JOPLIN, Mo. —
Had you been reviewing a “today in history” column on Thursday, April 12, you likely would have seen a notation to the effect that on that day in 1633, Galileo Galilei appeared before the Holy Office of the Inquisition.
One can only imagine the fear gripping Galileo as he stood before this tribunal. From the moment he was notified that he was to appear, and during the arduous trip to Rome, various scenarios surely played out in his mind.
The Inquisition was a tribunal of the church, formed for the discovery and eradication of heresy. Heresy was any doctrine considered at odds with formal church doctrine. The more serious the doctrine, the more serious the heresy, and the harsher the verdict.
Quite often, torture was involved. There were many who recanted their beliefs under these conditions. As Galileo approached his moment with the tribunal, these thoughts haunted him.
As a scientist and a Christian, he was accustomed to people strongly disagreeing with his conclusions. He realized that many people thought he could not possibly be a Christian while holding to his views about the solar system.
But this was different. His very life was at stake. How would he respond?
His arrest came quickly in the wake of his observation of the planet Venus. What he saw was Venus presenting itself in the same phases as the moon. Consequently, there was a “full- Venus,” a “half-Venus,” a “quarter- Venus” and so forth. Galileo concluded that this could occur only if Venus was in motion, orbiting the sun.
These and subsequent observations supported the modern theory proposed by Copernicus that the sun was indeed motionless, and therefore was the center of the solar system.
The church disagreed. The official doctrine stated that the Earth was the center of the solar system. It was based on the belief taught clearly in the Scriptures that the sun was in motion, moving across our sky.
The Greek astronomer, Ptolemy, was the leading voice of that theory. His model showed all the bodies of the solar system revolving around the earth.
Just as the church used Scripture in support of its doctrine, it used Scripture in its opposition to the new, modern theory. Because Galileo’s findings supported this new theory, and because he wrote a book stating these conclusions, the church acted quickly and called him to appear before the Inquisition.
Galileo did recant, agreeing to sign what is described as a “soft statement.” He was placed under house arrest for the remainder of his days.
We are left wondering what his thoughts and feelings were during those final years. He died in 1642.
In 1835, Galileo’s book “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems” was finally taken off the Vatican’s list of banned books. In 1992 the Catholic Church formally acknowledged that Galileo was correct in his conclusions.
In his address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Pope John Paul II expressed hope that theologians, historians and scholars will study the Galileo case more deeply and openly. He goes on to say that we must always remember the Galileo affair, lest history repeats itself.
People of faith and of science would do well to heed the words of Pope John Paul II. This bit of history should be the topic of conversation in homes, in educational programs, in places of worship and in formal “science and faith” dialogues on campuses and elsewhere. Only the best of faith and the best of science can prevent us from repeating the Galileo affair.
Craig Tally is the senior minister of First Community Church in Joplin. His column appears bi-weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.