Galileo's trial revisited: charge may have masked a hidden agenda

Galileo Heretic, by Pietro Redondi. Translated by Raymond Rosenthal. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. 356 pp. $29.95. In Cristissno Banti's painting ``Galileo before the Inquisition,'' the hero - Galileo - stands alert and defiant before three inquisitors, one almost asleep, another avoiding Galileo's gaze, and the last dogmatically insisting on adherence to the document in front of him. That text, Galileo's ``Dialogue on the Great World Systems,'' defended the Copernican system. Indeed, the inference, followed by the textbooks, is that Galileo was tried for promoting the idea that the earth and the other planets revolved around the sun!

When he was found guilty, he recanted his views. Some historians suggest the inquisitors in the painting stand for sloth, fear, and fanaticism - the three deadly vices of ignorance. Galileo has been seen as a hero of science - the true scientist fearlessly facing and eventually overcoming ignorance on all fronts.

According to Pietro Redondi, such interpretations of the painting - and the textbook version of Galileo's trial - are shallow. They ignore the complex intellectual and political background of religious questions.

Redondi underscores the complexity of the time: ``In the 17th century, whose complexity of political calculation and psychological phenomenology today escapes us, reasons of state and reasons of faith constantly have recourse to dissimulated, masked punishments, in order to avoid scandal and nourish the consolation of the people of God.''

In ``Galileo Heretic,'' Redondi advances the thesis that Galileo's famous trial was not, as has hitherto been generally accepted, basically an attempt by the conservative forces in the church to silence an internal critic of Copernicus. Rather it was a stern warning to the Pope himself to support the Counter-Reformation by adhering strictly to the theology of the Council of Trent.

The Council of Trent defined for 17th-century Rome true Roman Catholic dogma. A central piece of this theology was the doctrine of transsubstantiation, which maintains that the bread and wine used in the Eucharist become flesh and blood. Copernicanism did not challenge this belief, but much of Galileo's writings and thoughts did.

As Redondi shows, Galileo, like many before and after him, sought to find in the elements of matter - in this case air, fire, earth, and water - the explanation of all things. This theory, a version of atomism, would force the conclusion that the bread that turned to flesh must be simply rearranged bread. Thus the mystery and miracle behind the mass - the flesh made bread - are voided as an object of faith; a basic belief of the Council of Trent left in ruins.

Part of the fascination of the case for Redondi lies in why this issue never surfaced in official records of the trial. Officially, Galileo was tried for advocating the banned doctrine of Copernicanism. The deeper heresy, involving denial of transsubstantiation and thereby touching faith in miracles, was left untouched.

Although important, and in hindsight perhaps central, Galileo's trial, Redondi argues, was not the only thing occupying the Pope.

There were other, more pressing problems for Urban VIII to deal with. Cardinal Borgia had openly challenged him and isolated him politically. In addition there was religious war in Europe.

In February or March of 1632, Galileo published his ``Dialogue'' in Florence. He could not have chosen a worse time.

The Pope had to make concessions to the political realities, and a mounting attack on Galileo and his atomist ideas was already at work.

The only way to save the Pope's scientist was to accept his guilt for inquest heresy to avoid a conviction on doctrinal heresy. Conviction on the latter, or even bringing it to trial, would suggest the Pope himself had supported and defended the heretic Galileo. Cardinal Borgia was ready, willing, and capable of mounting such an attack. In view of his precarious position, Urban VIII did well to protect himself and his scientist as well as he did.

Redondi sums up the political side of the story: ``A turn to political liberalism and Catholic military success had brought Galileo triumphantly to Rome to accept recognition as `a devoted son of the Church.' A political turn to conservative rigidification brought him back to Rome as a compromising culprit.''

What are the issues central to Galileo's trial? The political background is certainly part.

Redondi says another issue remains an intellectual problem today. ``The real danger,'' he writes, ``was not the individual theses of some dozen propositions. The true danger was the absolute distinction between faith and dialectic - what would later be called reason.''

Redondi offers a final analysis: ``By not intervening radically right away, the Church condemned itself to prosecuting repeatedly every single philosophical and scientific thesis that would inevitably conflict with doctrinal dogma.... The reformation will come and make apparent the greatness of this danger. And the Council of Trent will come to thwart it.''

``Galileo Heretic'' is a fascinating study of power. While not the successor to the best-selling novel ``The Name of the Rose'' - some critics have suggested as much - it is a compelling discussion of one of the blind spots of history, and an acute meditation on the tension between scientific rationality and religious belief. Though hard going, it's worth reading for anyone interested in the political history of ideas.

Paul A. Robinson Jr. is a staff scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

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