Revisiting and understanding the “Galileo Affair”

“The Galileo Affair needed to be looked at again,” says Dom Paschal Scotti, “because it is one the great events, climactic events even, in European history and because it has so often been used polemically and ahistorically.”

Dom Paschal Scotti, the author of the recently released Galileo Revisited: The Galileo Affair in Context (Ignatius Press, 2017), is a monk at Portsmouth Abbey in Rhode Island. He was ordained a priest in 1989 and teaches at his monastery’s prep school, Portsmouth Abbey School, in the History and Humanities departments. He has a Licentiate in Canon Law (J.C.L) from Catholic University of America. Besides various journal and encyclopedia articles, he has a written a study of the Edwardian English Catholic editor, Wilfrid Ward.

He recently corresponded with Catholic World Report about the continuing fascination with Galileo, why he wrote his book, and why context—historical, cultural, philosophical—is so vital to understanding the “Galileo Affair”.

CWR: “Galileo,” you write at the start of your book, “is one of those iconic figures in history for whom there is endless fascination.” What are some reasons for that fascination? And have there been different reasons over the centuries?

Fr. Scotti: Galileo is fascinating for many reasons. First, for his powerful personality and extraordinary rhetorical ability that not only impressed his contemporaries (it was, after all, an age that valued both) but even impresses later generations. He is not just a great scientist, but the first celebrity scientist (a type with which we are very much familiar) over whom princes and popes fawned, a masterful self-promoter and brilliant writer whose works are truly works of art, literary masterpieces.

Second, because his story is just so dramatic: he is not only the revealer of a whole new world, who transformed our view of the cosmos (even in his lifetime was compared with Columbus), but his story is larger than life both in its spectacular rise and in its spectacular fall. It is Greek tragedy really. And like any Greek tragedy its hero’s flaws, his hubris, are a key part of his failure.

Third, because his story intersects with so many of the great fault lines of modernity such as the conflict between the desires of the individual and the needs of the community, the tensions between faith and reason, and the difficulties of living in a world were change is ever-happening and boundaries seem to be fluid and even disappearing.  While there have been other reasons for this fascination that reflect later historical periods (e.g. as a martyr of science), these seem perennial.

CWR: How did you first become interested in Galileo and how have you gone about researching his life and times?

Fr. Scotti: I never begin writing with a thesis, only a desire to understand something.  Eighteen years ago I wrote about the Galileo Affair in one-off article to understand what really happened.  I was asked to give a lecture on the topic in 2012 so I revised the article, and since I had done so much work to revise it I decided that I might as well write a book about it. During my free hours between my teaching and religious obligations I began at the beginning and worked to the end, reading as much as I could and revising as I went along. And to make it more attractive to the intelligent general reader I would have my brother Tom (who is not an academic but involved in finance) read and comment on chapters as I finished them. All in all, it took about a year and a half to write.

CWR: Two words stand out in the title and subtitle of the book: “revisited” and “context”. Why the need or desire to revisit the Galileo Affair? And what are some key aspects of the context mentioned? How has lack of context warped or damaged how Galileo is understood and represented today?

Fr. Scotti:  The Galileo Affair needed to be looked at again (revisited) because it is one the great events, climactic events even, in European history and because it has so often been used polemically and ahistorically. History is all about context (or as one scholar has said more awkwardly, it is “context-dependent”), and the fuller and richer the context, the better the history.  While all histories of the Galileo Affair have supplied context, it has often tended to be uneven or selective, and none of them have given it as extensively as I have. I think that this particularly damaging in reference to the philosophical/intellectual currents of the time, to the long history of the relationship of Christianity and science, and of the inner dynamics of papal Rome and the Roman Curia.

CWR: The first of the five chapters focuses on Italy. What are some basic facts about Italy during the age of Galileo that are of importance and are likely not known by most people today?

Fr. Scotti: Historians have had this strange tendency to end the Italian Renaissance far earlier than they should, generally with the beginning of the Reformation (1517) or the Sack of Rome (1527), and so have tended to ignore the Italy of Galileo’s day, often seeing it as a time of stagnation and decay (economic, intellectual, spiritual and moral), under the heel of Spain and the Inquisition. In fact, this period from the Peace of Cateau-Cambésis of 1559 until the late 1620s was seen by contemporaries as one of the greatest periods, if not the greatest period, in Italian history. It ended sixty years of intermittent warfare (the Italian Wars) between the major European powers that ravaged the peninsula and ushered in the longest period of peace that Italy had seen in many centuries. And with peace came prosperity and all that follows from that. This negative view of Italian history was due, in a large part, to the historians of Italian unification (and their supporters) to whom the dominance of Spain and the Church could never be a good thing, and it still influences our thinking about Italy in Galileo’s time.

