Why the Vatican's Latest Attempt to Absolve Galileo Is Bound to Fail

Mr. Mayer is Professor of History, Augustana College.

The Vatican is out to monkey with Galileo again. Many might think it had subjected him to enough tender ministrations already, from his two trials in the seventeenth century through John Paul II’s botched rehabilitation to the recent poster show, “Galileo Uomo di Fede,” in Santa Maria degli Angeli which as good as ignores those trials. It appears that Benedict XVI, former head of the Roman Inquisition’s successor, intends to reopen the case, probably with an eye to annuling the sentence. The legal grounds alleged are that Urban VIII and some of the cardinal inquisitors failed to sign it. In order to support this claim and demonstrate the pope’s mani pulite (clean hands), the Vatican has published a new edition of the trial documents, unveiled at the huge Galileo conference in Florence for the UN’s International Year of Astronomy.

Galileo’s dossier was first published in 1850 by the then-prefect of the Vatican Archives. According to the deal by which the manuscript was returned to Rome from Paris where it had been carted by Napoleon’s soldiers, the book was supposed to include everything in the file. Instead, it contained only a handful of texts, none of them complete. The stink thrown up around this censored and frankly violently slanted volume has colored the study of Galileo’s trial ever since. That the editor of this new version, the current prefect Sergio Pagano, overlooks his predecessor’s effort and instead claims that the first publication came only in 1877 indicates how tightly the ideological blinkers still fit. The edition to which Pagano gives pride of place was one of two in 1877. Catholic laymen produced both, but the second, by Karl von Gebler, is a vastly superior, almost impeccable work, reproducing as far as possible in print the appearance of the original manuscript. Pagano does admit the limitations of his own earlier edition (1984), which he blames on lack of time.

As Pagano truthfully says, there isn’t much new in his volume, at least not to scholars. After the Inquisition’s archives were opened in 1998, researchers ransacked them on the trail of Galileo and other of its famous victims. Pagano includes their findings, along with the sentence which did not appear in his first collection on the grounds that it is not in the dossier (no sentences were; they were kept in separate volumes). Naturally, its absence gave rise to yet more claims of cover-up. So instead of novel documents, we get novel—to put it mildly—interpretation. At least this time everybody is getting in on the act. When the left-wing Roman newspaper La Repubblica reported the new edition, the lead read “Galileo Galilei was saved from execution thanks to the decisive intervention of his principal accuser, Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino (1542-1621).”

If true, that claim would be astounding. It turns out to rest on a well-known text available in facsimile for twenty-five years. This is a “certificate” Bellarmino gave Galileo at Galileo’s request in 1616 when his first trial ended. According to Repubblica it declared Galileo not a heretic, although he was headed in that direction. In fact, all it says is that Galileo had not abjured. Well, and that Bellarmino had told him personally that Copernicus’s book had been condemned. His allegiance to Copernicus’s sun-centered universe caused Galileo to try to interpret the bible. That effort led to his silencing, which produced Bellarmino’s document. When Galileo tried to use it in his defense in 1633, the inquisitors properly concluded that far from helping him, it proved the charge against him. Galileo knew of the condemnation, and ignored it when he published his Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems.

So the saintly Jesuit Bellarmino who was indeed Galileo’s principal accuser won’t help the Vatican. What about those missing signatures on his sentence? Do they provide legal grounds for its nullification as Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture thinks? Wrong again. One consequence of the long-delayed opening of the Inquisition’s archives is a vastly improved understanding of how the institution worked. It ordered that popes never sign sentences. Instead, the cardinals issued them in their names. All right, that must mean the three missing signatures (of a possible ten) somehow make the sentence legally defective. Sorry, that won’t work, either. Those cardinals who attended a session signed the sentences issued in it, those who did not, did not. Simple as that. A quorum numbered as few as two cardinals. Two signatures made a sentence as valid as the maximum ten did.

Still, you say, that those three failed to appear on June 22, 1633 must dent the sentence’s moral legitimacy. A great deal has been made of the fact that one of the three no-shows was Urban’s nephew, Francesco Barberini, allegedly Galileo’s white knight throughout his second trial. This assertion is one of the grossest distortions in a large pile of distortions. Barberini 1) did not protect Galileo, 2) was not in charge and 3) when he did intervene he merely passed on Urban’s orders to the Inquisition’s functionary who secured Galileo’s conviction. On the morning of Galileo’s condemnation Barberini had other pressing business: his Congregation of Health issued a record eleven orders against the plague. The next day he crowed about the Inquisition’s success to another of the non-signers, Cardinal Borja, the leader of the Spanish party in Rome and Urban’s bitter enemy. Surely his failure to sign must mean something? Maybe, but while the Inquisition was meeting, he was having an audience with the pope! The third non-signer empties the missing scrawls of any significance. Laudivio Zacchia was Urban’s hand-picked successor. For whatever reason, he was out of Rome during June. While there is evidence that some of the cardinals inquisitor sympathized with Galileo, Zacchia is not among them. He was just absent. The missing signatures portend nothing, neither legal nor moral, and certainly do not provide grounds for revisiting the sentence.

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Randll Reese Besch - 7/6/2009

Let sleeping apostates lie. That would work better for the Vatican in this case.

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