Modern History Sourcebook:
Robert Bellarmine: Letter on Galileo's Theories, 1615
Galileo's letter of 1614 to the Grand Duchess Christina Duchess of Tuscany was not
widely known, and was ignored by Church authorities. When a year later the Carmelite
provincial Paolo Foscarini supported Galileo publicly by attempting to prove that the new
theory was not opposed to Scripture, Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, as "Master of
Controversial Questions," responded.
On April 12, 1615 the saint wrote to Foscarini:
"I have gladly read the letter in Italian and the treatise which Your Reverence
sent me, and I thank you for both. And I confess that both are filled with ingenuity and
learning, and since you ask for my opinion, I will give it to you very briefly, as you
have little time for reading and I for writing:
"First. I say that it seems to me that Your Reverence and Galileo did prudently to
content yourself with speaking hypothetically, and not absolutely, as I have always
believed that Copernicus spoke. For to say that, assuming the earth moves and the sun
stands still, all the appearances are saved better than with eccentrics and epicycles, is
to speak well; there is no danger in this, and it is sufficient for mathematicians. But to
want to affirm that the sun really is fixed in the center of the heavens and only revolves
around itself (i. e., turns upon its axis ) without traveling from east to west, and that
the earth is situated in the third sphere and revolves with great speed around the sun, is
a very dangerous thing, not only by irritating all the philosophers and scholastic
theologians, but also by injuring our holy faith and rendering the Holy Scriptures false.
For Your Reverence has demonstrated many ways of explaining Holy Scripture, but you have
not applied them in particular, and without a doubt you would have found it most difficult
if you had attempted to explain all the passages which you yourself have cited.
"Second. I say that, as you know, the Council [of Trent] prohibits expounding the
Scriptures contrary to the common agreement of the holy Fathers. And if Your Reverence
would read not only the Fathers but also the commentaries of modern writers on Genesis,
Psalms, Ecclesiastes and Josue, you would find that all agree in explaining literally (ad
litteram) that the sun is in the heavens and moves swiftly around the earth, and that the
earth is far from the heavens and stands immobile in the center of the universe. Now
consider whether in all prudence the Church could encourage giving to Scripture a sense
contrary to the holy Fathers and all the Latin and Greek commentators. Nor may it be
answered that this is not a matter of faith, for if it is not a matter of faith from the
point of view of the subject matter, it is on the part of the ones who have spoken. It
would be just as heretical to deny that Abraham had two sons and Jacob twelve, as it would
be to deny the virgin birth of Christ, for both are declared by the Holy Ghost through the
mouths of the prophets and apostles.
"Third. I say that if there were a true demonstration that the sun was in the
center of the universe and the earth in the third sphere, and that the sun did not travel
around the earth but the earth circled the sun, then it would be necessary to proceed with
great caution in explaining the passages of Scripture which seemed contrary, and we would
rather have to say that we did not understand them than to say that something was false
which has been demonstrated.But I do not believe that there is any such demonstration;
none has been shown to me. It is not the same thing to show that the appearances are saved
by assuming that the sun really is in the center and the earth in the heavens. I believe
that the first demonstration might exist, but I have grave doubts about the second, and in
a case of doubt, one may not depart from the Scriptures as explained by the holy Fathers.
I add that the words ' the sun also riseth and the sun goeth down, and hasteneth to the
place where he ariseth, etc.' were those of Solomon, who not only spoke by divine
inspiration but was a man wise above all others and most learned in human sciences and in
the knowledge of all created things, and his wisdom was from God. Thus it is not too
likely that he would affirm something which was contrary to a truth either already
demonstrated, or likely to be demonstrated. And if you tell me that Solomon spoke only
according to the appearances, and that it seems to us that the sun goes around when
actually it is the earth which moves, as it seems to one on a ship that the beach moves
away from the ship, I shall answer that one who departs from the beach, though it looks to
him as though the beach moves away, he knows that he is in error and corrects it, seeing
clearly that the ship moves and not the beach. But with regard to the sun and the earth,
no wise man is needed to correct the error, since he clearly experiences that the earth
stands still and that his eye is not deceived when it judges that the moon and stars move.
And that is enough for the present. I salute Your Reverence and ask God to grant you every
Solange Hertz makes the problem clear in her commentary on this letter (in an
article which contends that the earth is indeed the center of the Universe):
"There are many such passages in the Bible, outstanding among them being, of
course, the one relating how Joshua commanded, "Move not, O sun, toward Gabaon, nor
thou, O moon, toward the valley of Ajalon," whereupon, "the sun and the moon
stood still, till the people revenged themselves of their enemies" (Jos.10:12-13).
