Galileo: Beyond the Dogma

A detail from Cristiano Banti's Galileo Before the Inquisition (1857).

A detail from Cristiano Banti’s Galileo Before the Inquisition (1857).

In 1616, when it was formally declared heretical, it didn’t matter that heliocentricity was true and could be proven.  The scientific community of the time was biased by popular opinion, and did little to challenge archaic beliefs with persistent scientific inquiry.  Galileo believed that science reconciled with the Bible; that facts should be discovered, and then analyzed and interpreted based upon observation.  A devout follower of Christianity, Galileo felt that “the Bible shows the ways to go to Heaven, not the way the heavens go.”[1]  He thought that the facts of what he had seen through the telescope could not be denied, and expressed the challenges his ideas faced in a letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany in 1615. He shows regret at the controversy his observations had caused when writing about the trouble he had “stirred” amongst other professors, proclaiming “as if I had placed these things in the sky with my own hands to upset nature and overturn the sciences.”  Galileo felt that scientists showed “a greater fondness for their own opinions than for truth” and felt that if they had just “cared to look for themselves” truth would be discovered “by their own senses.”[2]


There was a tendency for rational argument to be dismissed in Galileo’s era, in favor of old beliefs which clung to Aristotelian ideas and a “sprinkling” of church dogma.  Galileo felt that his critics brought “vain arguments” against him, mixing in passages from the Bible “which they had failed to understand properly, and which were ill suited to their purposes.” He points out that “these men have resolved to fabricate a shield for their fallacies out of the mantle of pretend religion and the authority of the Bible.” These poor arguments won debates because they did little to challenge the power system of the Catholic Church.  Instead of adequately countering his viewpoint and critique on Aristotle and Ptolemy, Galileo’s scientific contemporaries, as well as those of the Church, polarize themselves, spitefully, against “arguments that they do not understand and have not even listened to.”  His ideas were hardly given a chance, and “for deceitful purposes,” they were proclaimed as being contrary to the bible. He felt that his idea would live on, because it was the truth, and that truth would have “adherents,” contrary to what his critics believed.  For the issue to be effectively erased, the Church would have to “ban the whole science of astronomy” and “forbid men to look at the heavens, in order that they might not see Mars and Venus” while they changed positions in the sky.[3] As a pious man, he felt that “the Bible can never speak untruth—whenever its true meaning is understood.”[4]  He was not out to disprove Christianity, he was seeking to share with those around him, the discoveries that reaffirmed his faith.


Galileo did not see his work as besmirching that of God, who wasn’t “any less excellently revealed in Nature’s actions[5] than in the sacred statements of the Bible.”[6]  Centuries later, Pope John Paul II would echo the idea that “science and religion are both gifts from God” when issuing a posthumous apology for the treatment of Galileo during the Inquisition.  Unlike Popes of an earlier time, John Paul II believed, much as Galileo did, that faith can coexist alongside discoveries in the natural world.  He labeled the “Galileo case” a “regrettable past event of history” that “undermined the good understanding between the Church and the scientific community.  The Pope called for an “objective review” of the past controversy in that it could “do honor to the truth of the faith and of science and open the doors for future collaboration.”[7]  Seeing both as essential, he stated “that science and religion are at the service of the human community.” Both, in his opinion, would do well to shed the mutual suspicion while aspiring “to establish a constructive and cordial relationship.” The Pope believed that “the light of reason, which made science possible, and the light of Revelation, which makes faith possible, both emanate from a single source.” He sees them as harmonizing and by their “very nature,” he claims, they are designed to coexist, “never on a collision course.”  He saw science as a “gift,” a precious tool which helps “the natural capacity of the mind to grasp reality by means of rigorous and logical procedures.”  John Paul II makes the claim that any time the two are in discord, it is because of “an unfortunate pathological condition,”[8] as can be assumed the case in Galileo’s time.


The concern in the 1600s was that ideas such as Galileo’s were “dangerous,” and they can be.  The evolutionary tract of humanity’s awareness of the natural world has led to sinister creations like the atomic bomb, the dangers of which John Paul II addressed. Just as dangerous is the adherence to dogmatic biases, and although humanity is far removed from executions by burning, strict convictions continue to blind many, stifling the John Paul II’s natural “trajectory” of both science and faith.  The work of natural philosophers such as Galileo and today’s scientists, according to John Paul II, is meant to go together with the work of theologians and priests for the protection of all and the benefit of both; both science and faith, he expressed “must take on a precise ethical responsibility in regard to their relationships and applications…the stakes are too high to be taken lightly.”  He saw it as “necessary to be tireless in promoting a scientific culture capable…of serving the universal good.”[9]  Past shortsightedness and the failure to understand science should be learned from, the former Pope believed. Critical observation and reason, along with faith, in their proper dosages, fosters and nurtures a sound and happy society, while dogmatic subscription sets back and stifles the natural order of existence.


Coffin, Judith and Robert Stacey. Western Civilization, Volume Two.  15th ed. New York:  W.W. Norton & Company, 2005.

Modern History Sourcebook: Galileo Galilei: Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany, 1615.  Hosted at: (accessed January 5, 2010)

Pope John Paul II.  The Resolution: Science and Faith are both Gifts from God.  1993.  Hosted at: (accessed January 5, 2010)


[1] Judith Coffin and Robert Stacey. Western Civilization, Volume Two.  15th ed  (New York:  W.W. Norton & Company, 2005), 584.

[2] Modern History Sourcebook: Galileo Galilei: Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany, 1615. Hosted at: (accessed January 5, 2010)

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] The study of “nature’s actions,” being Galileo’s life’s work.

[6] Modern History Sourcebook: Galileo.

[7] Pope John Paul II.  The Resolution: Science and Faith are both Gifts from God.  1993.  Hosted at: (accessed January 5, 2010)

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

Daniel Malo

Western Civ 2



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