The emergence of modern astronomy – a complex mosaic: Part XXIV

When contemplating the advent of the heliocentric hypothesis in the Early Modern Period, one of the first things that occurs to many people is the conflict between the emerging new astronomy and Christianity, in particular the Holy Roman Catholic Church. What took place in those early years was actually very different to what most people think occurred and to a large extent has over the years been blown up out of all proportions.

To a certain extent some sort of conflict was pre-programmed, as the Bible, which the majority in this period believed to be basically true , clearly presented a geocentric world, even to a small extent a flat earth given the Old Testament’s fundamentally Babylonian origins and the new astronomy was attempting to establish a heliocentric one. This situation called for a lot of diplomatic skill on the part of those proposing the new heliocentric cosmological system, a skill that some of those proponents, most notably Galileo Galilei failed to display.

Between the publication of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus, which was actively supported by several leading figures within the Catholic Church, and the sensational telescopic discoveries of 1610-1613 there was surprising little backlash against heliocentrism from any of the European Christian communities. I have dealt with this in detail in an earlier post and don’t intend to repeat myself here. The real problems first began in around 1615 and were provoked by Galileo Galilei and the Carmelite theologian Paolo Antonio Foscarini (c. 1565–1616).


Source: Wikimedia Commons

Again I have already dealt with this in great detail in two earlier posts, here and here, so I will only outline the real bone of contention now, which surprisingly has little to do with the science and a lot to do with who gets to interpret the Holy Word of God e.g. The Bible.

From its foundation the Catholic Church had claimed the exclusive right to interpret the Bible for its followers, i.e. all true Christians. With time that interpretation was anchored in the writings of the early church fathers, what they had written was holy gospel and to openly contradict it was considered to be heresy. The Church was not only a powerful religious institution but also a powerful political one and over the centuries the adage that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely certainly proved true within the Catholic Church. This led to several attempts to reform the Church and bring it back to the ‘true path’ as outlined in the gospels.

Before what we now know as The Reformation, notable attempts on varying levels were made by, amongst other, John Wycliffe (c. 1320s–1384) in England, Jan Hus (c. 1372–1415) in Bohemia and Desiderus Erasmus (1466–1536), although Erasmus’ reform efforts were very moderate when compared to the other two and those that came after. In the sixteenth century that which we call the Protestant Reformation broke out in several parts of Europe instigated by Martin Luther (1483–1546), Philipp Melanchthon (1497–1560), Thomas Müntzer (1489–1525), Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531), Jean Calvin (1509–1564) and a host of other minor figure, such as Andreas Osiander (1496 or 1498–1552), who wrote the infamous Ad lectorum in De revolutionibus. The major characteristic of the Reformation was that those calling for reform demanded the right for each individual to be allowed to interpret The Bible for themselves, thus removing the Church’s monopoly on biblical interpretations. This was of course unacceptable for the Catholic Church, which in turn launched its Counter Reformation, with the Council of Trent (1545–1563), to try and stem the tide of dissent. This was the situation in 1615 just three years before the outbreak of the Thirty Years War, one of the bloodiest conflicts in the history of Europe triggered by just this religious dispute, when Galileo made the move that turned the Catholic Church against heliocentrism and began Galileo’s own downfall.

Before we examen what Galileo actually did to so annoy the Catholic Church, it pays to look at the historical context in which this all took place. Too often people try to judge what happened from a presentist point of view, thereby distorting the historical facts. As usual when I write on this subject I am not trying to apologise for the Catholic Church’s actions or to excuse them, merely to present them within the practices and beliefs at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Firstly, this was a historical period in which all social, cultural and political institutions were hierarchical and fairly rigidly structured. It was an age of absolutism in which most rulers, including or above all the Pope, had and exercised absolute power. Secondly, there was no such thing as freedom of speech or freedom of thought in either religious or secular society. Those at the top largely prescribed what could or could not be said or thought out loud. Anybody who pushed against those prescriptions could expect to be punished for having done so.


