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on Trial

'Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition' Painting by Cristiano Banti (1857).
The Trial of Galileo


The year is 1633. Galileo Galilei- the most respected scientist In Europe has been summoned before the Inquisition, the most feared court in Europe. The inquisitors have been given the task of rooting out heresy which threatened the teachings of the Bible and the official thinking of the Church.

This religious court was nothing new as it had been called up to root out heresy and witchcraft and defend the teachings of the Church at various times throughout Europe’s history. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the Catholic Church was under attack like no other time since the days when Romans paid to watch lions chomping on Christians.


The Protestant Reformation was tearing Europe apart as Christianity split into different branches. Catholics and Protestants were fighting out on the battlefields of the Hundred Years’ War, which was quickly turning into a war over religion. Throw into this volatile mix men like Galileo who began using science to disprove the teachings that the Church had claimed were absolute truths, and you have a recipe for an inquisition trial.


On the opening day of the trial on April 12th, Galileo stood before his accusers. Galileo’s crime was that he continued to support the theories of Copernicus -a Polish astronomer who 100 years earlier wrote that the earth and everything in the universe revolved around the sun. Copernicus himself was summoned before the inquisition a hundred years earlier and was forced to confess his crime. Like Galileo, he had been ordered to stop teaching heliocentrism. But in his final months on earth he wrote down his heliocentric ideas in a book titled ‘On Revolution of Heavenly Spheres’. The Church couldn’t touch him now. But the writings of Copernicus would spark a debate that would challenge the way Europeans saw the universe and the teachings of the holy Catholic Church itself.

Better Late Than Never?

In 1983 Pope John Paul II retracts the ban on Galileo Galilei.

Galileo didn't invent the telescope but he was the first person to look to the skies. Astronomy has never been the same. Check out this interactive on NASA's Hubble telescope. 
Heliocentricism vs Geocentricism


Now it might seem strange that anyone would get all hot around the collar about how the planets revolved. But, heliocentrism flew in the face of the teachings of the Catholic Church which supported the belief that the earth was an immovable orb that the rest of the universe revolved around. In fact, it said so in the Bible- or at least the Church’s official interpretation of the Bible. The court used scriptures from the Bible to defend their geocentric views.

Galileo’s big discovery was when he observed the planet Jupiter and was astonished to learn that not only did it have moons but those moons orbited around the planet. Later he discovered that Venus, like the moon, had phases. This was a slam dunk to disproving the geocentric (earth centered) theory of the universe which said that EVERYTHING in the universe revolved around the earth. Clearly, this was not the case. He published his findings in a snappy little publication called the Starry Messenger. It was an instant success. His critics were not so easily won over- they claimed that the telescope was nothing more than a magic trick. Pretty soon Galileo was being called before Church officials and told quite firmly to stop teaching heliocentrism as a fact. He was, however, free to teach anything that he wanted- even that the moon was made of cheese- as long as he kept it hypothetical. That was something that Galileo the scientist just couldn’t do.

What's the Big Deal About Galileo?

Many people studying Galileo and his famous trial mistakenly believe that this was a simple conflict between a forward thinking scientist and a Church stubbornly stuck in the Medieval Ages. That’s not quite how it happened. Galileo was actually free to write about anything he wanted -even that the sun was the center of the universe- so long as he wrote it as a hypothesis and didn’t try to pass off such “nonsense” as fact. Galileo got into trouble because he did just that. He convinced his old friend Cardinal Barberini- now Pope Urban VIII- to let him write a book that showed all sides of the argument. Instead, he did pretty much the opposite. In his book, Diaolgue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Galileo held a fictional argument between three characters who held different views of where the earth actually was. Galileo made the pro-geocentric Simplicius out to be the clear loser of the debate. What was worse is that it was pretty obvious that Simplicius had the same ideas that the Pope did...hmmm. Coincidence?

Pope Urban VIII was enraged and ordered his old friend to appear before the Inquisition for trial. His crime? Teaching heresy (lies) that contradicted the Bible and the Church. Galileo knew the danger he was in; men had been burned at the stake for similar crimes. The problem was that Galileo believed in the truth so strongly that he really believed that logic would always win out- even against the most feared court in Europe. He was wrong.

Not surprisingly, Galileo was found guilty of heresy against the teachings of the Church and ordered under house arrest. Galileo ended up confessing to the crime in the end. Galileo, now seventy years old, was tired, in ill health, and defeated. Galileo was  banned from writing anything else on heliocentrism (but he did anyway). He retired to his estate in Florence saddened and defeated. This tale may sound harsh but considering that other heliocentric heretics like Giodarno Bruno were burned at the stake by the Inquisition- Galileo got off with practically a slap on the wrist.

The Catholic Church lifted the ban on Galileo’s works in 1718 after it became clear that this whole scientific revolution thing was actually growing stronger and the power of the church continued to be eroded by the Protestant Reformation. It wasn’t until 1922 when Pope Pius XII finally admitted publicly that Galileo might not have been wrong after all. Galileo remains one of the most important scientists of the modern age and is considered to be the father of the modern scientific movement. It’s probably worth mentioning that Galileo was actually a deeply religious man who supported the ideas of the Catholic Church. His scientific experiments were not attempting to disprove the Bible but to show the work of God.

1 Chronicles 16:30
"tremble before him, all earth; yea, the world stands firm, never to be moved."​

Psalms 93:1
"The Lord reigns; he is robed in majesty; the lord is robed, he is girded with strength. Yea, the world is established; it shall never be moved."

Heliocentric (Sun Centered) Model


(Earth Centered) Model
Test out Galileo's Experiments

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