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Galileo and St. Bellarmine

On April 12, 1615 Cardinal Bellarmine, a man later canonized by the Catholic Church as a Saint and hence by its own inviolable logic divinely inspired and infallible when pronouncing on the true nature of all things, wrote to FoscariniA.1:

I have gladly read the letter in Italian and the treatise which Your Reverence sent me, and I thank you for both. And I confess that both are filled with ingenuity and learning, and since you ask for my opinion, I will give it to you very briefly, as you have little time for reading and I for writing:

First. I say that it seems to me that Your Reverence and Galileo did prudently to content yourself with speaking hypothetically, and not absolutely, as I have always believed that Copernicus spoke. For to say that, assuming the earth moves and the sun stands still, all the appearances are saved better than with eccentrics and epicycles, is to speak well; there is no danger in this, and it is sufficient for mathematicians. But to want to affirm that the sun really is fixed in the center of the heavens and only revolves around itself (i. e., turns upon its axis ) without traveling from east to west, and that the earth is situated in the third sphere and revolves with great speed around the sun, is a very dangerous thing, not only by irritating all the philosophers and scholastic theologians, but also by injuring our holy faith and rendering the Holy Scriptures false. For Your Reverence has demonstrated many ways of explaining Holy Scripture, but you have not applied them in particular, and without a doubt you would have found it most difficult if you had attempted to explain all the passages which you yourself have cited.

Second. I say that, as you know, the CouncilA.2prohibits expounding the Scriptures contrary to the common agreement of the holy Fathers. And if Your Reverence would read not only the Fathers but also the commentaries of modern writers on Genesis, Psalms, Ecclesiastes and Josue, you would find that all agree in explaining literally (ad litteram) that the sun is in the heavens and moves swiftly around the earth, and that the earth is far from the heavens and stands immobile in the center of the universe. Now consider whether in all prudence the Church could encourage giving to Scripture a sense contrary to the holy Fathers and all the Latin and Greek commentators. Nor may it be answered that this is not a matter of faith, for if it is not a matter of faith from the point of view of the subject matter, it is on the part of the ones who have spoken. It would be just as heretical to deny that Abraham had two sons and Jacob twelve, as it would be to deny the virgin birth of Christ, for both are declared by the Holy Ghost through the mouths of the prophets and apostles.

Third. I say that if there were a true demonstration that the sun was in the center of the universe and the earth in the third sphere, and that the sun did not travel around the earth but the earth circled the sun, then it would be necessary to proceed with great caution in explaining the passages of Scripture which seemed contrary, and we would rather have to say that we did not understand them than to say that something was false which has been demonstrated.But I do not believe that there is any such demonstration; none has been shown to me. It is not the same thing to show that the appearances are saved by assuming that the sun really is in the center and the earth in the heavens. I believe that the first demonstration might exist, but I have grave doubts about the second, and in a case of doubt, one may not depart from the Scriptures as explained by the holy Fathers. I add that the words ' the sun also riseth and the sun goeth down, and hasteneth to the place where he ariseth, etc.' were those of Solomon, who not only spoke by divine inspiration but was a man wise above all others and most learned in human sciences and in the knowledge of all created things, and his wisdom was from God. Thus it is not too likely that he would affirm something which was contrary to a truth either already demonstrated, or likely to be demonstrated. And if you tell me that Solomon spoke only according to the appearances, and that it seems to us that the sun goes around when actually it is the earth which moves, as it seems to one on a ship that the beach moves away from the ship, I shall answer that one who departs from the beach, though it looks to him as though the beach moves away, he knows that he is in error and corrects it, seeing clearly that the ship moves and not the beach. But with regard to the sun and the earth, no wise man is needed to correct the error, since he clearly experiences that the earth stands still and that his eye is not deceived when it judges that the moon and stars move. And that is enough for the present. I salute Your Reverence and ask God to grant you every happiness.

Lest it is not clear from the above, it is trivial to find numerous instances of passages in the Bible where prophets and important figures made statements that with no possible ambiguity contradict Galileo's (and Copernicus') model. The writers of the Bible, old and new testament alike, lived in a primitive, ignorant culture and were primitive, ignorant people. For them the world was flat and round, as any eye could see. The sky was a dome, the earth was immovable, and they themselves lived in the middle of all creation. God lived overhead, in heaven, and the underworld was below. The sun and the moon and the stars moved around them, and if the planets appeared to move backwards from time to time, it was because of Ptolemy's epicycles or the direct will of God. Genesis was considered to be literal truth, as was the story of Eden and the fall of perfect man from grace, the original sin.