Galileo Portrait by Ottavio Leoni Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1615 both Foscarini and Galileo tried to tell the Church how to reinterpret those passages in the Bible that presupposed a geocentric cosmos in order to make a heliocentric cosmos theologically acceptable. This was simply not on. In my comments I will restrict myself to the case of Galileo. Modern commentators think that what Galileo said in his Letter to Castelli and in the extended version, his Letter to Christina, is eminently sensible and applaud him for his theological analysis but in doing so they miss several important points. In the Renaissance intellectual hierarchy theologians were at the top and mathematici, and Galileo was a mere mathematicus, were very much at the bottom. In fact the social status of the mathematicus was so low that Galileo telling the theologians how to do their job was roughly equivalent to the weekly cleaning lady telling the owner of a luxury villa how to run his household. This was definitely a massive failure on Galileo’s part, one that he should have been well aware of. The very low social and intellectual status of mathematici was the reason why he insisted on being appointed court philosophicus and not just mathematicus to the Medicean court. Philosophers ranked just below theologians in the hierarchy. Also given the fact that the Reformation/Counter Reformation conflict was rapidly approaching its high point in the Thirty Years War, this was not the time to tell the Catholic Church how to interpret the Bible.

As formal complaints began to be made about his Letter to Castelli, Galileo realised that he had gone too far and claimed that the copies in circulation had been changed by his enemies to make him look bad and presented the Church with a modified version to show what “he had actually written.” I fact we now know that the unmodified version was his original letter.

The writings of Foscarini and Galileo on the subject now led the Church to formally examine the relationship between Catholic doctrine and the heliocentric hypothesis, for the first time, and the result was not good for Galileo and the heliocentric hypothesis. A commission of eleven theologians, known as Qualifiers, undertook this examination and came to the conclusion that the idea that the Sun is stationary is “foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture…”; while the Earth’s movement “receives the same judgement in philosophy and … in regard to theological truth it is at least erroneous in faith.” The first part is obvious the Bible states clearly that it is the Sun that moves and not the Earth and as the heliocentric hypothesis directly contradicts Holy Scripture it is formally heretical. The second part is more interesting because it that the hypothesis is philosophically, read scientifically, absurd and foolish. Although the language used here in the judgement is rather extreme it was a fact in 1615 that there existed no empirical proof for the heliocentric hypothesis, actually most of the then available empirical evidence supported a geocentric cosmos. If there had been empirical support for heliocentrism then the Church’s judgement might well have been different, as Roberto Bellarmino (1542–1621) wrote in his infamous letter to Foscarini:

Third, I say that, if there were a real proof that the Sun is in the centre of the universe, that the Earth is in the third sphere, and that the Sun does not go round the Earth but the Earth round the Sun, then we should have to proceed with great circumspection in explaining passages of Scripture which appear to teach the contrary, and we should rather have to say that we did not understand them than declare an opinion to be false which is proved to be true.


Roberto Bellarmino Source: Wikimedia Commons

In other words, if you provide proof of your hypothesis, then we will be prepared to reinterpret the Bible.

This was the point where Galileo, realising that he was potentially in serious trouble, first rushed to Rome to peddle his theory of the tides, which he appeared to believe delivered the necessary empirical proof for the heliocentric hypothesis.


Source: Wikimedia Commons

This theory had been developed together with Paolo Sarpi (1552–1623) in the 1590’s and basically claimed that the tides were caused by the movements of the Earth, in the same way that water sloshes around in a moving bowl. The theory has however a fatal empirical flaw; it only allows for one high tide in twenty-four hours whereas there are actually two. Galileo tried to deal with this discrepancy with a lot of hand waving but couldn’t really provide a suitable explanation. This was, however, irrelevant in 1615, as Galileo having through his actions poked the proverbial bear with a sharp stick, nobody was prepared to listen to his latest offerings and his efforts fell on deaf ears.

The inevitable happened, the Church formally banned heliocentricity in 1616, although it was never actually declared heretical, something that only the Pope could do and no Pope ever did, and books explicating the heliocentric hypothesis were placed on the Index of forbidden books. Interestingly Copernicus’ De revolutionibus was only placed on the Index until corrected and rather surprisingly this was carried out fairly quickly, the corrected version becoming available to Catholic scholars already by 1621. The Church had realised that this was an important book that should not be banned completely. The corrections consisted or removing or correcting the surprisingly few places in the text where the heliocentric hypothesis was stated as being scientifically true. This meant that Catholics were permitted to write about and discuss heliocentricity as a hypothesis but not to claim that it was empirically true.

Galileo who together with Foscarini had provoked this whole mess got off relatively lightly. At the Pope’s request he was personally informed by Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino that he could no longer hold or teach the heliocentric theory and given a document confirming this in writing. He was not punished in anyway and continued to be popular amongst leading figures in the Church including Maffeo Barberini, the future Pope Urban VIII.

