THE CASE OF GALILEO: A CLOSED QUESTION?






Publication: Theological Studies
Author: Worcester, Thomas
Date published: March 1, 2013

THE CASE OF GALILEO: A CLOSED QUESTION? By Annibale Fantoli. Translated from the Italian by George V. Coyne, SJ. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 2012. Pp. xii -I- 272. $28.

In 1979 Pope John Paul II established a commission to reexamine the Galileo affair. This is the starting point and in many ways the end point of this study. Fantoli, already well-published on Galileo (1564-1642), traces both the complexities of Galileo's dealings with and condemnation by the Catholic Church of his day, and the successes and failures of more recent papal efforts to finally move beyond what for most people today remains a notorious case of religion attempting to stifle scientific progress.

F. highlights very well the ways early 17th-century resistance to Copernicanism or to a heliocentric understanding of the universe was grounded above all in veneration of some ancient texts viewed as authoritative if not altogether definitive. These were certain works of Aristotle and certain verses in the Bible. Central to the debate was the question of which mattered more: antiquity's time-honored texts or new knowledge made available through empirical methods dependent on new technologies such as the telescope? In the early 1600s, was the Renaissance veneration of ancient texts ready to make way for the scientific revolution and its experimental and observational way of proceeding?

The Jesuit role in Galileo's travails, F. shows, was a quite varied one, depending on which Jesuit one is talking about, and at which stage of events. At one end of the spectrum of attitudes toward Galileo was Christopher Clavius, S.J. (1537-1612), mathematician and chief architect of the Gregorian calendar, who was a friend and supporter of Galileo. At the opposite end of the spectrum were several very conservative Jesuits eager to uphold traditional cosmological views. Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, SX (1542-1621), seems to have fallen somewhere in the middle, though he played a central role in notifying Galileo of the 1616 decision of Pope Paul V, published by the Sacred Congregation of the Index, stating that heliocentrism is contrary to Scripture and therefore must not be defended or held, though it could continue to be discussed as "a purely mathematical hypothesis" (138).

F. shows Pope Urban VIII (reign 1623-1644) to have been somewhat skeptical about the possibility of human science ever deciphering how the universe worked. Yet Urban was initially quite favorable to Galileo, even if he eventually turned against him when the latter went beyond a mere hypothesis in support of a Copernican view of the universe. F. shows clearly how Galileo's 1632 Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems was perceived by many in Rome not only to flout the restriction regarding a mathematical hypothesis but also to mock the pope. In this dialogue of three individuals, Simplicius, the spokesman for a traditional Aristotelian-Ptolemaic view, was portrayed as a kind of simpleton "who believes blindly in a natural philosophy no longer supportable" (152) and advances the weakest of arguments. Urban VIII judged Galileo to have both broken his promises and, worse, used Simplicius as a thinly veiled stand-in for Urban himself. Urban deeply resented what he saw as personal betrayal by a recipient of papal patronage - indeed not only a betrayal but also "an infraction against the fundamental rule of patronage and it would never be pardoned" (198). Thus the pope became an implacable opponent of Galileo, and soon the wheels were set in motion for his trial before the Roman Inquisition. Galileo's condemnation may thus have resulted as much or more from papal pique as from any defense of the authority of antiquity in matters cosmologica!, or from any conflict between science and religion.

F. demonstrates that despite the many cardinals and various papal bureaucrats and other persons involved in the Galileo case, Paul V and Urban VIII bear personal responsibility for its outcome in 1616 and in 1633 respectively. But F. also argues that John Paul IPs desire to acknowledge that Galileo's condemnation was a mistake, and thus in some sense close the case, was frustrated by other Vatican authorities who made a muddle of the honesty and clarity the pope desired. Cardinal Paul Poupard, on F.'s account, seems to have played a major role in such a muddling. Though books on the Galileo case are extraordinarily abundant, this volume merits attention both by historians and by anyone concerned with how papal bureaucracy may be functional and/or dysfunctional.

Author affiliation:

College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, MA THOMAS WORCESTER, S.J.

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