Bellarmine's point is thus well made - if we admit doubt into the validity of the words of the prophets, of the saints, of David and Soloman and Moses and the rest, with respect to something absolutely fundamental like this, how can we deny that it is reasonable to doubt it all? Indeed, by his own words it ``is a very dangerous thing, not only by irritating all the philosophers and scholastic theologians, but also by injuring our holy faith and rendering the Holy Scriptures false.''

What more is there to say? There cannot be any person on the planet at this point who does not know that not only is the Earth not stationary in the center of a tiny Universe revolving around it, but that the sun postulated to be a center of motion by Copernicus is itself not the center, that it revolves around the center of a galaxy of billions of stars so large as to utterly dwarf the solar system, where the Earth itself is an insignficant speck compared to the Sun. That galaxy, in turn, is one small galaxy in a sky filled with galaxies as far as the most powerful telescopes can see, all the way back (in time) to the period when galaxies were forming hundreds of millions of years after the Big Bang. Even the most devoted of Christians, ones that manage somehow to hold onto the idea that the Earth is only 6000 or so years old and was created in seven days, no longer think that the Earth is the center of all things and that the Sun goes around it, because there are pictures, eyewitness accounts, television broadcasts, films, and mountains of data and empirical evidence that prove otherwise.

The prophets were wrong. Proven wrong on this one thing as recorded in holy scripture is sufficient to prove that their words in that scripture are not infallible, they are doubtable. As Ballarmine clearly saw, if the prophets were so overwhelmingly mistaken about this simple thing, a mere matter of the true nature of things that anybody with a tiny bit of vision (or a telescope and understanding of mathematics) could see for themselves at any moment, how can we believe them when they speak of miracles, of open violations of natural law? They don't even get it right when they speak of those natural laws being violated.

Bellarmine was just as wrong as those prophets. He relied on the immediate evidence of his senses to form his conclusion that the earth was immobile, where in truth the range of that vision was like that of an ant crawling up to the top of its mound and concluding that it was at the top of the world itself. His document, in historical retrospect, is a nearly perfect example of the axioms of religion in practical application. The scriptures are absolute truth, divinely inspired, conveyed to us by an infallible, omniscient God. Any theory, any idea, any statement that challenges that must be rejected, and the challenger suppressed on pain of excommunication and death by purifying fire.

Like good little white cells of the memetic superorganism to which they belonged, Bellarmine and the Inquisition of the Catholic Church responded to the ``irritating'' of its superorganismic body - philosophers and scholastic theologians alike - by surrounding the offending ``cancer'' cell and forcing it to publically recant and affirm its memetic identity on pain of death. It did so with the following document, in 1633A.3:

Whereas you, Galileo, son of the late Vincenzio Galilei, of Florence, aged seventy years, were denounced in 1615, to this Holy Office, for holding as true a false doctrine taught by many, namely, that the sun is immovable in the center of the world, and that the earth moves, and also with a diurnal motion; also, for having pupils whom you instructed in the same opinions; also, for maintaining a correspondence on the same with some German mathematicians; also for publishing certain letters on the sun-spots, in which you developed the same doctrine as true; also, for answering the objections which were continually produced from the Holy Scriptures, by glozingA.4 the said Scriptures according to your own meaning; and whereas thereupon was produced the copy of a writing, in form of a letter professedly written by you to a person formerly your pupil, in which, following the hypothesis of Copernicus, you include several propositions contrary to the true sense and authority of the Holy Scriptures; therefore (this Holy Tribunal being desirous of providing against the disorder and mischief which were thence proceeding and increasing to the detriment of the Holy Faith) by the desire of his Holiness and the Most Emminent Lords, Cardinals of this supreme and universal Inquisition, the two propositions of the stability of the sun, and the motion of the earth, were qualified by the Theological Qualifiers as follows:

  1. The proposition that the sun is in the center of the world and immovable from its place is absurd, philosophically false, and formally heretical; because it is expressly contrary to Holy Scriptures.
  2. The proposition that the earth is not the center of the world, nor immovable, but that it moves, and also with a diurnal action, is also absurd, philosophically false, and, theologically considered, at least erroneous in faith.

