Sep 4, 2020 in Informative

Galileo’s Trial as a Struggle between Old and New Traditions


October 1, 1632 was a shocking day for Galileo Galilei and, most likely, the whole global community that cherishes and worships the scientific progress. On this day, the 68-year-old revolutionary professor of mathematics was under threat of been sentenced to death penalty due to the charges in heresy. The Florence Inquisitor served the scientist with a citation that ordered him to be present in the Rome Inquisition court in 30 days. The centerpiece for the charges was Galileo’s tractate entitled Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Systems of the World: Problematic and Copernican. With this work, the astronomer has supported with evidence and well-reasoned arguments the prohibited Copernican view that the earth rotates around the sun. The created doctrine opposed the long-term stereotypical ideology of the Roman Catholic Church that promoted thoroughly a belief that God’s divine power makes the earth the core of the universe. As a result, “the famous Galileo, grown old a prisoner to the Inquisition, for thinking in astronomy otherwise than the Franciscan and Dominican licensers thought”.

The trial over the outstanding scientist has become the controversy that led to the centuries-old debates. Moreover, Galileo’s trial has been one of the most significant conflicts that have intertwined science and religion within the scope of endless debates over the consensus of the world’s origin and functioning of the universe. Regardless of many honorable titles of this wise man, society was scared by the Inquisition and its persecution. Hence, public opinions split for two sides where conservatism and progressivism have developed a long-lasting opposition to one another. Galileo’s immense contribution to enhancement of a variety of scientific fields, including mathematics, philosophy, and astronomy among others, were condemned shortly by Church authorities. Based on the deteriorating health condition and a deceiving promise from the prosecutor about a merciful verdict, Galileo abjured his philosophy. Nonetheless, he was sentenced to the life-long imprisonment in a form of a house arrest. Although the scholar was literary betrayed, he has never actually given up his ideas and belief that “epur si mouve”, namely “and yet it does move”.

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Therefore, the paper analyses the Galileo’s trial as a conflict between conservative and progressive ideas in both science and religious fields to which the scholar has become a hostage. On the one hand, a set of scholar’s contributions to development of science are considered. On the other hand, a position of the Roman Catholic Church in the debate is explicated. Further, the paper analyses the essence of the trial through the lens of conservative versus progressive opposition of old and new schools of thought of the time. In addition, an assessment of Galileo’s ‘crime’ is provided. Finally, conclusions are made why religion and science were in conflict in the first quarter of the 17th century.   

Galileo’s Revolutionary Ideas and Discoveries

Being educated as a medical specialist, Galileo has always felt some inner affinity with natural science, philosophy, and mathematics. For this reason, the future father of modern science has pursued professional interests in the fields of his utmost excitement rather than that of his education. His efforts were more than successful, though the paper focuses on Galileo’s pioneering discoveries linked to the trial, namely, astronomic ones. 

The first steps in this regard are related to the period of the scientist’s lecturing as a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Padua, Republic of Venice. Since that period, Galileo started to publicly express his objection of Aristotle’s approaches towards human-centric natural philosophy and astronomy. Most likely, if the theorist would have stayed in Pisa, where he lectured initially, the outcomes of his scholarly activities might have been different. However, Venice of that time was the epicenter of most advanced inventions and the place that welcomed nonstandard thinking and scientific evolution. While this was the time of his most outstanding discoveries, it was the start of his sharp, on-the-verge relationships with his opponents from both scientific and theological areas. 

One of the key inventions which helped Galileo to discover the universe secrets was his self-made telescopes. In May 1609, the professor was informed about “spyglass that a Dutchman showed in Venice”. Being employed with mathematic and technical skills, Galileo started experimenting in creation of his telescopic devices the technical characteristics of which were sufficiently ahead of ‘the Dutch spyglass’. While his first creative work in this respect was able to magnify the objects in space in about 4 times, his improved telescopes could enlarge the distanced areas in around 8-9 times. Thus, his perspicillum invented in 1609 was an advanced tool for external observations that had become an instrument of great scientific and commercial value of the time. Specifically, not only the scholars were able to use the power of its magnification for observations but also military and merchants for their strategic initiatives and long-term journeys. Hence, at the start of his scientific discovery quest, Galileo has created a tool for collection of empirical evidence.  

Following this invention, the scientist had obtained immense power for empirical research and he opted to observe the sky objects. In this regard, the year of 1610 has become the starting point for his unstoppable scientific discoveries in the field. In his Starry Messenger, Galileo reported about Moon craters, or mountains, he observed and highlighted the fact that the Milky Way was composed of stars. Apart from that, the observations showed that sun had spots, and the scholar collected and noted this evidence in such his works as Discourse on Floating Bodies and Letters on the Sunspots. In addition, he described new characteristics of the planets. For instance, the scientist found observational evidence that Jupiter was surrounded by 4 bodies within the scope of its orbit, whereas Saturn had rings around its axis. On a similar note, Galileo’s observations via his telescope showed that Venus had phases, similar to the phases of the Moon. This revolutionary claim was the evidence of that the earth could not have been the center of the galaxy, while the Sun most likely was. On the grounds of such thorough and multifactorial observations, Galileo had an opportunity to find the evidence of the so-called Copernican revolution, though yet to be a proof. To be more precise, these facts were a confirmation that the earth was only the part of cosmos, and people did inhabit not the Capital of the Universe but the part of the Universe, and they were not the Masters of Nature. 

