How to Go to Heaven Not How the Heavens Go

Now Galileo spied the danger. It was no longer a matter of a local quarrel in Florence, episodes the like of which he, with his position at the Grand Duke's court, could smile at condescendingly. The threat was so serious that he must meet it on two fronts, partly in Rome, partly at home in the court.

Things were not made better when Galileo learnt that Father Tommaso Caccini, the man who thought that mathematicians ought to be exiled, had gone to Rome. He was to take up a position at the important Dominican monastery in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Galileo anticipated that Caccini would use his new position to continue the attack on him.

Galileo realised that he had to mobilise factions in Rome that were kindly disposed to him personally and not over-sceptical towards Copernicus. This principally encompassed the Jesuit mathematicians. The professor who had taken over from Christopher Clavius at the Collegio Romano was called Father Grienberger. Through the offices of a friend, Galileo forwarded a copy of the "Letter to Castelli", begging that this - correct - version be given to Grienberger and then sent on to Bellarmine, "if an opportunity should present itself". Galileo added that Copernicus had been "not only Catholic, but religious and canonical".

"The correct version" were his own words. There was a number of minor discrepancies between the copy Father Lorini had sent, and the one Galileo now forwarded himself. The differences did not concern the fundamentals, but in Lorini's version they consistently showed Galileo in a worse light than in his own.

So strong has been the sympathy for Galileo in posterity that all his biographers have accepted the interpretation given by Favaro, the publisher of Galileo's collected works: Lorini's copy was purposely slanted against Galileo. The most recent research however indicates something different: that it was Galileo's new "copy" that was slightly toned down and edited in comparison with the original letter.

For unknown reasons, Father Lorini had forwarded the "Letter to Castelli" to the wrong institution. The Congregation for the Index worked in tandem with the Inquisition and its task was to produce a list of books Catholics were not allowed to read, Index librorum prohibitorum. But the letter had not been printed, and so did not come under the Congregation's jurisdiction. It was therefore passed over to the Inquisition. Here it was routinely read by a theologian-consultor, who quickly expressed an opinion. He pointed to three unfortunate formulations (all of which were different in

Galileo's new "correct" version), but concluded that the letter was nothing to get worried about.

The Inquisition's plenum of cardinals was not thoroughly satisfied however, and would not let the matter rest there.

In the meantime Galileo, through an intermediary, learnt of the reactions of the Jesuit Grienberger - and Cardinal Bellarmine. Neither was particularly positive. Bellarmine said straight out that Galileo should regard Copernicus' system purely as a mathematical model. In such a case its relationship to the words of Scripture would present no difficulty at all. In addition, he threw another biblical passage into the debate, the Book of Psalms, 19, 5-6: "[the Sun] Which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoiceth as a strong man to run a race. His going forth is from the end of the heaven, and his circuit unto the ends of it (...)."

Grienberger said that he would prefer Galileo to provide clear observations before he was drawn into discussing Scripture. Apart from this his reaction was cautious, though not unfriendly, but it was quite obvious that Galileo could no longer depend on the warm support he had received from the Jesuits when Clavius was alive.

But Galileo ignored the opposition. He had taken new courage. He wrote a letter in which he clearly stated that Copernicus was serious and was not merely postulating a mathematical model. Either one accepted that the Earth moved and the Sun stood still, or one did not - but in the latter case one was making a grave error, something Galileo intended to demonstrate in a work he was engaged on. To reinforce the point he concluded the letter with a home-spun Copernican interpretation of the passage in the Book of Psalms, precisely the sort of activity which he, as a layman, ought to have kept well away from. His correspondent in Rome immediately went to Prince Cesi with the letter, and they quickly agreed not to show it to Bellarmine.

One reason for Galileo's defiance was that he had suddenly found support in an unlikely theological quarter. Father Foscarini, a Carmelite monk from Naples, made public a letter he had sent to the head of the Carmelite order, in which, with professional theological sophistry, he had argued in favour of Copernicus - and Galileo. He divided the problematic biblical passages into six classes and suggested six exegetic principles that would solve the problems.

