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On This Day: Galileo Sentenced for Believing Sun Is Center of The Universe

Last updated: February 15, 2023

June 22, 2009 02:00 AM

by findingDulcinea Staff

On June 22, 1633, a Vatican Inquisition passed down judgment on Galileo Galilei for his writings and teaching of the Copernicus Theory.

The Trial of Galileo

A brilliant scientific mind in 17th century Florence, Galileo was forced to renounce his work and writings concerning the theories of Nicolaus Copernicus, who had suggested that the sun, not Earth, was the center of the universe, according to the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law Web site on Galileo.

Directly contradicting biblical thought in the eyes of dogmatic critics, the Copernicus Theory was a subject Galileo embraced and studied for much of his life. Promoting it in his writings and lectures early on, Galileo was first admonished by the Papacy in 1616.

However, the existence of an official injunction, instructing him to remain silent on the subject at the time, remains a source of controversy.

According to Rice University’s Galileo Project, it was this injunction that would seal his fate when he was ordered to stand trial before a council of cardinals in the spring of 1633 to explain the publication of a “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems”—a text that many found to validate the teachings of Copernicus. Papal critics were especially angry that the text was written in order to bring the message to a wider audience, outside the scientific world.

Called to Rome from his home in Florence, Galileo immediately distanced himself from his work, though whether his words came out of necessity or actual regret remains a mystery.

Weak and unhealthy at age 70, Galileo was unable to defend charges that he had contradicted the church’s earlier ruling or remember what it had said, according to the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law. At the mercy of the Inquisition, the Church body charged with seeking out heretics, Galileo endured a trial that lasted months before finally being ordered to renounce his views.

The trial signaled a debate between the church and science that has lasted centuries.

Background: Galileo’s career

Born in the Italian city of Pisa in 1564, Galileo claimed a number of discoveries during his lifetime, studying time intervals, motion and first theorizing that, regardless of their weight, objects fell at the same speed in a vacuum. However, it was his study of the Copernicus Theory that eventually led him to run afoul of the Church, according to the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law.

Galileo’s life was rich with study and discovery, including the development of the refractor telescope—one of two standard telescopes used today alongside Sir Isaac Newton’s reflector, PBS’ NOVA explains. Galileo used this telescope to observe the movement of the moons of Jupiter, strengthening his faith in the teachings of Copernicus, according to Rice University’s Galileo Project.

Reactions: Mistreatment of Galileo by the Vatican

Sources in this Story

  • University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law: The Trial of Galileo
  • The Galileo Project
  • PBS: NOVA: Galileo’s Battle for the Heavens
  • The Independent: Vatican rewrites history to insist it did not persecute Galileo
  • CathNews: Vatican to erect statue of Galileo
  • The Guardian: Pope says sorry for sins of church
  • The Washington Post: The War That Wasn’t
  • NASA: Solar System Exploration: Galileo Legacy Site
  • USA Today: Opinion: ‘There is always the mystery’
  • Catholic Answers: The Galileo Controversy

Disputing reports that Galileo had been mistreated during his trial and possibly abused in an effort to make him renounce his beliefs, the Vatican’s Secretary of Doctrinal Congregation, Archbishop Angelo Amato, claimed the Church actually treated him quite well. In 2003, Amato cited church documents stating that Galileo had been hosted in the apartment of one of the Inquisition’s highest officials, and treated with every courtesy during his stay in Rome, The Independent reported.

After centuries of allegations of mistreatment, the Catholic Church began to rethink its approach to Galileo in 1979 when Pope John Paul II suggested an analysis of how the trial had occurred, CathNews reported. A formal apology followed in 2000, according to the Guardian. In 2008, CathNews revealed that a statue of the scientist would be erected outside the apartment where Galileo stayed while awaiting trial.

Later Developments: Science vs. religion

The trial of Galileo has been cited throughout history as a part of the ongoing debate between science and religion, often by scientists who point to Galileo as a “martyr for scientific truth” at the hands of dogmatic critics, Alan Cutler wrote for The Washington Post in 2006.

NASA named the first satellite to closely monitor Jupiter after Galileo, thanks to his achievements in the field of astronomy. The satellite became the first to pass an asteroid and observe a moon of an asteroid, and directly observed a comet colliding with an asteroid. It was plunged into Jupiter’s dense atmosphere and lost in 2003, as reported on the NASA Web site.

Opinion & Analysis: The Church vs. Galileo

The centuries-old debate between the Church and science does not necessarily have to continue, argued Philip Meyer in USA Today in 2008. The two explanations for life can indeed coexist and actually support one another. “Religion is about the mystery,” Meyer wrote. “Science is about figuring out what works in the material world. There is no danger that science will ever deprive us of the mystery.”

Although the Catholic Church has since backed away from its judgment of Galileo, notably with an official apology in 2000, it has often defended its 17th century actions by pointing out that the belief that Earth was the center of the universe was considered common scientific knowledge at the time, explains Catholic Answers.

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