Church. Despite that, Galileo was treated with the greatest indulgence. Contrary to popular belief, he was never forced to renounce the Copernican system.

North Carlton, Vic

A response

Mr Walker begins by accusing me of perpetuating the myth of obscurantism on the Church's part in the Galileo affair. On the contrary, my article was more favourable to the Church than the Church has been to itself as revealed in the recent publication of the findings of the commission set up by Pope John Paul II published as Galileo and the Vatican.

Furthermore I juxtaposed the remarks of the philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend that "The Church at the time of Galileo kept much more closely to reason than did Galileo himself, and she took into consideration the ethical and social consequences of Galileo's teaching" with Pope John Paul II's expressed regret for how the Galileo affair was handled. The philosopher of science sides with the Church whereas the Pope sympathises with Galileo.

Galileo did not set himself up as an independent biblical exegete, as Mr Walker suggests. On the contrary his letter to Fr Castelli is entirely in agreement with the approach of St Augustine on the interpretation of Sacred Scripture. I repeat what he said in that letter:

"Since two truths can obviously never contradict each other, it is the part of wise interpreters of Holy Scripture to take the pains to find out the real meaning of its statements, in accordance with the conclusions regarding nature which are quite certain, either from the clear evidence of sense or from necessary demonstration."

In the official account of the findings of the commission, set up by Pope John Paul II, the Church takes the blame for how the affair was handled and admits that it acted outside its competence in condemning the Copernicus system. The only criticism of Galileo is the "vehemence" with which Galileo defended Copernicus: and here I agree with Mr Walker.

Once the system of Copernicus was accepted as an hypothesis which enabled a simpler method of calculating the motion of the heavenly bodies than the Ptolemaic system it was one small step to accept it as a scientific fact. It took Galileo with his scientific insight to take that step long before the evidence was available some 100 years later.

In summary, as Paolo Galluzzi, head of the Florence museum, remarked, "even if Galileo had been wrong, you cannot judge scientific errors in an ecclesiastical court".

Lenah Valley, Tas

(CORRECTION: The fifth last paragraph in Dr Noel Roberts' article should read: "Redondi proposed a reinterpretation of the Galileo affair in which Pope Urban VIII, 'a former friend and admirer', had Galileo face the accusation of Copernicanism, and not the more serious accusation of denying the doctrine of transubstantiation.")

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