This impressive construction did not help much. Bellarmine was also asked for his opinion of this work, and it was not high. Behind the series of courteous fraternal niceties that were expected between sons of the Church, his meaning was crystal clear: Copernicus' system couldbe used for purposes of calculation, but definitely not to explain reality. Certainly Bellarmine used all the subjunctive reservation of which the Italian language was capable, that if some day it could be proved irrefutably that Copernicus was right, then one would have to go back and interpret the relevant biblical passages again. But he excluded the possibility of such proof.33 The doctrine that the Earth was in motion not only went against common sense, the Book of Joshua and the Psalms of David, but against Solomon himself; Solomon who had gained all his wisdom from God. For was not this ascribed to Solomon in the Book of Ecclesiastes: "The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose." (Eccles. 1,5).

The other reason for Galileo's strong stand, was that he believed he had just the indisputable, physical proof that Bellarmine required.

But before he went public with his new proof he wanted to make certain of his home ground. Galileo decided to combine a theological and theoretical account with a courtly tribute and write an open letter to the Dowager Grand Duchess. The "Letter to Christina" ran to over forty pages, and circulated only in manuscript copies, as any attempt to publish it would have risked an open confrontation with the censor.

In the letter he makes his position clear. Truth is one and indivisible. There can therefore be no conflict between the words of the Bible and natural revelations, but the Bible is written in a different language and has a different object: it teaches us "how to go to heaven, and not how the heavens go." (Non come va il cielo, ma come si va in cielo.) This implies that the Bible's words must be explained and interpreted.

After this, Galileo goes on the offensive. He tries to enlist one of the Church fathers on his side. Bellarmine had repeatedly pointed out that the entire theological tradition was against Copernicus' ideas. But Galileo takes the case of Augustine, and believes he can show that he has an anticipatory and wholly different position regarding questions of natural science. In conclusion, he returns to his clarification and introduces an enlarged and overhauled Copernican version of the Sun miracle in the Book of Joshua.

The "Letter to Christina" was principally written for a "home readership", to create back-up from the Grand Duke's family. Presumably it succeeded in this. But as far as Rome was concerned it did little to help.

There things were happening fast. The motive force was still the Dominicans from Florence. In his new role at Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Father Caccini now had direct access to the heads of the order. He contacted one of the Holy Office's top men saying that "for the sake of his conscience" he wanted to make a declaration about Galileo's errant ways.

His deposition was a mixture of fact, rumour and insinuation. Caccini correctly pointed out that Galileo thought that the Earth revolved on its own axis and orbited a static Sun. He went on to say - as everyone present naturally knew, as they had heard the account of the "Letter to Castelli" - that the mathematician had embarked on the dangerous practice of producing his own interpretation of Scripture.

As these well known pieces of information obviously were insufficient, Caccini went a step further. He claimed that another Dominican in Florence had heard the disrespectful way some of Galileo's followers had spoken of God and his saints. In addition, he aired Galileo's old friendship with the infamous Paolo Sarpi in Venice, and opined that the two still corresponded by letter. (This was correct - Galileo wrote to the ageing monk, telling him about his discoveries.) Byway of conclusion he emphasised the dubious aspects of the Accademia dei Lincei - especially that its academicians patently corresponded with Germans.

Everyone knew there were Lutherans in Germany.

The heads of the Inquisition decided that the matter had to be looked into more carefully. As usual they did their work thoroughly, and used most of 1615 in getting to the bottom of the matter. The Inquisitor in Florence carried out interrogations and Galileo's works and letters were carefully read and commented on. This was all supposed to happen in the greatest secrecy, but it was impossible for Galileo not to know that something was afoot.

He knew that Copernicus was right. If the Catholic Church was definitely going to put the whole of its power behind the opposite view, the consequences would not only be a terrible reverse for scientific study in Italy, but the Lutherans in the north would triumph, and attract men of talent because of the relative freedom of ideas that existed there.

Galileo recalled his triumphal progress in Rome four years previously. Now he was ill and unable to work for long periods. Even so, he believed it was imperative for him to return in person to bolster his friends and win round doubters and opponents. He must make the Jesuit astronomers show their true colours, and ensure Maffeo Barberini's continued friendship and support. He must argue objectively with the sceptical, but highly intelligent Bellarmine, and get him to see through the untenable arguments of men of the "league of doves" calibre.

If possible, he must get another audience with Pope Paul V.

For he had his new, incontrovertible argument up his sleeve. It was complicated, but if necessary he must try to lay it directly before the Holy Father.

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  • Fiore Mazzi
    How to get to heaven not galileo?
    1 year ago

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