Thursday, 23 April 2009

The Faith of Galileo

Four hundred years ago, during the northern hemisphere spring, Galileo Galilei, a professor of mathematics at the University of Padua, turned his first spyglass towards the night sky and gazed in wonder at the never-before-seen stars that leapt out of the darkness. The moon, considered by philosophers to be a perfect sphere -- in keeping with its place in the “immutable heavens” -- revealed her rugged surface, and Jupiter was found to have four moons of its own.

“I render infinite thanks to God for being so kind as to make me alone the first observer of marvels kept hidden in obscurity for all previous centuries,” Galileo declared, testifying to his faith and -- despite its new divisions -- the common faith of Christendom. As exhibitions, dramas and all manner of commentaries on Galileo multiply in this UNESCO Year of Astronomy, it is salutary to distinguish the Catholic believer that Galileo was from the secular saint made of him by the Enlightenment tradition.

Galileo’s brand of enlightenment distinguished scientific enquiry from theology without separating the two, since the God whom theology sought to understand through interpreting Scripture was also the Author of the book of the cosmos. To his pupil and friend the Benedictine monk Benedetto Castelli, Galileo wrote of “a hundred passages of Holy Scripture which teach us that the glory and greatness of God are marvellously discerned in all His works and divinely read in the open book of Heaven.” (1)

The purpose of the Bible was to reveal things bearing on salvation that man could not work out for himself, said Galileo; why would God give man an intellect and senses and not expect him to use them on what was before his eyes? As Cesare Cardinal Baronio, a former Vatican librarian, had neatly put it, the Bible teaches one how to go to Heaven, not how the heavens go. Galileo, unlike many who were to claim him as a patron saint, remained interested in both.

Possibly the first full moon Galileo looked at was the paschal moon that set the date of Easter, on or soon after the spring equinox. If so, he had reason to attend the solemn celebrations of Holy Week and Easter Sunday in 1609 with special fervour. Born after the reforming Council of Trent, he would have been aware of the obligation to confess his sins at least once a year at this season. What he did about the sin that caused his eldest daughter, Virginia, to be entered in the baptismal register as “born of fornication”, and all three of his children to be registered only in the name of their mother, Marina, is his secret.

Galileo never married Marina Gamba, who died in 1619, or shared his house with her, but lived like the bachelor that a scholar was expected to be. Clearly, the long liaison was compatible in his mind with the piety that made him give thanks to God for his astronomical discoveries, and with the Catholic instinct which led him to place his illegitimate daughters in a convent at a young age for safe keeping, and in case they should not be marriageable.

Cristiano Banti: Galileo Before The InquisitionIn the same way, Galileo’s disputes with various scholars and clerics over the Copernican theory of the universe made no difference to the fact that he was a member of the same Roman church and would remain so. It makes little sense, then, for today’s writers to speak of Galileo as spending “much of his life in conflict with the Catholic church”, as if it were something he stood outside and against, as a proto-secularist.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Galileo insisted to the end of his life that he was a faithful Catholic. One of two clauses struck out of the abjuration imposed on him by the Inquisition in 1642 concerned that very point; he would admit to illicitly teaching that the sun was the centre of the universe, but never that he had lapsed in his behaviour as a good Catholic. He subsequently wrote to a French supporter:

“I have two sources of perpetual comfort, first, that in my writings there cannot be found the faintest shadow of irreverence towards the Holy Church; and second, the testimony of my own conscience, which only I and God in Heaven thoroughly know. And He knows that in this cause for which I suffer, though many might have spoken with more learning, none, not even the ancient Fathers, has spoken with more piety or with greater zeal for the Church than I.”(2)

That was some boast, and certainly an over-statement, but it shows how Galileo wanted to be seen.

Irreverence towards individuals in the church was another thing. He tended to ridicule his opponents -- even, fatally for his cause, his erstwhile friend and admirer Pope Urban VIII -- and he impatiently forced the issue of a sun-centred universe in a way that played into the hands of unsympathetic churchmen and left those who were sympathetic little ground on which to defend him. Galileo’s piety did not always run to humility.

But even while he battled with Jesuits and Dominicans, Galileo worked his noble and clerical connections to obtain favours for himself and his children. He wangled dispensations for his daughters Virginia and Livia to enter the convent before the canonical age of 16 (they were 13 and 12). He had his son Vincenzio legitimised and obtained from Pope Urban a pension for him as a canon -- a clerical sinecure that Vincenzio rejected and that in the end went to a cousin. (Galileo himself at one stage had two clerical pensions and had his head shaved in an ecclesiastical tonsure.) He also did his best to obtain perfectly legitimate help for his daughters’ convent of San Matteo, a community of Poor Clares outside Florence.

Portrait thought to be of Suor Maria CelesteThanks to Dava Sobel’s fascinating book, Galileo’s Daughter, we know that the great astronomer had a close relationship with Virginia, whose name in religion, Suor Maria Celeste, reflected their common interest in the heavenly realm. Letters she wrote to him between 1623 and her death in 1634 (his letters to her do not survive) betray an almost doting concern for the spiritual and material welfare of her “Most Illustrious/Beloved Lord Father”. Galileo’s study in his house at Arcetri overlooked the convent, providing a constant reminder during the 11 years he spent there that what mattered most was to go to Heaven.

Suor Maria Celeste encouraged Galileo during his trial and after to see the whole episode -- described by the late Pope John Paul II as a "tragic mutual misunderstanding" -- in the light of faith: “bearing these blows with that strength of spirit which your religion, your profession, and your age require”. She performed the penance imposed by the Inquisition (recitation of the seven penitential Psalms weekly for three years) with him -- if not for him -- and would gladly have gone to prison for him if that were possible, although the “prisons” of his confinement -- the archbishop’s house in Sienna, and his own home in Arcetri -- were far more comfortable than her own convent cell.

Back at Arcetri under house arrest, frequent visits to the convent to talk to his daughters, particularly Suor Maria Celeste, were one of Galileo’s few consolations. Her death within a year of his heresy trial left him grief-stricken for many months. In the early stages he wrote to a friend, “I am hateful to myself and continually hear my beloved daughter calling to me.”

In the end it was love that made Galileo’s world go around -- not only the cheerful, unselfish love of his daughter, but also the love of the God she served. He believed, as Pope Benedict has pointed out, that the universe is governed by love, not blind force.

Dante concludes “Paradise” with a definition of God as “the love that moves the sun and the stars”. Galileo perceived that it was the earth rather than the sun that moved, but in either case it was divine love that moved first.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.


1. Galileo’s Daughter, by Dava Sobel, page 69. Other references in this article also draw on Sobel’s book.

2. Galileo’s Daughter, page 329