CWR: What were some of the philosophical movements and theological premises that shaped Galileo’s thought? What was unique or notable about Galileo as a thinker and astronomist?

Fr. Scotti: At this time you have not only the continued dominance of Aristotle (which was very far from a spent force) but also a revived Platonism, Stoicism, and Epicureanism, all of which influence Galileo, especially contemporary Platonism with its emphasis on mathematics. While Skepticism was also a growing movement, that was entirely alien to his mindset. Galileo was not particularly well-read in theology (there are a decent number of devotional books in his library but not much theology), but he certainly accepted the Catholic worldview with a strong belief in a creation that reflects a good and rational Creator. Galileo was a great believer in the power of reason (some might say naively so) and, optimistically, that there was still so much more to know about this world. That being said, he could also be somewhat proprietary about his discoveries and even small-minded and contemptuous about the discoveries of others.

CWR: How was astrology understood and used during Galileo’s time? What role did it play in the Galileo Affair?

Fr. Scotti: Astrology was believed by most people and was even part of the university curriculum, where it was particularly needed by those studying medicine. This was, however, a non-deterministic astrology where the stars influenced but do not determine realities. People forget that Ptolemy was not only the author of the Almagest (the great book on astronomy from antiquity) but also of the Tetrabiblos (the great book on astrology from antiquity). Galileo himself was a master astrologer and known as such.

Astrology plays a part in the Galileo Affair since at the very time Galileo is getting his great book The Dialogue on the Chief World Systems through the final phase of approval in Rome a major crisis develops over a prediction of the death of Pope Urban VIII (who was a great believer in astrology) which intensifies an already heightened sense of crisis in Rome. Urban VIII was already under enormous pressure from Spain and her powerful faction in the Roman Curia for a perceived lack of support for the Catholic cause in the Thirty Years War (with talk of the invasion of the Papal States and even the deposition of the pope). While Galileo was cleared of any involvement (he had been linked to it), others close to Galileo were not so lucky. And the aggressive response of Urban VIII to both threats would weaken Galileo’s influence in Rome (e.g., Galileo’s good friend Ciampoli, who was an intimate of Urban VIII, would be exiled, never to return) and create a less than congenial atmosphere for the reception of the book when it came out.

CWR: Is it fair to say that while many people try to present the Galileo Affair in rather stark, black-and-white strokes, the entire matter is far more grey, so to speak, and also far more colorful—that is, complex and intriguing? How much of the entire conflict was a matter of science vs. Church teaching, and how much of it was a matter of power and personalities?

Fr. Scotti: History is always messy and complex because people are messy and complex, and the Galileo Affair particularly so. But we like our simple dichotomies and sound bites because it makes everything easier to understand, more satisfying and more under our control. While issues of science and religion do play their part, things could have ended far differently. The personalities of the major players were of major significance. If Galileo, with his vehement personality and confidence in his power of persuasion, had not gone to Rome to force the issue, it is very likely that there would have been no condemnation of Copernicus in 1616—which sets the stage for the trial of 1633.

We see the same over-confidence in his persuasive power (and in his friendship with Urban VIII) in his writing a book which he must have known was the not the book Urban VIII had allowed him to write. Urban VIII, with his extreme touchiness and need for control, was the not a man to play with. While Urban VIII had serious reasons for his negative response to the book (the skeptical attitude toward knowledge which I discuss in my book), one cannot ignore the profound sense of betrayal, of being used, that also animates him.

CWR: How was Galileo viewed by the public during his life? And how did he become the poster child, so to speak, for science over against the supposedly superstitious and anti-scientific Catholic Church?

Fr. Scotti: In his lifetime, he was seen, as we would say now, as a “superstar,” as some larger than life figure, and like our modern “rock star” he was treated with deference even by popes and leading clerics. He was certainly not seen, except for some Dominicans and their supporters, as someone outside the Catholic fold, and certainly not as some secret skeptic as some more recent commentators would like us to believe. It is really with the eighteenth-century Enlightenment that we start to see him become a club with which to beat the Church, and in the nineteenth century he becomes a major “martyr of science” in the “warfare” literature whose goal is to discredit the Church and remove her as a cultural factor.

CWR: What are some of the biggest errors or misconceptions you hope your book with correct and dispel?