And again, as St. Robert Bellarmine pointed out, the Preacher says," The sun riseth
and goeth down and returneth to his place: and there rising again, maketh his round by the
south and turneth again to the north" (Eccles. 1:5-6)
"Scripture also specifies that the Earth is immovable in the face of these solar
and lunar peregrinations, Psalm 92 stating flatly that God "hath established the
world which shall not be moved." Psalm 103 says He has"founded the earth upon
its own bases ; it shall not be moved forever and ever," Psalm 95 telling us God has
"corrected the world, which shall not be moved." Again, in I Paralipomenon
16:30, "He hath founded the earth immovable," and according to Job 26:7, God by
His power"stretched out the north over the empty space and hangeth the earth upon
nothing." No less an authority than the Catechism of the Council of Trent, in its
commentary on the Creed, states furthermore, "The earth also God commanded to stand
in the midst of the world, rooted in its own foundation."
Action by the Congregation of the Index
In 1616 the Congregation of the Index -- founded by St. Pius V in 1571 and now headed
by Cardinal Bellarmine acting in the name of Paul V -- was forced to take action, based on
the findings of consultors to the Holy Office. Without naming Galileo, it banned all
writings which treated of Copernicanism as anything but an unproven hypothesis,
"because it has come to the attention of this Congregation that the Pythagorean
doctrine which is false and contrary to Holy Scripture, which teaches the motion of the
earth and the immobility of the sun, and which is taught by Nicholas Copernicus in De
Revolutionibus Orbium Caelestium and by Diego de Zuniga's On Job, is now being spread and
accepted by many - as may be seen from a letter of a Carmelite Father entitled 'Letter of
the Rev. Father Paolo Antonio Foscarini, Carmelite, on the Opinion of the Pythagoreans and
of Copernicus concerning the Motion of the Earth and the Stability of the Sun, and the New
Pythagorean System of the World,' printed in Naples by Lazzaro Scoriggio in 1615: in which
the said Father tries to show that the doctrine of the immobility of the sun in the center
of the world, and that of the earth's motion, is consonant with truth and is not opposed
to Holy Scripture.
"Therefore, so that this opinion may not spread any further to the prejudice of
Catholic truth, it ( the Sacred Congregation ) decrees that the said Nicholas Copernicus'
De Revolutionibus Orbium, and Diego de Zuniga's On Job, be suspended until corrected; but
that the book of the Carmelite Father, Paolo Foscarini, be prohibited and condemned, and
that all other books likewise, in which the same is taught, be prohibited."
Continuinng Condemnation: 1664
Taking her information from The Pontifical Decrees against the Doctrine of the Earth's
Movement and the Ultramontane Defense of Them , compiled in 1870 by the English Catholic
priest William W. Roberts, the Catholic creationist writer Paula Haigh has pointed out
that a generation after Galileo's death:
"In 1664 the Church went to further lengths to extirpate his error: The Index for
that year was prefixed by a Bull. Entitled Speculatores Domus Israel, it was signed by
Pope Alexander VII, who declared, 'We, having taken the advice of our Cardinals, confirm
and approve with Apostolic authority by the tenor of these presents, and command and
enjoin all persons everywhere to yield to this Index a constant and complete obedience.'
"The importance of this document cannot be minimized, for it included and
re-affirmed not only previous formal condemnations, but 'all the relevant decrees up to
the present time, that have been issued since the Index of our predecessor Clement'"
Miss Haigh therefore rightly concludes, "The evidence for papal infallibility in the
Galileo case rests then upon the Bull of Alexander VII in 1664."
She discerns a twofold basis for its authority: "1) The decrees of the Index and
the Inquisition which were based on the truth of the Church's tradition, especially as in
this case it rested upon the unanimity of the Fathers and the constant position of the
Church; and 2) the infallibility of the Pope speaking in his own official capacity as Head
of the Church and therefore ex cathedra, even though not defining any new dogma but simply
"The modern theologians have never addressed the problem posed by this Bull of
Alexander VII. If they had, they would need to admit its direct papal authority and search
for some subsequent document by a subsequent pope that formally and specifically
abrogated, i.e., nullified the 1664 Bull. But no such document has ever been found or
Texts extracted from
Solange Strong Hertz: "Galileo Recanted" in Beyond Politics: A
Meta-Political View of History. www.geocities.com/Athens/Ithaca/3251/
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© Paul Halsall, January 1999