Science / Medicine : Church’s Review of Galileo’s Case--'And Yet It Moves!’


Nearly eight years ago, Pope John Paul II ordered a review of the case of Galileo Galilei, whom the Inquisition had convicted of heresy in 1633 for teaching that the Earth goes around the sun.

Three years later, the pontiff told a meeting of scientists in Rome that “we certainly recognize that he (Galileo) suffered from departments of the church,” adding, “There are good grounds for hoping that it (the research commission) will make an important contribution to the examination of the whole matter.”

And that is all that the pontiff is expected to say, according to a spokesman for the Holy See. “The commission is not working on the case any more,” the spokesman said by telephone last week from the Vatican. “The case is closed.” No exoneration. No pardon.

The entire affair remains a considerable embarrassment to the church, which is caught between the truth and the doctrine of papal infallibility. Maybe the authorities are still puzzling over whether the Earth goes around the sun or vice versa, a question that most of the world’s schoolchildren have down pat. Theological matters move slowly, but this is an issue long since decided, and the Inquisition came out on the short end of it.


Galileo is one of the most important names in the birth of modern science. Born in 1564, he was one of the first people in history to conduct experiments and not merely observe the world; he sought to measure physical phenomena and derive mathematical relationships between them.

As a teen-ager, Galileo noticed that the chandeliers in church swung back and forth in the same time regardless of the size of the swing. He timed them with his pulse beat. When he got home, he set up two pendulums with the same length of string, swung one in a large arc and the other in a small one and observed that they kept perfect time with each other. He had made a hypothesis, tested it by experiment and discovered the law of pendulums.

In a similar way, he made many other discoveries. He found by experiment that all bodies fall at the same rate regardless of their weight (thereby overturning Aristotle, who thought that heavier bodies fall faster than lighter ones), and he showed that bodies move down an inclined plane with constant acceleration.

In 1597, in correspondence with Johann Kepler, Galileo confided that he had come to believe in the cosmology of Copernicus, who had proposed in 1543 that the sun--not the Earth--is in the center of the solar system and that all the planets, including Earth, revolve around it.

Fully aware that this radical view was in conflict with church theology, Galileo kept his thoughts to himself. But in 1609, he constructed a telescope, trained it on the nighttime sky and made remarkable discoveries, all of which contradicted orthodox views. In particular, he found that Jupiter was surrounded by four moons--still called the Galilean satellites--which proved that not all heavenly bodies circle the Earth.

Galileo published his findings, creating an uproar. In 1616, he was convicted of heresy for arguing that the sun is at the center of the universe and that the Earth moves. As a result, he agreed to abandon his views and to remain silent.

But 16 years later, believing that Pope Urban VIII was sympathetic to him, Galileo published his “Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems,” which once again took up the cudgels on behalf of the Copernican world view.

As a result, at the age of 69, he was once again brought before the Inquisition, convicted of heresy and forced to kneel and renounce his scientific findings. Legend has it that as Galileo rose from his knees he muttered, “Eppur si muove!"-- “And yet it (the Earth) moves.”

He was sentenced to life in prison, which was commuted to house arrest, where he remained until his death in 1642. Galileo’s “Dialogue” remained on the Roman Catholic Index of proscribed books until 1835.

In 1965, 332 years after Galileo’s conviction, things began to change. On a visit to Pisa, Galileo’s birthplace, Pope Paul VI praised him. In 1979, shortly after becoming Pope, John Paul II also spoke out on his behalf, and the following year, he instructed the Pontifical Academy of Science to undertake a review of the case.

Since then, in addition to the Pope’s speech, the academy has published two volumes of documents relating to the case, but there was no recommendation that Galileo be exonerated.

It is fully understandable why this case presents such trouble for religious authorities. It represents the essential clash between faith and reason, between revealed truth and experiment, between dogma and inquiry.

Nobody ever likes to admit he was wrong. But in the case of Galileo, a beacon who pointed the way to modern science, failure to admit error is more damaging than admitting it.