From the Renaissance to the French Revolution

Rev. James MacCaffrey, S.J., 1914



(f) The Copernican System. Galileo Galilei.

Nicolaus Copernicus (Koppernick or Koppernigk, 1473-1543) was born at Thorn, and was educated principally at Cracow, Bologna, Padua, and Ferrara. He was a canon of the chapter of Frauenberg, and most probably a priest. During his stay in Italy he was brought into contact with the new views put forward by Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa and others regarding the position of the earth in the system of the universe. His own studies let him to the conclusion that the sun was the centre round which the earth and all the heavenly bodies moved in their course. He communicated his conclusions to some of his special friends in 1531, but he hesitated to publish them on account of the ridicule that such a novel opinion was sure to excite. One of his pupils lectured at Rome on the subject, and explained the theories of Copernicus to Clement VII. (1533).

Yielding at last to the entreaties of Cardinal Schonberg, Archbishop of Capua, and Bishop Giese of Culm he entrusted his work for publication to one of his pupils, Rheticus, professor at Wittenberg, but the opposition of the Lutheran professors made it impossible to bring out the book in that city. It was finally published under the editorship of Osiander at Nurnberg in 1543. In the preface to the work Osiander made considerable changes out of deference to the views of Luther and Melanchthon, the most important of which was that he referred to the system of Copernicus as an hypothesis that might or might not be true. The work, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium was dedicated to Pope Paul III. The principal opposition to the novel views of Copernicus came from the side of the Lutheran theologians, and it was only years later, when feeling was aroused by the controversy regarding Galileo, that any suspicion of unorthodoxy was directed against Copernicus by Catholic writers. Needless to say Copernicus died as he had lived, a devoted Catholic, fully convinced that he had done good service for religion as well as for science.

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) was remarkable from a very early age for his abilities as a student of mathematics and mechanics. Indeed it was in these subjects and not in astronomy that he achieved his most brilliant and most lasting successes. He taught at Pisa and Padua, and was afterwards employed at the court of the Grand Duke of Tuscany. In 1609 he perfected the telescope by means of which he was enabled to make observations of the heavenly bodies, and from these observations and discoveries he was led to the conclusion that the heliocentric system as advocated by Copernicus was the only one scientifically tenable. He came to Rome, where he was welcomed by the Pope and the cardinals, and set up his telescope in the Vatican gardens (1611). At first Galileo’s views excited no great opposition, but owing to the imprudent propaganda carried on by some of his own friends, notably by the Carmelite, Foscarini, a violent controversy broke out in which the scientific side of the theory was almost completely forgotten. Against Galileo it was contended that his system contradicted the Scripture, which spoke of the sun standing still in its course at the prayers of Josue, and that it was, therefore, inadmissible. At the time in Italy the ecclesiastical authorities were markedly conservative and hostile to innovations, particularly as there was then a strong party in Italy, of whom Paul Sarpi may be taken as a typical example, who were liberal and Lutheran in their tendencies and sympathies. Had the discussion been confined to learned circles no notice might have been taken of it, but once an appeal was made to the masses of the people it was almost inevitable that Galileo should have been denounced to the Inquisition.

In the circumstances a decision favourable to Galileo could hardly have been expected. The old Ptolemaic system was so closely bound up with the philosophic and scientific teaching of the age that its abandonment meant little less than a complete revolution in the world of learning. As yet the vast body of those who were specially versed in the subject treated the new theory with derision, while the arguments put forward by Galileo in its defence were so weak and inconclusive that most of them have been long since abandoned. The hostile attitude, too, of the Lutheran divines could hardly fail to exercise some influence on the Roman consultors. In 1615 Galileo appeared before the Inquisition to defend his views, but without any result. The heliocentric system was condemned as being opposed to Scripture and therefore heretical, and Galileo was obliged to promise never again to put it forward (1616). The work of Copernicus and those of some other writers who advocated the Copernican system were condemned donec corrigantur. The decision of the congregation was wrong, but in the circumstances not unintelligible. Nor can it be contended for a moment that from this mistake any solid argument can be drawn against the infallibility of the Pope. Paul V. was undoubtedly present at the session in which the condemnation was agreed upon and approved of the verdict, but still the decision remained only the decision of the congregation and not the binding ex-cathedra pronouncement of the Head of the Church. Indeed, it appears from a letter of Cardinal Bellarmine that the congregation regarded its teaching as only provisional, and that if it were proved beyond doubt that the sun was stationary it would be necessary to admit that the passages of Scripture urged against this view had been misunderstood.

Galileo left Rome with no intention of observing the promise he had made. After the election of Urban VIII. who, as Cardinal Barberini, had been his faithful friend and supporter, Galileo returned to Rome (1624) in the hope of procuring a revision of the verdict; but though he was received with all honour, and accorded an annual pension from the papal treasury, his request was refused. He returned to Florence, where he published eight years later a new book on the subject, couched in the form of a dialogue between supporters of the rival systems, the Ptolemaic and the Copernican, in which Simplicissimus, the defender of the old view, was not only routed but covered with ridicule. Such a flagrant violation of his promise could not pass unnoticed. He was summoned to appear once more before the Inquisition, and arrived in Rome in February 1633. At first he denied that he had written in favour of his views since 1616, then he pleaded guilty, confessed that he was in error, and appealed to the court to deal gently with an old and infirm man. He was found guilty, and was condemned to recite the seven penitential psalms once a week for three years, and to be imprisoned at the pleasure of the Inquisition. It is not true to say that Galileo was shut up in the dungeons of the Inquisition. He was detained only for a few days, and even during that time he was lodged in the comfortable apartments of one of the higher officials. Neither is it correct to state that he was tortured or subjected to any bodily punishment. He was released almost immediately on parole, and lived for a time at Rome in the palace of the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Later on he retired to his villa at Arcetri, and finally he was allowed to return to Florence. In 1642, fortified by the last sacraments and comforted by the papal benediction, he passed away. His body was laid to rest within the walls of the Church of Santa Croce at Florence. Most of his misfortunes were due to his own rashness and the imprudence of his friends and supporters. His condemnation is the sole scientific blunder that can be laid to the charge of the Roman Congregation. That his condemnation was not due to any hatred of science or to any desire of the Roman ecclesiastics to oppose the progress of knowledge is evident enough from the favours and honours lavished upon his predecessors in the same field of research, Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa, Peurbach, Muller (Regiomontanus), and Copernicus.

Chapter VI Section (f) Bibliography

Muller, Nicolaus Copernicus (Stimmen aus M.-Laach, 1898, Supp. 72). Hipler, Nicolaus Copernicus u. Martin Luther, 1868. Muller, Galileo Galilei, 1908. Von Gebler, Galileo Galilei und die Romische Curie (Eng. Trans., 1879). L’Epinois, La question de Galilee, 1878, The Month (Sept., 1867; March-April, 1868).

Webpage © 2000 ELC
Lane Core Jr. (lane@elcore.net)
Created November 20, 2000; not revised.