Nobody Expects the Inquisition

By Karen Topakian

Three hundred seventy six years ago, on June 22, 1633, the Holy Office in Rome forced Galileo Galilei to recant his view that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the universe.

Galileo’s adherence to heliocentrism, the theory that the earth revolved around the sun discovered by Copernicus, directly contradicted the literalist interpretation of the scriptures. His refusal to treat this scientific theory as a “merely hypothetical phenomenon and not a physically real one,” kept him in religious hot water for several years.

The Church made allowances for him to discuss this theory in the scientific community but the faith of the ordinary people had to be safeguarded.

In 1615, the Catholic Church, through Robert Cardinal Bellarmine, told Galileo that he did not want to treat his telescopic observations as real because “…it would harm the Holy Faith by rendering Holy Scripture false.” (Scriptures most frequently cited are 1 Chronicles 16:30 – “Tremble before him, all the earth! 
The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved;” and Ecclesiastes 1:5 –“The sun rises and the sun sets, 
and hurries back to where it rises” which both allude to geocentrism, that the earth was the center of the universe.)

The Cardinal did not want to be in the business of having to explain the contradictions in the Scriptures.

Galileo accepted the orders to abandon the Copernican opinions. The Church went a step farther declaring it an idea that could not be proven for lack of evidence and therefore named heretical because it contradicted the literal meaning of the Scriptures.

Seven years later, Galileo, with authorization from the Inquisition, published his book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. This attempt to present a balanced view of the church’s theories and Copernican’s resulted in an order to appear before the Inquisition for trial because the latter received more favorable treatment.

In Rome in 1633, Galileo was ordered to stand trial on suspicion of heresy. And on this day, June 22, he was condemned to the formal prison of the Holy office

Thankfully the Catholic Church corrected their mistake. In 2000, Pope John Paul II apologized for all mistakes committed by the Catholic Church in the last 2,000 years of history, including the trial of Galileo.

Sadly, two months ago, Pope Benedict continued to deny scientific truths when he told the people of Cameroon that “HIV/AIDs was a tragedy that cannot be overcome by money alone, that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which can even increase the problem”.

His solution: “spiritual and human awakening” and “friendship for those who suffer”.

I wonder if we’ll have to wait another 2,000 years for this apology.


  1. Susan Fox says:

    there is a story (perhaps apocryphal, perhaps not) that when Galileo recanted his scientific theories under pressure from the church fathers, he immediately stamped his foot on the ground and proclaimed “and yet, it still does move!” (meaning the earth revolves around the sun.)

    not the first time, and certainly not the last, that holy mother church was dead wrong.

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