International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Galileo: For Copernicanism and for the Church (3rd edn.) Translated by George Coyne

by Annibale Fantoli

Introductory Essay by Maurice A. Finocchiaro

In 1633, the Roman Inquisition condemned Galileo of a crime labeled “vehement suspicion of heresy” for defending the Copernican theory of the earth’s motion and denying the astronomical authority of Scripture. This condemnation was the climax of proceedings started in 1615-1616, when the Catholic Church had condemned Copernicanism as contrary to Scripture, and had issued a warning to Galileo prohibiting him to defend that theory. Thus, it is not surprising that many came to view Galileo’s trial as epitomizing the conflict between science and religion.  However, it is more correct to say that the trial epitomizes the interaction between science and religion, leaving open how exactly to formulate the implied lesson. In fact, the subsequent four centuries have witnessed a cause célèbre about the trial: whether Galileo’s condemnation was just, and whether it proves the incompatibility between science and religion.

Fantoli’s book is primarily an historical account (but also a philosophical assessment) of Galileo’s trial. It is based on a first-hand reading of primary sources and an analysis of secondary literature. The key aim of doing justice to both sides is made explicit in the book’s subtitle. Fantoli accomplishes this in part by criticizing the views of scholars whose inclinations are pro-Galilean or anti-clerical, as well as those of standard Catholic apologists. This criticism is found primarily in the notes, and so does not detract from the smoothness of the main exposition. But the notes represent a considerable effort (200 out of 600 pages). Fantoli’s evaluations are not totally negative, and he does not hesitate to adopt other scholars’ views when he can integrate them into his own account.

Originally written in Italian and published in 1993, the book appeared in a series sponsored by the Vatican Observatory in response to Pope John Paul II’s call in 1979 for a re-examination of the Galileo affair. In 1994, the same series published an English version, translated by George Coyne, S.J., the then (and now emeritus) director of the Vatican Observatory and general editor of the series. The book continues to be updated, with later editions also published in the same venue, the third (2003) being the latest in Italian and English. It is refreshing to find such a book criticize not only traditional pro-clerical accounts, but even the views of Pope John Paul II and of Cardinal Paul Poupard (chairman of the Vatican re-examination of the affair).

Fantoli’s main conclusions deserve wider dissemination and discussion: The 1633 condemnation was essentially an abuse of power. This abuse is understandable but inexcusable, even in terms of authoritarianism, let alone individualism. The condemnation was not necessitated by the 1616 anti-Copernican decree or warning to Galileo. This decree was an error of judgment, theologically as well as scientifically. Regarding the warning, Galileo was a victim of circumstances, rather than of clerical fanaticism or of his own aggressiveness. John Paul II’s re-examination of the affair in 1979-1992 was a significant admission of error, but was not really a rehabilitation; moreover, despite claims to the contrary, it did not “end” the affair, nor could it or should it have done so.