Fr. W. Devivier, SJ
Edited by Bishop S.G. Messmer, DD, DCL
Bishop of Green Bay, Wisc.
Imprimatur, 1903


Certain Accusations Against the Church: Part 3


This is another weapon of attack valued by the enemies of the Church, for the reason that, in their opinion, it proves the fallibility of the Church and the Pope, and their opposition to scientific progress. Let us see if the accusation is well founded.

HISTORICAL NOTICE.----Galileo (1564-1642), a learned astronomer and distinguished philosopher, was born at Pisa, but lived at Florence. He adopted at the beginning of the sixteenth century the opinion of the Canon Copernicus (1473-1543), which held that the earth moved around a stationary sun. But while Copernicus was allowed to teach his theory undisturbed, Galileo was indirectly censured the 24th of February, 1616, by the Holy Office.

No book of Galileo is condemned in this censure pronounced by the Holy Office, but the Copernican doctrine in regard to the mobility of the earth and the immobility of the sun is declared to be philosophically false, contrary to the teaching of Holy Scripture, and formally heretical. This censure was an act of a private nature in which no one but the consultors of the Roman Congregation were concerned. Therefore it excited no discussion. The following Thursday the Pope, on the report of the Cardinals of the Holy Office, ordered that Galileo be notified of this censure and that he be forbidden to teach the doctrine of the mobility of the earth. The order contains no word of Paul V which could be construed as qualifying the doctrine; moreover, this again was merely a personal document having nothing in common with an ex cathedra definition. Then followed the decree of the Index of March 5, 1616, which prohibited the books written in favor of the system of Copernicus. The Pope's name does not appear in the decree: the Congregation spoke in its own name. No penance or abjuration followed on the part of Galileo, who continued to live in his villa near Florence, enjoying the friendship and favors of Urban VIII. Finally, in 1633 a sentence was issued condemning Galileo to retract what were called his errors. It simply stated the culpability of Galileo and fixed the penalties he was to endure. The decree of 1616 was referred to only as an historical fact. "The Sacred Congregation of the Index," it ran, "has rendered a decree in which the books which treat of this doctrine were prohibited, and the doctrine itself declared false and contrary to the Scriptures." There is no trace in it of the public intervention of the sovereign Pontiff, either in qualifying as heretical the heresy attributed to the Copernican system, or in the examination and condemnation of Galileo.

We see even from this brief statement of the case that the only important decree from a doctrinal point of view is that of March 5, 1616, which attributes to the words of the Bible a meaning which we know now the text does not bear out. What are we to think of this decree?


This question is as simple as it is incontestable: the decree of 1616 is not one of those sentences to which the Church attributes the privilege of infallibility. In effect:

1. We have already seen what conditions are necessary to render the doctrinal teaching of the sovereign Pontiff infallible: he must speak ex cathedra, that is, in the discharge of his office as pastor and doctor of all Christians he must define, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, that a doctrine concerning faith or morals is to be believed by the whole Church. Now, the incriminating decree of 1616 lacks the characters required by the Vatican Council: it imposes no adherence to any doctrine, it merely prohibits the books which teach the mobility of the earth and the immobility of the sun; nor does it insist that the last opinion shall be held as false and the first as true. It prescribes what must be done, not what must be believed. In brief, no doctrine is imposed as of faith upon the whole Church; it is only a disciplinary enactment to prevent the spread of certain books. It is true that the considerations which precede the decree and which express the motive dictating it, contain a doctrinal error; in effect the theory of the movement of the earth is neither false nor contrary to Holy Scripture; but the decision itself does not go beyond a disciplinary enactment. Therefore, even if the decree of 1616 contained an infallible definition of doctrine, the considerations, as we have seen (ibid.), would not necessarily partake of this infallibility.