Fr. Scotti: While I did not write the book to correct misconceptions but to tell a story, it does bother me to see historical errors and I hope this book will correct some. The biggest misconception I hope to correct is the absurd belief (which seems almost impossible to eradicate from much of popular culture) that the Church has been the enemy of reason and science when it has been in fact one of the greatest promoters of both. If I can help do that then I think my time in writing this book has been well spent.

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  1. It is interesting that although Galileo suffered at the hands of the Vatican bureaucracy, so to speak, the Pope never personally signed a condemnation that had been presented to him several times — something held him back from taking personal action in this case.

    • Popes did not personally sign the condemnation by the Holy Office at that time.
      In 1588; Pope Sixtus V (1585-90) gave the Holy Office even more explicit powers in the Bull Immensa Dei (God who cannot be Encompassed). In this directive he made the reigning pope, whoever he may be, Prefect of the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Inquisition. This gave the Catholic world to understand that decisions assigned to its judgment, before publication, would invariably be examined and ratified by the Pope himself as supreme judge of the Holy See, and would go forward clothed with such formal papal authority.

      To say Pope Paul V did not partake in action in this case is another claim of the Apologists.

      The following day, the 25th Feb 1616 – the day on which Pope Paul V actively presided at the Holy Office as its prefect – the censures were reported to him by Cardinal Mellinus after which the Pope gave his two well-known orders, one to Bellarmine, and one to the Commissary of the Holy Office, Fr de Lauda. The first order was that Galileo was to be summoned and told of the decision and advised to abandon the heresy. Cardinal Bellarmine was to call Galileo to the Vatican Palace where he was to be notified that he could no longer propose heliocentrism in any way whatsoever. There was also to be present Fr de Lauda, who would, in the event of Galileo objecting, deliver a more severe warning to him under threat of imprisonment.

  2. This is an excellent and thoroughly interesting work on a fascinating subject. I highly recommend it, particularly for anyone desiring to learn more about the Galileo episode and its impact on the Church and the faithful.

    • Yes, the book written by Dr. Robert Sungenis and Dr. Robert Bennet, titled Galileo was wrong the Church was right offers a most comprehensive research of the “Galileo affair”. The latest measurements and experiments prove definitively that the earth is stationary and that the entire universe rotates around it. Most scientists don’t like to admit this result for a couple of reasons, one of which is that it supports the Biblical worldview and another that it topples their Weltanschuing, now in need of a revision with all the consequences that entails.

      The next even greater shock to come this year, is the toppling of Einstein’s theory of relativity with its implication of the “Big Bang”. The latter “theory” supports the 13.6 (?) billion years since the beginning of the universe. That theory nicely supported the theory of evolution (already proven to have zero probability) which was desperately needed for lack of fossil evidence to support it. What is a poor atheist now to believe? That we are all descendants of the first human pair created in the image and likeness of God about six thousand year ago, and that He put us in the centre of the universe for us to admire his handiwork?

  3. After Pope St. John Paul II was released from his shooting hospitalization and had his first large staff meeting, he quipped about himself with the apocryphal muttering of Galileo after being enjoined from teaching heliocentrism, 《Eppure, si muove》, “still it moves”.

  4. Regardless of what actually occurred in the “Galileo affair,” the fabled story will continue to be cited by enemies of the Church, and this is not surprising. They NEED the Galileo affair, because they cannot come up with other examples of the Church “opposing” science, for the simple reason that the Church has never opposed science.

    • Exactly. The Galileo affair is the “exception that proves the rule “regarding scientific reason and the Catholic Church. THere are strong arguments supporting the truth that science was born of CHristianity. (Fr. Stanley Jaki for example.)

  5. Scientists of this era OPPOSED Galileo’s findings and had the Pope’s ear on this subject. The Pope listened to his experts.
    Can anyone help me with the verses in the Bible that state that the planet Earth is the center of the universe or our planetary system??

    • There are none and that is why the second proposition was not condemned as formal heresy, only as erroneous in faith.
      (2) The second proposition, that is, “That the Earth is not the centre of the world, and moves as a whole, and also with a diurnal movement,” was unanimously declared “to deserve the same censure philosophically, and, theologically considered to be at least erroneous in faith.”
      This is because the earth at the centre of the universe – unlike a moving sun – was not explicitly revealed in Scripture, but can be inferred of the sun and universe rotate around the stationary earth.

  6. Sort of reminds me that the present Pope seems enamored with current theory on climate change and quite unwilling to consider that there even are other viewpoints with at least equal scientific backing. I would hate to think the Church has not learned the wisdom of stepping back from the secular, at least until the secular has made peace with itself.

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