As mentioned earlier, Galileo published his observations and documented the findings. Nonetheless, he made no public claims about support of Copernicanism at this period. What is more, the findings of the scholar made him extremely respected and popular celebrity of his time, with numerous opponents who were less successful in their scientific endeavors. Whereas the amount of scholarship and evidence that Galileo obtained grew extensively, his pioneering way of thinking ahead of his time enticed the professor to make an evidence-based claim that tore apart religion and science, as Inquisitors put it later. Galileo proclaimed that.

I hold that the Sun is located at the center of the revolutions of the heavenly orbs and does not change place, and that the Earth rotates on itself and moves around it. Moreover . . . I confirm this view not only be refuting Ptolemy’s and Aristotle’s arguments, but also by producing many for the other side, especially some pertaining to physical effects whose causes perhaps cannot be determined in any other way, and other astronomical discoveries clearly confute the Ptolematyc system, and they agree admirably with this other position and confirm it.

Indeed, the evidence which the scholar collected was too self-explanatory and too eloquent to support the previous claims of respectful philosophers, including the ones presenting theological doctrines. The findings of Galileo’s observations should have become the centerpiece for further exploration of the universe and its secrets. Instead, these were positioned as heretic and undermining the authoritativeness of the Roman Catholic Church with its dated vision on the issue of the world’s creation. Thus, Galileo’s claims became the growing “tension between the old and the new, between tradition and innovation, between preserving what already exists and changing it in some way”. While previously his cosmological findings were interesting to society at large, the Church ‘allowed’ the scholar to be interested in these issues, but not debate or support them as a physical truth. 

The peak of this tension has become Galileo’s Dialogue in which he wished to present the arguments of the conflicting sides objectively, such as those by astronomic science and theology. With this work, the scientist tried to upgrade the interpretation of the Bible and find the textual evidence for what his mathematical findings had showed. This was not an attempt to prove Copernicus’ theory, but find physical explanations to the evidence Galileo discovered through the observations in Holy Scripture. Nevertheless, writing a tractate that presented a debate between theological and scientific members of society was viewed as a violation of the above narrow-scope ‘permission’. As a consequence, the future-oriented Galileo encountered the trial, which has become a dilemma that set apart science and religion for as long as several centuries, at least, and led to condemnation of a prominent scientist for the same period.                                                                      

Position of the Catholic Church 

As aptly noted by Cuevas, practically every religious or cultural belief system has a myth regarding the origins of the universe and the world around which borders with the fields of different sciences. Apart from that, the key explanation technique is generally ‘a miracle’ option when a saint or god intervene the nature. To illustrate, the Christian doctrine narrates that God created the heaven and the earth and this event was the beginning of life. By the same token, scientists attempt to find evidence that would assist in legitimization of such assumptions. 

However, presenting the cosmologic evidence which he collected, Galileo posed a challenge to the Church in terms of all-embracing recognition of the above ‘truth’ regarding God-given life on the earth and the planet as a whole. Foremost, the scientific findings doubted the inalterability of such concepts as God and Heaven as well as a commonly known claim with regard to the static arrangement of the universe. Additionally, application of mathematical calculations and rationale by the scientist has vividly contradicted deification of reasoning and explanations along with positioning of the Church as the core authoritative source of interpretation of the world realia. Finally, Catholicism, similarly to other Christian religions, followed the geocentric positioning of the universe, namely, the earth has been considered as the centerpiece of the universe. Moreover, people were the core part of this geocentric ideology. In contrast, Galileo’s observations showed that this statement is false in light of his heliocentric worldview. Therefore, these key points clearly demonstrate that the long-term beliefs imposed by the Christian ideology are questionable and should be reviewed rather than completely rejected. However, the Church decided the opposite.

The Conflict of Interests: Conservatism vs. Progressivism

The Galileo’s trial was more than a conflict between one of the greatest scientists of all times and one of the most influential global religion, Christianity. This was a battle between progressive thinking and the outdated worldview that wished to preserve its conservative views and power over the minds of millions of people. The Church charged Galileo in heresy for the sake of own self-interest. On a similar note, the religious ideology within the Roman Catholicism was not holistic and one-sided. Numerous theologians attempted to articulate more up-to-date views on cosmology even before Galileo’s Dialogue. Therefore, Galileo’s trial can boldly be positioned as a centerpiece of the struggle between old and new theological discipline along with new versus old science.

