The Galileo case can be summarized from a recent work by an apparently competent and unbiased secular scholar, Stillman Drake.90
Galileo was born in 1564, just after the end of the Council of Trent, when the Church was fighting for her life. He became a professional mathematician and physicist. The standard understanding of the solar system was that the earth stands at the center, and the sun, other planets, moon, and stars revolve around it. Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543), a Polish astronomer, proposed a simpler account of the astronomical evidence: that the sun stands at the center and the earth and other planets revolve around it. Galileo accepted and supported this new theory.
The theory of the solar system was an important part of Aristotle’s philosophy, in which physics and metaphysics were closely connected. Aristotle’s philosophy had become an important instrument of Catholic theology. Moreover, the centrality of the earth in the universe and the special place of humankind in creation are symbolically related. For these reasons, Galileo’s work was bound to draw the interest of the magisterium. The new theory superficially seemed incompatible with certain passages in Scripture, especially that in which God is said to have made the sun stand still (see Jos 10.12–13). If the sun always stands still, how could it have been made to do so by a miracle?
In 1616 the Holy Office looked into the matter. Its theological consultants found against the Copernican theory on the basis that it was repugnant to Scripture, and Cardinal Bellarmine, by the authority of the pope, told Galileo not to continue to hold and defend it as unqualifiedly true. Books trying to reconcile the new theory with the Bible also were forbidden, but it was not forbidden to examine the theory as a hypothesis and to make use of it scientifically. Galileo accepted the Holy See’s decision and was personally reassured by Pope Paul V that all would be well. This reassurance was appropriate because some of Galileo’s opponents were taking a much harder line than the Church’s official decision.91
Sixteen years later, in 1632, Galileo published a book in dialogue form defending the Copernican theory. He did not say anything about the earlier decisions when he sought and obtained an ecclesiastical license to publish the book. In 1633 Galileo was tried by the Inquisition for violating an order not to teach the Copernican theory in any way. There is some evidence that this order was given him in 1616 during his meeting with Bellarmine, not, however, by Bellarmine, but by officials of the Inquisition acting without proper authorization. Galileo was convicted; he admitted disobedience; the Inquisition sentenced him to life in prison. He was never actually imprisoned, but was restricted in his movements and teaching, so that he spent the rest of his life under house arrest.92
If the preceding account is correct, there is a real doctrinal issue in the Galileo case. The issue is not in the proceedings of 1633, which were disciplinary in nature, but in the decision of 1616, when it was determined by the authority of Paul V that the Copernican theory is incompatible with Scripture. (One might argue that the position was not proposed as one to be held definitively, but I will grant that it was.) Moreover, the decision of 1616 obviously was false. Thus Paul V taught a false proposition and proposed it as a truth pertaining to faith to be held definitively. The ordinary magisterium erred.
However, nothing in the historical record shows that the bishops scattered about the world taught (or that many of them ever thought about) the proposition Paul V mistakenly taught. And Paul V’s teaching certainly was not ex cathedra. The Galileo case is an example of a situation in which the magisterium must teach firmly on a new question and can make a mistake (35‑G). The saddest aspect of the case is that officials of the Church seem to have gone beyond their authority (when they told Galileo not to teach the Copernican theory in any way) and to have been unjustly supported by the Inquisition in its disciplinary act of 1633.
It is worth noticing that Galileo’s assertion directly bore upon an empirical truth—a question of fact about the physical world. Dissent from the Church’s moral teaching bears directly upon moral norms—which are not matters of fact and which in themselves pertain to Christian life. The decision in the Galileo case could be and was undercut by growing factual evidence. No amount of factual evidence ever can falsify the Church’s moral teaching. The mistake in papal teaching in the Galileo case was a naive reading of Scripture; this led to a serious injustice and considerable inconvenience for Galileo. If there were a mistake in the Church’s teaching on the matters disputed by radically dissenting theologians, it would be in the very substance of a large segment of the Church’s constant and very firm teaching, and this error would have misled all the faithful throughout the centuries, not only causing them inconvenience but wrongly binding them to a standard of life which was often violated with a sense of grave sin.
Between 1905 and 1915, the Pontifical Biblical Commission issued a series of decrees on matters related to the interpretation of Scripture and on factual questions about the Scriptures.93 Today it is generally admitted that these decrees contain many errors. At least with respect to questions of doctrine, scholars were bound to submit to these decrees and to assent to them (see DS 3503/2113). In 1948, the authority of the decrees was officially modified by a letter of the secretary of the Biblical Commission to Cardinal Suhard (DS 3862–64/2302).94 Thus we have a case of official mistakes officially rectified.
