Galileo Faces the Inquisition for Heresy

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You’re grounded, Mister! Photo by the New Yorker

In April of 1633, the renowned scientist Galileo Galilei arrived in Rome. But this was no pleasure trip. Pope Urban VIII was miffed and summoned him to stand before the Inquisition.

Galileo’s sin was heresy, based on his acceptance of Copernican theory, which purported that the planets, including the earth, revolved around the sun. Unfortunately for Galileo, this did not mesh with Christian religious beliefs.

During this time, the accepted scientific theory was that the sun, planets, and stars all orbited around a stationary earth, which was the center of the universe. This theory originated with Aristotle and Ptolemy. This theory was (supposedly) upheld by the Bible, and the Church wasn’t happy that Galileo was rocking the theological boat.

But Galileo wasn’t just guessing. He invented the refractor telescope, which enabled him to discover Jupiter’s four largest moons and the existence of sunspots. He also could prove conclusively that Copernicus had been correct.

Galileo was already in hot water for stating in a 1613 letter that Scripture should not be taken literally, but rather figuratively. In 1616, the Church demanded that Galileo renounce his opinions about the order of the universe, and, probably figuring you can’t fight city hall (or the Vatican), he agreed to the Church’s demands.

For a few years, Galileo kept a low profile while working on a book he called “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems.” In it, he explored both the Copernican and Catholic theories of the universe. Our pal Gal couldn't resist poking the papal bear by broadly hinting that Copernicus was in the right.

When the book was published in 1632, it was well-received by the general public, but the Copernican bias was not lost on the powers-that-be in the Church. The Inquisition accused Galileo of violating the 1616 injunction that September and ordered him to face trial in Rome.

When he stood before ten Cardinals in April of 1633, the 69-year-old Galileo agreed to abandon his views in the hopes of a lighter sentence. He really, really meant it this time. The Cardinals reached their verdict in June of 1633:

“We pronounce, judge, and declare, that you, the said Galileo . . . have rendered yourself vehemently suspected by this Holy Office of heresy, that is, of having believed and held the doctrine (which is false and contrary to the Holy and Divine Scriptures) that the sun is the center of the world, and that it does not move from east to west, and that the earth does move, and is not the center of the world.”

Galileo’s book was banned, and he was placed under house arrest. Not great, but better than burning at the stake. He remained at his villa near Florence for the rest of his life, where he died on January 8, 1642.

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is a political junkie and history buff randomly alternating between bouts of crankiness and amusement while bearing witness to the Apocalypse. Come along!

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