Many modern commentators say why couldn’t the Church accept the eminently sensible suggestion made by Galileo and Foscarini and thus avoid the whole sorry mess. The answer is quite simple. If they had done so they would have surrendered their absolute right to interpret Holy Scripture, which, as pointed out above, lay at the centre of the Reformation/Counter Reformation conflict; a right that the Catholic Church has not surrendered up to the present day.





Filed under History of Astronomy, History of science, Renaissance Science

8 responses to “The emergence of modern astronomy – a complex mosaic: Part XXIV

  1. theofloinn

    If the calibration laboratory gave up its exclusive right to set the standards and allowed everyone to decide for himself what is a yard or a meter or whatever, pretty soon you’d have hundreds of metrological sects, as in fact we did internationally when the English, French and sundry German feet were slightly different.

  2. John Kane

    Many modern commentators say why couldn’t the Church accept the eminently sensible suggestion made by Galileo and Foscarini

    Well, this might have had an effect:

    there existed no empirical proof for the heliocentric hypothesis, actually most of the then available empirical evidence supported a geocentric cosmos.

  3. As you mention both Luther and Calvin, it is worth pointing out that both rejected heliocentrism and Luther considered Copernicus to be a heretic (at least according to the record of one of his ‘Table Talks’).

    • Read the blog post on the subject that I linked to in the third paragraph on both but just for record as I wrote there:

      “The anti-Copernican quote that is attributed to Calvin is spurious and as far as can be ascertained Calvin never publicly offered an opinion on heliocentricity.”


      “What we actually have, in the passage quoted, is a man in his cups making a throw away quip to impress his dinner guests with his intellectual quick-wittedness. Nowhere else in his voluminous writings or in the records of his lectures and speeches does Luther mention Copernicus or his hypothesis with a single word. Also, possibly more important, nobody in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries quotes this passage from the Tischreden as Luther’s opinion on heliocentricity, it is first in the nineteenth century that we find this passage being used as a so-called proof for the religious rejection of heliocentricity in the early modern period.”

      • Jim Harrison

        The main fact is that the Reformation and Counter Reformation just weren’t about astronomy. You got burned at the stake for denying the Trinity or having the wrong opinion about predestination, not for claiming that the Sun’s in the middle. The positive evidence of what these folks were upset about hugely outweighs an anecdote or two that suggests otherwise.

      • Thony,
        If you read the rest of the article I linked to, two extracts stand out:

        “Sermon on 1 Corinthians 10:19-24″ and
        “Commentary on the Psalms: Volume IV, Ps 93:1”

        These are evidence that Calvin really rejected heliocentrism. I was not arguing for the false quotation attributed to Calvin by Russell etc.

  4. I guess the modern consensus is that the Galileo affair had little impact on the subsequent history of science. It certainly ended up being a black eye for the Catholic Church, from a PR standpoint.

    The current shibboleth against presentism forbids making value judgements about historical actors. (Inconsistently applied—does anyone hold that a study of, e.g., American slavery can’t say that it was immoral?) Obviously one has to be careful not to attribute modern motivations or outlooks to the participants, but there is no reason one can’t try to understand their viewpoints without having an opinion about them. I think historians like Thony and the commentors he disparages are often talking past each other. (Cf. Gopnik’s New Yorker piece.)

    Curiously, most of the revisionist treatments I’ve seen of the GG kerfuffle, rather than just let the history neutrally unfold, seem to be at pains to shift the blame from the Church to Galileo. In this post, we find Thony complaining about Galileo’s political missteps and lack of diplomatic skill. Implicit seems to be regret that the affair ever happened. (Koestler was explicit in his regret.) If Galileo hadn’t been who he was, things might have turned out differently. True enough, but so what?

    • “The current shibboleth against presentism forbids making value judgements about historical actors. (Inconsistently applied—does anyone hold that a study of, e.g., American slavery can’t say that it was immoral?) Obviously one has to be careful not to attribute modern motivations or outlooks to the participants, but there is no reason one can’t try to understand their viewpoints without having an opinion about them.”

      This is simply complete rubbish. It’s not a shibboleth, as presentism has never ever been acceptable methodology for history. There is also a clear and obvious distinction between writing history and passing moral judgements. The one does not exclude the other but they should not be confused or even worse mixed up but should be kept clearly separated. It is not the job of the historian when writing history to pass moral judgements. But the historian as a human being when not writing history has every right to pass moral judgements.

      I was never talking past Gopnik, he quite literally didn’t know what he was talking about and was simply spouting crap; his usual modus operandi.

      My account is historically neutral. Within the given historical context Galileo clearly made serious mistakes and paid the penalty for them. The Church acted as it must in the historical context.

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