Change at the Center of Things

I’ve been thinking about change recently. It’s been a big week for change here at MurderBooks. We’re happy to welcome new bloggers, Micki Browning, Isabella Maldonado and Lissa Marie Redmond onto our small island of real-world criminal law experience. We look forward to reading their thoughts in upcoming posts and benefiting from their authentic and hard-earned lessons.

Embracing change as the norm represents one of the distinguishing features of the modern era. We dwellers of the present day do not see the world as static, even when we might occasionally long for more constancy. It may seem hard to imagine that the world has not always been this way. The alternative is not necessarily bad nor good, although our present worldview tends to color our appreciation.

Thinking about change came to the forefront for me as I was looking at a Trial of the Month for February.

          The outlines of this month’s story are familiar.  Galileo Galilei was born in 1564–the42-63622274 same year as William Shakespeare. From an early age, Galileo his scientific gifts were obvious. By age twenty-five, Galileo had earned a position as a faculty member at the University of Pisa. Shortly thereafter, he had a reputation throughout Europe as a scientist and lecturer.

          In 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus had published his revolutionary idea that the Sun was at the center of the universe and that the Earth–rotating on an axis–orbited around the sun once a year. Copernicus’ theory was a challenge to the accepted notion of astronomy and to the teachings of the Catholic Church which held that the sun and all the stars revolved around a stationary Earth. How, after all, could Joshua command the sun to stand still if the earth did the moving (Joshua 10:13). Beyond the Biblical troubles, the Copernican view flew in the face of common sense.  All humankind knew that they stood still and did not spin.

Galileo’s scientific observations, however, supported his beliefs. He decided that Copernicus needed a spokesman. In 1613, Galileo published his Letters on the Solar Spots, an openly Copernican writing. Then, Galileo overplayed his hand, by moving away from science and into theology. Galileo responded to criticism of his Copernican views in a December 1613 Letter to Castelli. In his letter, Galileo argued that the Scripture–although truth itself–must be understood sometimes in a figurative sense.

While not controversial within our own era, the challenge arose during the Protestant Reformation, a dangerous time to propose that some scripture was literal while other passages should be read as figurative. As a result, Galileo went before the Inquisition.

Like many, Monty Python has shaped my view of the Inquisition. The term Inquisition applied to any court process that was based on Roman law. Any formal process against violators of Canon Law within the Roman Catholic Church could be viewed as an Inquisition.

Much of what we think of as the “trial” of Galileo might in modern parlance be pre-trial proceedings or discovery. On February 19, 1616, the Inquisition asked a commission of theologians, known as qualifiers, about the propositions of the heliocentric view of the universe. On February 24th, the Qualifiers delivered their unanimous report: the proposition that the Sun is stationary at the center of the universe is “foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicted in many places the sense of Holy Scripture.” On February 26th, Galileo was called to the residence of Cardinal Bellarmine, a Vatican official. Writers disagree whether the Cardinal forbade Galileo from teaching the heliocentric view or merely prevented him from teaching it as fact and allowed it to be presented as theory.

Galileo–according to a witness, Cardinal Oregius–“remained silent with all his science and thus showed that no less praiseworthy than his mind was his pious disposition.”

By 1623, a new pope sat in Rome. Urban VIII was believed to be friendlier to arts and sciences than his predecessor. Galileo understanding that he had permission to publish if he treated the ordering of the planets as a discussion among hypotheticals set to work on a new volume. The first copy of Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems came off the press in February 1632. The book, which quickly sold out, soon became the talk of the literary public.

Opponents of Galileo convinced the Pope that the Dialogue was nothing but a thinly-veiled brief for the Copernican model. The Pope complained that Galileo and others had deceived him, assuring him that the book would comply wit300px-Galileos_Dialogue_Title_Pageh papal instructions and then circumventing them. Galileo was summoned from Florence to the tribunal in Rome. He arrived on February 13th, 1633.

After putting Galileo under oath, the court deposed Galileo concerning meetings he held in 1616 with Bellarmine surrounding the original publication and the subsequent prohibition.

It proved no challenge for the Inquisition to find that Galileo had gone back on his promises and had taught what he had sworn he would not teach.  Dialogues clearly taught that the heliocentric model was the only acceptable model of the universe.  The Inquisition’s decision is famous, although often misconstrued.  Because Galileo had broken his oath, published a heliocentric-supporting book, hidden the fact that he was not allowed to publish said book from his publishers, and continued to question the authority of Scripture, he was convicted of being “vehemently suspected of heresy.” Like any number of public figures in the news these days, Galileo got in trouble for violating his “sentencing agreement”.

With no real options, Galileo capitulated. On the morning of June 22, 1633, Galileo, Galileo_before_the_Holy_Officedressed in the white shirt of penitence, entered the great hall of the Inquisition building.  He recanted his belief in the Copernican model. Then, the Dialogues of Galileo were publicly banned. Galileo, himself, received rather mild punishment, a house arrest.

I’ve given short shrift to the science, theology and legal maneuverings of the case and borrowed heavily from several sources. But you likely get the idea. History presents Galileo as a martyr to science. We see the case from a scientific, change-centered world view. This is not the only option.

To tell the story fairly, I think we must see Galileo’s opponents less as hidebound bureaucrats fighting truth and more as people of deep conviction challenged at a time of social turmoil. For them, the sky was literally falling. Perhaps this makes them more sympathetic.

I don’t know if there is a writer’s lesson in all of this, perhaps a reminder about Point of View. I do know that I wanted a trial featuring change to be my February Trial of the Month. I feel confident Galileo delivered.

Mark Thielman

6 thoughts on “Change at the Center of Things

  1. Mark,
    Another great case review. I think Galileo got off pretty darn easy. I’ve heard of others in that era who were burned, stretched, drawn and quartered, and “sentenced” to life in the dungeon for disagreeing with the “truths” of the church.


    1. Thanks Brian. In Florence, there is the Galileo Science Museum just behind the Ufizi. At the end of Museum, past all of the models of inventions and experiments is a single finger bone of Galileo encased in glass. I have no sense of direction so I am free to believe that he is forever firing that single finger at the Vatican


  2. Thank you for the welcome, Mark. Galileo is an intriguing historical figure–arguably as much for his politics as his science. Thanks for putting the breaking of his “sentencing agreement” into perspective.


  3. Great post as usual, Mark. You shed more light on a topic I thought I knew, and I’m assuming that light came from a stationary light source.

    By the way, my knowledge of the Inquisition mostly comes from not Monty Python, but Mel Brooks. Cue musical number…


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