1633 Letter Resolves the Legend About the Galileo Case, Says Vatican Aide

Urban VIII Was Sensitive Toward Astronomer's Health, Document Indicates

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VATICAN CITY, AUG. 21, 2003 (Zenit.org).- A recently discovered letter confirms that Pope Urban VIII was concerned that the case brought against Galileo Galilei be speedily resolved given the astronomer's frail health.



The letter was discovered days ago by historian Francesco Beretta, professor of the history of Christianity of the German University of Freiburg. He found it in the archives of the former Holy Office, now the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

It is a letter of the Holy Office's Commissioner Vincenzo Maculano da Firenzuola, dated April 22, 1633, and addressed to Cardinal Francesco Barberini, to express the Pope's concern for the scientist accused of heresy.

According to professor Beretta, the preparation of the June 22, 1633, sentence against Galileo, at least in its essential parts, is probably due to that same commissioner of the Holy Office.

"Undoubtedly, for some today Galileo is synonymous with freedom, modernity and progress, while the Church is synonymous with dogmatism, obscurantism, stagnation. However, the reality is very different from this perception which arises from fantasy," explains Archbishop Angelo Amato, 65, the new secretary of the doctrinal congregation.

Following the discovery of the letter, the Salesian recalled aspects of Galileo's trial.

"When, in 1610, Galileo published 'Sidereus Nuncius,' in which he upheld the centrality of the sun in the universe, he received the applause both of Johannes Kepler, the great astronomer, and of the Jesuit Clavius, author of the Gregorian calendar," Archbishop Amato told the Italian weekly Famiglia Cristiana (www.stpauls.it/default.htm).

"He even had great success among the Roman cardinals," he said. "In fact, all of them wanted to look at the sky through his famous telescope."

"Those who opposed him were above all the philosophers, especially those of the peripatetic school of Pisa, who were inspired in Aristotle, and they started to bring sacred Scripture into play," the archbishop said. Because of these pressures, the Holy Office intervened.

In October 1992, a special commission of theologians, scientists and historians, established by John Paul II in 1981, presented its conclusions. The commission, presided over by Cardinal Paul Poupard, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, examined the possible errors committed by the ecclesiastical tribunal which condemned the
famous astronomer in 1633.

On Oct. 31, 1992, John Paul II acknowledged these errors publicly. "Allow us to deplore certain mental attitudes ... derived from the lack of perception of the legitimate autonomy of science," he said before the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

Archbishop Amato called for an end to the legend surrounding Galileo, "transmitted by a false iconography according to which Galileo was incarcerated and even tortured so that he would abjure."

"When he resided some 20 days in the Holy Office, his room was the apartment of the attorney -- one of the highest officials of the Inquisition -- where he was assisted by his own servant," he explained. "During the rest of his stay in Rome he was the guest of the Florentine ambassador at the Villa Medici."

In a past interview with ZENIT, Cardinal Poupard said that "of course, Galileo suffered much; but the historical truth is that he was condemned only to 'formalem carcerem' -- a kind of house arrest. Several judges refused to endorse the sentence, and the Pope at the time did not sign it."

"Galileo was able to continue to work in his science and died on Jan. 8, 1642, in his home in Arcetri, near Florence," the cardinal added. "Viviani, who stayed with him during his illness, testified that he died with philosophical and Christian firmness, at 77 years of age."

The Vatican commission that served to rehabilitate Galileo stated that "the abjuration of the Copernican system by the scientist was due essentially to his religious personality, which tried to obey the Church even if the latter was in error. Galileo did not want to be a heretic; he did not want to be exposed to eternal damnation and therefore accepted the abjuration so as not to sin," Archbishop Amato said.

Following the commission's investigation and the Holy Father's rehabilitation of the famous astronomer, Galileo's case can be considered closed, the archbishop said.

This episode, he concluded, has taught us not to highlight "the opposition but rather the harmony that must reign" between reason and faith, "the two wings with which the Christian can fly to God," as "John Paul II has synthesized it in the encyclical 'Fides et Ratio.'"

The believing scientist, the archbishop emphasized, has the task "not to be afraid to carry out his work of research of the truth."