Galileo Galilei

Scientist (1564–1642)
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Justus Sustermans Portrait of Galileo Galilei 1636 attained via Wikimedia Commons

The Italian scientist Galileo achieved his original fame through his invention of one of the early thermometers, his experiments in physics, and his refinement of the telescope. It was his passion for astronomy—specifically his determination to prove the theory of Copernicus that the earth revolves around the sun—that led him into trouble with the Church.  

A number of theologians were sympathetic to Galileo’s efforts, noting, along with Cardinal Baronius, “The Holy Ghost intended to teach us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.” Nevertheless, Galileo was instructed to desist from his work. When he persisted, he was summoned to Rome by the Holy Office. 

Galileo’s trial occurred in 1633. Though he was treated with reasonable courtesy, the pope had issued a document threatening him with torture if he did not cheerfully submit to the findings of the court. In the end he was condemned as “vehemently suspect of heresy” for maintaining the doctrine “which is false and contrary to the Sacred and Divine Scriptures, that . . . the earth moves and is not the center of the world.”  

Galileo fell to his knees and abjured any heretical opinions he may have held. Convinced of his sincere repentance, the court sentenced him to house arrest in Florence for the rest of his life. He died on January 8, 1642. Only in 1992 did Pope John Paul II declare that the Church erred in the condemnation of Galileo as a heretic. 

“Since no two truths can contradict one another, [the Copernican position] and the Bible would be seen to be of necessity perfectly harmonious.” —Galileo Galilei 

© Liturgical Press.

Robert Ellsberg

Robert Ellsberg is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Orbis Books and the author of several award-winning books, including All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time; Blessed Among All Women; and The Saints' Guide to Happiness.

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