Therefore, invoking the most holy name of our Lord Jesus Christ and of His Most Glorious Mother Mary, We pronounce this Our final sentence: 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; also, that an opinion can be held and supported as probable, after it has been declared and finally decreed contrary to the Holy Scripture, and, consequently, that you have incurred all the censures and penalties enjoined and promulgated in the sacred canons and other general and particular constituents against delinquents of this description. From which it is Our pleasure that you be absolved, provided that with a sincere heart and unfeigned faith, in Our presence, you abjure, curse, and detest, the said error and heresies, and every other error and heresy contrary to the Catholic and Apostolic Church of Rome.

To save his life, his fortune, his family from what amounted to an open threat to murder him unless he openly and publically embraced a convenient lie, in the name of Jesus and Mary themselves, Galileo signed the following document:

I, Galileo Galilei, son of the late Vincenzio Galilei of Florence, aged 70 years, tried personally by this court, and kneeling before You, the most Eminent and Reverend Lord Cardinals, Inquisitors-General throughout the Christian Republic against heretical depravity, having before my eyes the Most Holy Gospels, and laying on them my own hands; I swear that I have always believed, I believe now, and with God's help I will in future believe all which the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church doth hold, preach, and teach.

But since I, after having been admonished by this Holy Office entirely to abandon the false opinion that the Sun was the center of the universe and immoveable, and that the Earth was not the center of the same and that it moved, and that I was neither to hold, defend, nor teach in any manner whatever, either orally or in writing, the said false doctrine; and after having received a notification that the said doctrine is contrary to Holy Writ, I did write and cause to be printed a book in which I treat of the said already condemned doctrine, and bring forward arguments of much efficacy in its favour, without arriving at any solution: I have been judged vehemently suspected of heresy, that is, of having held and believed that the Sun is the center of the universe and immoveable, and that the Earth is not the center of the same, and that it does move.

Nevertheless, wishing to remove from the minds of your Eminences and all faithful Christians this vehement suspicion reasonably conceived against me, I abjure with sincere heart and unfeigned faith, I curse and detest the said errors and heresies, and generally all and every error and sect contrary to the Holy Catholic Church. And I swear that for the future I will neither say nor assert in speaking or writing such things as may bring upon me similar suspicion; and if I know any heretic, or one suspected of heresy, I will denounce him to this Holy Office, or to the Inquisitor and Ordinary of the place in which I may be.

I also swear and promise to adopt and observe entirely all the penances which have been or may be by this Holy Office imposed on me. And if I contravene any of these said promises, protests, or oaths, (which God forbid!) I submit myself to all the pains and penalties which by the Sacred Canons and other Decrees general and particular are against such offenders imposed and promulgated. So help me God and the Holy Gospels, which I touch with my own hands.

I Galileo Galilei aforesaid have abjured, sworn, and promised, and hold myself bound as above; and in token of the truth, with my own hand have subscribed the present schedule of my abjuration, and have recited it word by word. In Rome, at the Convent della Minerva, this 22nd day of June, 1633.

I, GALILEO GALILEI, have abjured as above, with my own hand.

There is a possibly apocryphal story that Galileo, in a last act of defiance against this outrageous violation of his free intellectual will, whispered E pur si muove! (and yet it moves!) at the trial where he was forced to recant by signing the statement above. It is most unlikely that this was true, as if he were overheard he would without doubt have been publically and ritually murdered by the Church's highest leaders in the name of a god-man who (according to their own myths) forgave his murderers and preached that one should love one's enemy as oneself, a faith based on an explicit commandment from God not to kill, a faith supposedly commited to truth.

On October 31, 1992, thirteen years after pope John Paul II appointed a commission to examine whether or not the church erred in condemning Galileo to what amounted to both physical and intellectual confinement for the last eight years of his life on pain of death, they finally concluded that Galileo was, in fact, not guilty of any form of heresy. They stopped short of concluding that in fact Cardinal Bellarmine, the pope, and all the members of the Inquisition were murderous criminals intent on preserving unchallenged the memetic basis of their power, instead noting gently that they doubtless ``acted in good faith'' as they threatened him with immolation.

Thirteen years! The commission was appointed ten years after man first walked on the moon, hundreds of years after the general validity of the Copernican model was a known truth. The members of the commission doubtless had to fly half way around the world to meet, and had to deal with jet lag when they got there because of the world's diurnal rotation in spite of the Bible's assertion that ``God fixed the Earth upon its foundation, not to be moved forever'' (Psalms 103), flying over oceans and continents that are, in fact, moving incessantly as the tectonic plates on which we live float around on a sea of fluid rock that occasionally bursts free in a spectacular display of heat and light.