2. To this decisive proof let us add that the very form of the decree fully confirms what we say. In all the doctrinal definitions emanating from the Holy See and recognized as infallible, the Pope always teaches directly and not through the cardinals. There is not a single example of a doctrinal definition generally recognized as infallible which was rendered in the form of the decree concerning Galileo. [Emphasis added; the same as is with much so-called "teachings" after Vatican II that liberals and modernists like to pronounce as infallible, thereby immutable, pronouncements that in effect contradict actual dogma. These "teachings" are issued by various Cardinals and or their subordinates in the name of the Holy See and have no stamp of infallibility whatsoever, unless they simply restate what has already been formerly defined by the Pope and or the Sacred, that is, Dogmatic councils----not Pastoral councils.]

3. Still another argument of great value is that contemporary documents prove that the Pope himself and the persons of his court never considered the decree in question an infallible definition. Nor did the theologians of the time or those who followed them: not one can be cited who regarded this decree as definitive and infallible; a number, on the contrary, could be named who categorically declared the contrary. Their names and their statements can be found in the works or articles referred to, especially Wegg-Prosser and Parsons. Finally, the idea of regarding the decree as an ex cathedra definition never occurred even to Galileo's bitterest opponents, though such a definition would have afforded them the best means of dealing a decisive blow to his theories.

REMARKS.----1st. We have no difficulty in acknowledging that the Roman Congregation erred in their much-to-be-regretted condemnation of Galileo; carried away by their extravagant fondness for Aristotle and the philosophic system of his commentators, they made the mistake of imagining that religion was endangered and Holy Scripture contradicted by the system of Copernicus.

It is also true that Pope Urban VII himself took an active part in this erroneous judgment; but his responsibility is wholly individual, wholly personal: it tells against the scholar, the private theologian, but not against the sovereign Pontiff speaking ex cathedra, that is, as sovereign teacher of the universal Church. In fact all that theology requires to constitute an ex cathedra decree is altogether lacking here: the Pope not only made no solemn declaration, but no bull, no encyclical, nor even a brief of the Holy Father accompanied the sentence of the Holy Office of the Congregation of the Index; nor was any confirmation or signature asked of the sovereign Pontiff. And even such confirmation would not be sufficient to pledge his infallibility.

2d. Though the system of Copernicus was true, Galileo did not know how to defend it, and it is not astonishing that the weak arguments with which he tried to establish his theory excited violent contradiction. Moreover, if ecclesiastical tribunals were deceived, scholars could not boast of greater perspicacity, for numbers of them fell into the same error, and, what is more, desired and urged the condemnation of Galileo. Hence science was no less at fault than theology. We might add that Luther, Melanchthon, and the reformers generally showed no more tolerance for the new system.

[I publish this chapter in its entirety because it contains no heresy and science has determined that Copernicus was right. But as more and more evidence of fact is gathered, there are scientists who now think that he may have been wrong. Despite centuries of supposed certitude, the jury is still out so to speak, just as it is with "global warning". In science there are no final answers, the first rule we were taught in college biology. The same with chemistry and physiology. Scientists told us just a few years ago that caffeine was bad for us and we should reduce our consumption or forego it altogether if we could.  Now the same scientists tell us that coffee is good for women, if not most men, up to three cups or so a day. It is supposed to lower female cholesterol, or contribute to it in some way. This holds even with pregnant women to some degree. Almost everything I learned about the four food groups as a child has been turned upside down in my lifetime and I was told the chart I learned was written in stone, definite! Almost every diet doctor now contradicts another and so the books on nutrition proliferate faster than we can count them----the reader is left totally baffled, and to think these are based on scientific "evidence".

 All I know is that the Church has not issued a formal decree that says I must believe the Copernican theory or not believe it and until it does we are free to accept either scientific argument, that is, it is the Church that declares the actual [final therefore] meaning of any passage of Scripture, not you or I. Until it does I accept this passage literally, on my own accord, because I am permitted to do so, as a matter of opinion, and thus I am geocentric and not heliocentric in my approach. But I do not mind anyone else who disagrees whatsoever. What we are not permitted to do is to formally define Scripture on our own as an absolute as if we are infallible, nor distort the actual words of the Bible to suit our own ideas of things or say that Scripture is in error.----Web Master.]

