- The Case of Galileo: A Closed Question? by Annibale Fantoli
For centuries, the “Galileo Affair” has served as shorthand for the conflict between religion and science. In 1616, Galileo—whose observations of astronomical phenomena convinced him of the heliocentric worldview—was [End Page 262] warned to eschew the heliocentric principles developed by Nicholas Copernicus and extended by Johannes Kepler. In 1633, he was censured for disregarding that prohibition and printing the Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, causing the Holy Office to suspect him “vehemently” of heresy. Forced to make a humiliating abjuration that acknowledged the Church’s teachings against heliocentrism as a necessary condition of faith, Galileo spent his final years in confinement and was refused posthumous rehabilitation and respectability. Only thirty years ago, the Roman Catholic Church began the process of officially clearing Galileo’s name. In Annibale Fantoli’s view, the Church’s most recent attention amounts to further obfuscation, refusing fully to accept the blame for its treatment of the scientist. In The Case of Galileo: A Closed Question?, Fantoli traces the development of Rome’s conflict with Galileo in detail. He places his very thorough and helpful discussion within a frame of assessing the modern Church’s response, finding recent pronouncements from Rome insufficient. The Case of Galileo offers an accessible overview of the controversy in its time. Written for a popular audience, and based on a more scholarly earlier book (Galileo: For Copernicanism and for the Church), Fantoli’s overview of the evidence here will offer interested readers a useful point of entry into the early modern controversy. Those interested in the Affair’s continuing ramifications will appreciate the survey in the final chapter.
Fantoli traces the conflict that grew between Galileo’s scientific perspective and the conservative and increasing dogmatism of those at the center of power in Rome, arguing that this conflict was not inevitable and might have been avoided had prudent heads prevailed in the papacy and in the Holy Office. His narrative begins with the story of Galileo’s early career, up to his publication of the Starry Messenger, a period in which Galileo learned of the heliocentric work of Copernicus and Kepler, shunned the limp compromise of Brahe, and embarked on an effort to displace the natural philosophy of Aristotle. Fantoli introduces ancient, medieval, and early modern astronomers and concepts (such as ephemerides) simply and succinctly; interested non-experts should thus be able to follow the narrative with relative ease. He pauses to assess the interpretive conflict that developed between the heliocentric adherents and the scriptural fundamentalists who rejected this understanding as incongruent with the literal truth of the Scriptures. As Fantoli shows, the Jesuits and the rest of the Church did not initially reject the heliocentric view. Unfortunately, in Fantoli’s view, certain fanatics pushed the Church hierarchy into an untenable position. Before that pronouncement was made, Galileo himself, perhaps foolishly, joined the debate and in the Letter to Grand Duchess Christina offered to reinterpret those passages of Scripture that seemed to point exclusively to the geocentric understanding of the cosmos. From Galileo’s perspective, in Fantoli’s summary, “exegetes should be very prudent and should avoid holding as true certain biblical interpretations that could be denied by the future scientific conclusions” (87, my emphasis). Galileo’s public statements in favor of the earth’s motion earned him enemies within the Church, and when the Index formally decreed that the sun’s motion, rather than the earth’s, was a matter of faith, Galileo was personally required by Bellarmine and Segizzi to renounce any contrary opinion and to refrain from publicly treating the ideas of Copernicus. [End Page 263] As Fantoli laments, the Church had “resolve[d] authoritatively and definitively a question that should have been left open” (120, my emphasis).
Fantoli ultimately defends Galileo, though the picture he paints includes his hero’s flaws, especially his pride. In the controversy over the 1618 comets, a prudent Galileo would have remained silent. But Galileo’s enemies used the occasion...