Thirteen minutes would have been too long. The appointing of a commission at all was absurd. However, the real issue dealt with by the commission was doubtless not the truth of Galileo's assertions or the falseness of the Bible, it was even now, today, the defense of the memetic superorganism. As the pope himself stated in his announcement of the ``good news''A.5

The underlying problems of this case concern both the nature of science and the message of faith. One day we may find ourselves in a similar situation, which will require both sides to have an informed awareness of the field and of the limits of their own competencies.

I sincerely, passionately hope that we will never again find ourselves in a situation where the Church threatens the murder of those who disagree with its pronouncements, even those who openly assert that most of its rituals, its rules, its laws, its scripture have little to do with God or faith and much to do with preserving:

  1. The power structure of the superorganism, especially the power and personal prerogatives and responsibilities of those at the very top, its ``brain'' or the center of its ``self''.
  2. The scripture itself from any sort of question or doubt. The Church relies on its scriptural pronouncements on miracles and matters of faith being accepted without question or doubt just as much today as it did in Galileo's day. It just can no longer easily get away with murder.
After all, I think that this work would qualify on all counts far more than anything Galileo ever wrote or even thought. If the Church really wishes to form a full understanding of the limits of their competence to make pronouncements of any sort on the nature of science or faith, they need do nothing but read this book.

In it they will learn the simple truth - neither they in their most pretentious moment nor I in mine are competent to make the least of pronouncements on the true nature of being as if it were an undoubtable truthA.6. We each and every one of us live in a state of humility and wonder as we experience the world moment by moment, living always in the now and trying to make the best sense of it all that we can. Every human soul is equal in this pursuit, and no assertion made by a human being may be proven or disproven by reason, as reason itself isn't really reasonable - it is a foundation erected by our imagination, built on top of unprovable assertions.

If they wish to try to make themselves believe that the world is immoveable because Psalm 103 says so, if they wish to make themselves believe that the sun was made to stand still just to help one side in a trivial war in a barbaric time, if they wish to believe that the world was created in seven days, that Man is a being fallen from grace due to original sin, that Woman is thereby a tainted vessel unfit to be priest or pope, that every word in the bible is literal truth and that if their senses and their reason say otherwise, they are mistaken, I have gone to great pains to demonstrate how this is individually their absolute right - all humans can choose the axioms upon which they wish to base their understanding of their lives.

What they cannot do, in all fairness, under any systems of beliefs they choose, is deny that it is a system of belief. Men are fallible, the window of our senory experience is narrow indeed in space and time, and beliefs (however passionately or fervently held, however ``obviously true'' they might be when viewed with ant-eyes through that window) can always be untrue. Once one acknowledges this, one loses all intellectual right, all moral right, all religious right, to assert competence to judge the beliefs of others with a threat of sanctions, death, expulsion from the love of God. Indeed, with luck they can achieve the state of intellectual humility from which true understanding of understanding itself can flow, in which enlightenment can occur.

I personally believe that God exists and has given us the great gift of a functional Universe in which to live, lit within by a spark of Self (or Holy Spirit or Atman or whatever you'd like to call that nubbin of awareness that experiences ``my'' sensory stream), with a depth of passion that I find difficult to convey in mere prose text. I personally cannot possibly imagine that God is male and wishes to be ``worshipped'' or ``obeyed'' as if He were some sort of distorted supernatural version of a worldly King. I personally would not impose these beliefs on a single soul, but whether or not they are correct, surely it is a grave error to arrogate to ourselves the right to judge others on the basis of their belief and restrict their exercise of that free will save insofar as is necessary to enforce the social and political compacts of humans living together in a society that shares scarce resources. Where in the Ideal (in my opinion) axiomatic formulation of society, humans freely yield their ``natural'' right to rape, to rob, to commit murder to the extent extent permitted in a state of brutal nature in exchange for the protection of society from rapists, robbers, and murderers.

One can never freely yield, in such a compact, the right to hold a belief, only to commit an action. Our beliefs are what they are - inviolable and out of reach. Who in the world today can believe that Galileo actually renounced his belief that the world moved. He had ``seen'' it move with his own eyes, strengthened by means of the telescope of his own invention to be ant-eyes no more, written in the motions of the worlds determined by things far beyond the vision or reach of the prophets. And so things continue today.

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Robert G. Brown 2007-12-17