A careful reading of the document of St. Pius X, issued in 1907, which declared the force of the decrees of the Biblical Commission shows that these decrees primarily were disciplinary in character.95 Their ultimate purpose was to protect the faith, but their immediate object was to regulate the work and teaching of scholars. They bound consciences to obedience, but it does not seem they had in general to be accepted as certainly true. Moreover, these decrees primarily were a matter between the Holy See and a certain group—scholars. For this reason, they did not have to be and were not proposed universally by the bishops of the world to the faithful.
The moral teaching of the Church with which the radically dissenting theologians took issue is not primarily disciplinary; rather, it is proposed as truth. Its immediate object is the formation of Christian life. It demands not only obedience, but personal appropriation as normative truth. It has been proposed universally by the bishops to the faithful as a whole. The mistakes in the decrees of the Biblical Commission, even to the extent that they are errors in teaching, are altogether different, and well within the bounds of possible error described above (35‑F).
A final example. It often was argued that Vatican II changed the Church’s teaching on religious liberty. Hence, the Church also could admit the liberty of Catholics to follow their personal judgments in sexual matters.96 The first thing to notice about this argument is that it suggested that Vatican II teaches a liberty of conscience which is alien to its doctrine. Vatican II’s true teaching on religious liberty concerns the just liberty of all persons in relation to political authorities. It has nothing to do with some imaginary liberty to call the Church “Mother” but ignore her teaching.
John Courtney Murray, S.J., the leading theological architect of Vatican II’s teaching on religious liberty, argued that the new teaching would be an authentic and legitimate development of traditional Catholic teaching. His argument was that the question to which Vatican II addresses itself is a new one, because political societies and their relationship to religion have changed, so that now their chief duty toward religion is to protect the liberty of citizens in this area. Murray also was able to point out properly theological grounds for his argument.97 Vatican II implicitly accepts Murray’s argument and finds a basis in faith itself for what is novel in its teaching.
90. Drake’s account was chosen as the basis for the summary of the Galileo case to avoid prejudicing the issue. However, J. J. Langford, “Galilei, Galileo,” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 6:250–55, provides an account the same in all material respects. Jacques Maritain, On the Church of Christ: The Person of the Church and Her Personnel, trans. Joseph W. Evans (Notre Dame and London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1973), 152–231, also provides a candid treatment of great historical failures and errors of the personnel of the Church: the crusades, treatment of Jews, the inquisition, Galileo case, and condemnation of Joan of Arc.
91. See Stillman Drake, Galileo at Work: His Scientific Biography (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 252–56.
92. Ibid., 330–57.
93. Karl Rahner, S.J., “The Dispute Concerning the Teaching Office of the Church,” in Readings in Moral Theology: No. 3, 122, made much of this argument, but failed to consider the question of the status of these decrees.
94. See Pierre Grelot, The Bible Word of God: A Theological Introduction to the Study of Scripture (New York: Desclee, 1968), 218 (bibliography in n. 147) and 226 (bibliography in n. 180).
95. See the text of Pius X, “Praestantia Sacrae Scripturae,” which specifies the authority of the decrees of the Biblical Commission, in Rome and the Study of Scripture, 7th ed. (St. Meinrad, Ind.: Abbey Press, 1964), 40–42; Enchiridion Biblicum: Documenta Ecclesiastica Sacram Scripturam Spectantia, ed. 3 (Rome: Ed. Comm. A. Arnodo et M. d’Auria, 1956), sec. 283–88. It is difficult to see how this decree can be considered as requiring anything more than obedience and religious assent.
96. Daniel C. Maguire, “Morality and Magisterium,” in Readings in Moral Theology: No. 3, 45–46, argued from the alleged change in the Church’s teaching on usury and religious liberty, without carefully analyzing the status of either teaching or the details of the development which occurred. Bruno Schüller, S.J., “Remarks on the Authentic Teaching of the Magisterium of the Church,” in the same anthology, 29–30, used the example of Vatican II’s development on religious liberty, but did not examine the precise content and status of prior teaching and failed to recognize the superior theological grounds Vatican II invokes for its development. Schüller also used (26–27) the example of the practice of castrating choir boys to preserve their voices, although he admitted that this practice was approved explicitly only by some moral theologians, not by any authentic teaching of popes and bishops. With this style of argument, one could also conclude that the Church is inconsistent on simony and concubinage because some popes and bishops have practiced them.
97. See John Courtney Murray, S.J., “The Problem of Religious Freedom,” Theological Studies, 25 (1964), 503–75.