The Church is not anti-scientific. It has supported scientific endeavours for centuries. The Jesuits had a highly respected group of astronomers and scientists in Rome at the time of Galileo. In fact, Galileo, like many notable scientists of his time received encouragement from the Church. The majority of scientific advances during the span of Galileo's life (1564 - 1642) were made either by clerics or as a result of Church funding. Prior to Galileo, the Church founded universities all over Europe during the Middle Ages; it was these Church-inspired, Church-sponsored and Church-approved institutions that laid the foundations of many of today's modern sciences. Truly, much of modern scientific endeavour can rightly be regarded as a fruit of the Church. There can be no real contradiction between true science and true religion since both have God as their Author.


A careful study of the actual details of the Galileo controversy reveals a very different story to what is generally believed. In 1543, before Galileo was even born, a Polish monk named Copernicus advanced the theory of heliocentrism: that the sun is the centre of the solar system and that the Earth revolves around the sun. His work was dedicated to Pope Paul III and received a respectful hearing in the Vatican. Ten years prior to Galileo, one of the leading astronomers of the time, Keppler (a Protestant), published a heliocentric work that expanded on Copernicus' theory by saying that the orbits of the Earth around the sun are slightly elliptical and not strictly circular as stated by Copernicus. As a result, ironically, Keppler was persecuted by Protestants who deemed him a blasphemer, and he fled for protection to the Jesuits who were commonly known to have great respect for science.

Enter Galileo, a highly talented but very argumentative scientist who disdained Keppler. Galileo was a Catholic who tended to mock his opponents and overstate his case. He acquired and improved a telescope from which he developed an argument against geocentrism, the commonly held world view of the time: that the Earth is the centre of the universe and that all heavenly bodies revolve around the Earth. (A small but growing body of scientists today hold to the possibility that the Earth might well be at the centre of the universe). Galileo held to Copernicus's strict circular model of heliocentrism whereas today's proponents of heliocentrism hold to an elliptical orbit as did Keppler. So, Galileo, strictly speaking, was wrong anyway. And not one of the arguments he advanced for heliocentricity is accepted today as scientifically demonstrative [Radio Replies, Vol 2].

In the Galileo case the Church was standing with the scientific consensus of the time.

In 1611 Galileo advanced his theories via a cordial audience with Pope Paul V. Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, a Jesuit scholar (and canonised saint) was intrigued with Galileo's theories but concerned with the disruption a too hasty publication of them could produce in the minds of ordinary Catholics. The Church officials were willing that heliocentrism be taught as an hypothesis (not a fact) and discussed in scientific circles, so long as the faith of ordinary people was safeguarded. But Galileo began to teach his theory loudly and widely, insisting that it was a proven fact. But heliocentrism was incapable of being proven at that time because not enough irrefutable scientific evidence existed in the 1600s to guarantee its validity. Finally, in 1616, Galileo was warned by the court of the Roman Inquisition that if he did not abstain from discussing his theory as fact, he could be imprisoned. Galileo was "discouraged and disappointed, but not defeated." He, being a good Catholic, accepted his warning, and all was quiet for 16 years.


By the time of Galileo's first trial (1616), the Church had suffered 100 years of the Protestant 'Reformation'. One of the chief quarrels with Protestants was over individual interpretation of the Bible. Catholic theologians were not prepared to entertain the heliocentric theory based on the interpretation of a layman such as Galileo. Yet Galileo insisted on moving the debate into a theological realm at a time when the Catholic Church was still reeling from the impact of Protestantism.

Galileo's impatience and lack of tact brought about a disciplinary reaction from the Church in 1616. The committee of 11 theologians who deemed Galileo's hypothesis "foolish, absurd and heretical" have been criticised by many contemporary historians. But his condemnation does not affect the doctrine of the infallibility of the Pope, for the two Popes who dealt with Galileo (Paul V, Urban VIII) did not teach ex cathedra (infallibly). A Pope cannot delegate his infallibility to a Congregation or a committee. He must, himself, personally address the Universal Church, and require that his teaching be accepted by all its members with absolute assent. None of these conditions for an infallible teaching were present in the Galileo case.

At no time in the entire span of the Galileo controversy did any official Church teaching condemn heliocentrism as heretical. The Pope did not, nor did any bishop, nor did the Inquisition itself. The only statement was a theological opinion issued by the theologians of the Holy Office. Theological opinion does not represent the Magisterium (official teaching) of the Church. Under pressure from more cautious cardinals, the Inquisition took out the word 'heretical' before publishing its decree against Galileo. It wasn't published until 1633, when Galileo forced a second showdown that resulted in him being told to renounce his 'errors' (which he did) and being placed under comfortable house arrest. Galileo was actually, therefore, convicted not of heresy but of disobedience.


Galileo was offered every convenience possible to make his 3-year imprisonment (in a Grand Duke's villa and an Archbishop's palace) bearable. He even wrote a book on mechanics and was most certainly not tortured. He returned to his farm and later to his house in Florence, where he spent the remaining years of his life. The punishment Galileo received he brought largely on himself by refusing to take account of the dangers to the faith of ordinary people by the widespread and unchecked teaching of his ideas. But his own personal failings do not excuse the Church's mismanagement of his case. Pope John Paul II has officially admitted the injustice done to Galileo because he was shamefully made to publicly abjure his theory and was forbidden from even teaching it as an hypothesis. Galileo was a scientist who thought of himself as something of a theologian too. There is no question that if he had kept the discussion on purely scientific grounds the issue would not have escalated to the point that it did.

Carroll, A, p. 277; Carroll, W, p. 491 & 537; Sheehan, p. 206; Keane, p. 228 " 240; Koestler, The Sleepwalkers, pp. 499-501; Weigel, G, The Truth Of Catholicism, p. 130

* Please note that this text should be read in the context of the whole work and in recognition of the appropriate paragraphs of the Catechism of the Catholic Church highlighted in the index.