On the one hand, Galileo’s ideas were supported by important figures in the context of the Catholic authorities and scholars. To illustrate, Carmelite Father Paolo Antonio Foscarini and Monsignor Piero Dini praised his works in 1615-1616. In addition, Cardinal Robert Bellarmine was both an advisor for the professor along with being a critic at times, while Pope Urban VIII “was his friend and patron”. Regardless of that these and other Catholic officials supported Galileo in the time of his society-wide praise, they were quick in condemning him as soon as he faced the trial of the Inquisition.

On the other hand, Galileo was engaged in polemics with theologians who wished to clarify the cosmologic issues in a new manner, though from a theological standpoint. For example, during 1616-1619, the scientist exchanged the polemical letters with Jesuit Father Horatio Grassi and Father Christoph Scheiner on the topic of comets. The former also rejected Aristotle’s location of the comets beyond the sun but claimed that they are positioned beyond the moon. In addition, Scheiner tried to provide his interpretation of sunspots. Thus, Galileo’s observations through the telescope could have become apt evidence for the reasoning of these theologians, though were mostly opposed by the hypothetic nature of these Jesuits’ claims. 

At the same time, during the trial, the figure of Melchior Inchofer became influential in deciding Galileo’s destiny as he wrote 1 of 3 consultancy reports, Tractatus Syllepticus, weighting the extent of potential heresy of the scientist. In fact, this document was issued as a justification of the Church in condemnation of Galileo. While the report was accepted as evidence of Galileo’s guilt, so to speak, Scheiner, whose theological ideology was on the verge of conservatism and progressivism, emphasized that the conservative views of Inchofer were too overstated at times. Specifically, the reviewer asserted a need to soften the statements that (a) “questions of the location and behavior of the earth and sun are the matter of faith” and (b) “biblical authority is greater than the capacity of any human mind”. In other words, Galileo has simply become a hostage of the “conflict between a conservative and progressive attitude” within the Church that attempted to ensure further superiority of religious authority.

Galileo’s ‘Crime’

In order to understand the validity of the claim that Galileo’s was imprisoned due to conflicting worldviews and agonizing fight for the power, there is a need to study the essence of the crime incriminated to Galileo. The primary charges of the Inquisition concerned heresy. The term is defined as “a voluntary error of the intellect opposing some truth of faith asserted with obstinacy by somebody, who accepted faith” which is not a “shortcoming of behavior but of faith”. Thus, the only crime Galileo have most likely committed was that he became a “bad theologian” as he was unable to prove the Scripture-based relevance of his observations. Indeed, this idea was accurately explicated by Mallet du Pan in his article “Mercure de France” published in 100 years after the trial. The scholar aptly noted that, “Galileo was persecuted not at all insofar as he was a good astronomer, but insofar as he was a bad theologian”. Drawing upon the scholarly evidence found in the context of this research paper, one could assume that Galileo had by any means contradicted the Church directly. 

On the contrary, while having collected the direct evidence in the scope of astronomic calculations, the researcher called for finding the non-linear interpretative evidence of the same issue in Holy Scripture. Moreover, the scientist even addressed the pope that he should proclaim that the fact that the earth rotates around the sun is Scripture-based. In other words, the scholar remained a Christian, though called for seeking consensus between the two spheres of reasoning in explaining the universal order instead of blind followship of deification of the process. Nevertheless, instead of extending the dialogue, the Inquisition tended to condemn the great scientist and his case was closed only in 1992, 350 years after Galileo’s death. The conclusion was made on the basis of “errors made by theological advisors in the case of Galileo” rather than rejection of heresy accusations, at least posthumously, and acceptance of the fact that “epur si mouve”.


Summarizing the findings of the paper, it is evident that Galileo Galilei was an outstanding scientist who can be clearly defined as the father of modern science. Indeed, following his great contributions to understanding the order and arrangement of the universe that was evidence-based, sciences in general obtained sufficient proofs that the earth is not the centerpiece of the universe and people are not central subjects around which the world rotates. By the same token, the researcher’s ideas and judgments were in opposition to the long-term customary laws established and maintained by the Church that has long being considered as a key source of truth and knowledge. Regardless of that Galileo aimed to balance the science and theology development in a harmonic way by finding the similar evidence in the Scripture, his Dialogue has become the core of his charges in heresy. As a consequence, Galileo’s trial has been not only his life-long home arrest but also the key dilemma that split religion and science for centuries. Nonetheless, the essence of the trial was substantially misinterpreted. Instead of studying the background and main determinants of the case, scholars tended to separate science and religion and emphasize the split of the disciplines. Nonetheless, the current paper found that the underpinning of the trial and the aforementioned division was of more controversial nature but rather within disciplines rather than outside each of them. In particular, Galileo’s trial and condemnation was due to the Church’s inability to adapt to new ideas from both scientific and theological perspectives but not merely Galileo’s statements and evidence of the earth rotation and heliocentric worldview. Thus, the outstanding scientist has just become the victim in the process of struggling for power and authority by the Roman Catholic Church.

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