3d. If Galileo after his condemnation of 1616 had been more prudent and less aggressive, [2] he would not have received a second condemnation in 1633, and it is probable that the system of Copernicus would soon have become popular, for it had as partisans and defenders among the clergy a number of renowned scholars. Unfortunately he had not patience to trust the inevitable triumph of his ideas to time, and he wrote a new work entitled "Dialogues on the Two Systems of the World," in which he attacked those among his adversaries who had been most indulgent toward him. The Pope, particularly, believed himself insulted in the ridiculous character of Simplicio. The partisans of the Ptolemaic system, incensed by Galileo's conduct, asked and obtained a new condemnation, which, however, did not receive, any more than that of 1616, the authentic or public confirmation of the sovereign Pontiff.

4th. No Catholic attributes the privilege of infallibility to the Roman Congregations. They are subject to err, no doubt; but this is not to say that they have no authority and that their decrees may be defied. The father of a family also may be mistaken, but he does not on that account lose his right to the obedience of his children. Instituted to examine doctrinal questions, and to watch over the purity of the faith, these congregations have the right to forbid the teaching of certain doctrines considered by them as erroneous, suspicious, or dangerous. Such prohibition is a measure of prudence, and is binding upon Catholics; at the same time it is essentially provisory in its nature. If, therefore, it is proved later that the danger does not exist, or that it has ceased, the prohibition will be removed, or cease of itself to exist for lack of cause.

CONCLUSION.----It is manifestly evident from the facts stated above that the infallibility of the Church does not enter into the questions of Galileo's condemnation; we have reason, on the contrary, to recognize in it the providential assistance promised to the Church, when we consider that though numerous theologians and possibly the Pope himself regarded the Copernican system as contrary to the Holy Scripture, God did not permit the head of the Church to pronounce against it a judgment ex cathedra.


This second point is much less important than the first. It implies both a question of principle and one of fact: is the Church opposed to science, and did Galileo have to suffer for his scientific conviction?

1. So far from being opposed to the progress of science, the Church has always stimulated intellectual activity; she has always favored philosophy, belles-lettres, the sciences, and the arts. This we have already proved, and we demonstrate it still further . . . [in the last chapter which is divided into three parts----the author refers to a specific single chapter, but for the web we have broken up each chapter into sections so as to reduce length].

In regard to the systematic and malicious opposition to the progress of natural science attributed to the clergy at the time of Galileo, it is clearly denied by the striking testimony of the sympathy and protection then accorded to scientific studies at Rome; by the remarkable labors of the Jesuits Clavius, Griemberger, Guldin, Scheiner, Grimaldi, Riccioli; of the canons or monks, like Copernicus, Castelli, Renieri, Cavalieri, Gassendi, and by the enthusiastic reception which, the discoveries of Galileo met with in the highest circles of Rome; by his intimacy and active correspondence with a number of prelates such as Cardinals Barberini and Conti, Mgr. Dini, Mgr. Ciampoli, the Archbishop Piccolomini, Mgr. Virginio Cesarini.

Moreover, the system of Aristarchus of Samos (third century before Christ), which held that the earth revolved about the sun, was freely taught without any protest on the part of the Church. In 1435 Cardinal Cusa revived this system; then Canon Copernicus in his immortal work De orbium cælestium revolutionibus had completely transformed it and applied it to the discussion of heavenly appearances; his work had obtained the support of Cardinal Schomberg and the approbation of Pope Paul III; . . . it was taught in the Italian schools and professed before the sovereign Pontiff Clement VII, and no authorized protest was ever heard within the Church.

