Galileo before the Inquisition

Dan Graves, MSL

Galileo before the Inquisition

Galileo was frustrated. A web of deceit and hatred had closed around him. As the sixty-nine year old man faced the Inquisition on this day, June 22, 1633, he hoped to get at least two changes in the statement his judges insisted he sign. "Do not make me say I have not been a good Catholic," he pleaded, "for I have been one and will remain one no matter what my enemies say. And I will not say that I intended to deceive anyone, especially with the publication of my book. I submitted it in good faith to the church censors and printed it only after legally obtaining a license."

The judges agreed. They rewrote the words of his "confession"--as they should have been. For, as Galileo knew, most of the men who were sentencing him held his same opinions--that the earth spun on its axis and orbited the sun.

With the new injunction before him, Galileo knelt and repeated the words demanded of him. He was strongly "suspected of heresy." He had "held and believed that the Sun is the center of the world and immovable and that the Earth is not the center and moves..."

Galileo then signed another statement. "I, the said Galileo Galilei, have abjured [renounced], sworn, promised and bound myself as above; and in witness of the truth thereof I have with my own hand subscribed the present document of my abjuration and recited it word for word at Rome, in the convent of the Minerva, this twenty-second day of June, 1633."

This is one of the most famous trials in history. The church often takes all the blame for the fiasco of justice that took place that day in Rome. It had the unfortunate effect of branding the Roman Catholic Church as anti-science, when in fact famous Catholics of the Middle Ages (Grosseteste, Bradwardine, Oresme and others) had done much to advance and promote science. Galileo himself was a staunch Catholic.

There is no doubt the church was in the wrong. A commission formed by Pope John Paul II in the 1980s admitted as much. But was it fully responsible? There were, in fact, two other parties at fault.

One was Galileo himself. His vanity, sarcastic words, contempt for lesser minds and half-truths had earned him fierce enemies among the intellectuals of Europe--especially among the Jesuits. Galileo even fudged at least one experiment.

The second set of culprits were naturalists (the scientists of the day). Advocates of the pagan philsopher Aristotle resisted Galileo's findings. The pope and cardinals would not have acted if dozens of these "scientists" had not said Galileo was wrong. Some hated Galileo, who had hurt their feelings. Others felt that Aristotle and the Bible should not be overturned without solid evidence. It did not matter that both Kepler and Galileo had shown that the Bible could be interpreted to agree with the new science. Their own eyes showed them that the sun, not the earth moves. Galileo could not provide hard evidence to the contrary. Solid proof for the earth's movement around the sun was two hundred years away, when tiny shifts in star positions and subtle pendulum motions were finally measured.


  1. Gillispie, Charles Coulston. Dictionary of Scientific Biography. New York: Scribners, 1970 - 1980.
  2. Hummel, Charles E. The Galileo Connection: resolving conflicts between science & the Bible. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1986.
  3. Santillana, Giorgio de. The Crime of Galileo. New York, Time, inc., 1962.
  4. Saudée, Jacques de Bivort de la. God, Man and the Universe: a Christian answer to modern materialism. New York : P.J. Kenedy, ca.1953, especially p.58ff.
  5. Tobin, W. The Life and Science of Léon Foucault: the man who proved the earth rotates. Cambridge, England; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  6. Various encyclopedia articles.

Last updated May, 2007.

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