2. To stimulate the hatred of the opponents of religion an attempt has been made to represent Galileo as a martyr to science, thrust into a dark dungeon and delivered up to the horrors of torture. The truth is that from 1616 to 1633 he peacefully continued his labors at Florence, where he wrote the works we have mentioned. In regard to the period of the second trial, it was proved by the testimony of all contemporaries most worthy of belief, as well as by the correspondence of Galileo himself, and the written proceedings of the trial of 1633, that he not only was not tortured and was not a martyr to science, but that, strictly speaking, he was never imprisoned or deprived of his liberty either before or after his sentence. "We defy the most fanatical," says M. Gilbert in La Revue des Questions scientifiques (1877), "to state when and where, during or after his trial, Galileo endured an hour's detention in a real prison." While his trial was pending he lived at the palace of Nicolini, the Tuscan ambassador, his devoted friend, who overwhelmed him with attention; on the eve of his examination he was taken to the Minerva, where he remained from the 12th to the 13th of April, 1633, in the apartments of the judge-advocate of the Holy Office, with permission "to wander in the vast chambers," as Galileo himself writes, and had the services not only of his own servant, but of those of the ambassador. "As to my health, I am well, thanks to God and the delicate attention of the ambassador and his wife, who are most attentive in affording me every comfort." Having fallen ill, he was sent back by order of Pope Urban VIII to the palace of the ambassador, where he was allowed to receive his friends, and to go and come as he pleased. He remained in this brilliant prison until June 22d, the day of his condemnation. By the judicial sentence he was to be detained at the apartments of the fiscal of the Holy Office; but the next day this detention was changed to retirement at the palace of the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Later, after a sojourn with his devoted friend the Archbishop of Siena, Galileo passed the rest of his life at his own villa at Arcetri, which had been assigned him for his permanent residence. Here he continued his scientific work and received the visits of the learned and prominent persons of his time. He died in 1642, having drawn to the last day of his life the pension allowed him by the Pope in 1630.

3. In regard to the torture which, it is claimed, was inflicted upon the illustrious astronomer, no confirmation of it is found in the authentic and complete records published by M. de I'Epinois, which give the fullest details of the trial. "Never did Galileo in letters to his most intimate correspondents ever write a line from which it could be inferred that he was subjected to torture.
. . . He himself declares in a letter of 1634 that "he suffered nothing in his life or honor." See M. Gilbert's article already quoted.

It was only about 1770, that is, one hundred and forty years after the trial, that Italian writers began to circulate the report that Galileo was put to the torture, acknowledging at the same time that it was improbable. Now that we possess the official documents of the trial, such a calumny is absolutely untenable; hence it is never cited by reliable writers, whatever the school to which they belong. We cannot hope, however, to see it disappear from the writings hostile to religion. [3]

Let us observe in passing that the famous e pur si muove, "nevertheless it moves," attributed to Galileo as he rose from his knees after his abjuration, is a pure invention. For the rest this story began to circulate only at the end of the last century. Writers will continue nevertheless to quote it as true, because of its fine effect in a romance or play.

CONCLUSION.----The enemies of the Church must be very poor in arguments against her to repeat constantly this oft-refuted error of an ecclesiastic tribunal. The error, unique in its kind, was shared by a number of scholars, and is readily explained by the circumstances of the times in which it occurred. Their persistent use of this question, more than two hundred years old, as a powerful weapon against the Church, is all the more singular since Galileo himself, to whose opinion a number of cardinals and priests rallied, was not an apostate, not a free-thinker, but a sincere and honest Catholic; the rudest trials failed to shake his faith, and he died piously in the bosom of the Catholic Church.


1. Wegg-Prosser; Parsons, Studies, IV.; Lies, p. 80; A. C. Q. vi. 85; C. W. viii., xlvi. 110; D. R. New Ser. xvi. 351, xvii. 140, III. Ser. ii. 236; I. E. R., Apr. 1900.
2. Dr. Whewell, History of Inductive Science, vol. i., p. 420.
3. On Giordano Eruno, another so-called martyr of science, see J. Mooney, Who was G. B.?; A. C. Q. xiv. 716; M. lxvi. 357, lxxv. 527; Parsons, Studies, III., ch. 31; Lies, p. 33.