Heliocentrism Condemned: 400 Years Ago on March 3

The Thursday solemn session of the Holy Office coram Summo Pontifice, held on March 3, 1616, saw the Papal approval of the censure of Copernicus's De Revolutionibus:

... the decree of the Congregation of the Index having been presented, prohibiting and suspending, respectively, the writings of Nicolaus Copernicus, of Diego de Zuñiga On Job, and of Paolo Antonio Foscarini, Carmelite Friar - His Holiness [Paul V] has ordered that this edict of prohibition and suspension, respectively, be published by the Master of the Palace. (Favaro, XIX, 278; trans. Finocchiaro, p. 148)

The Master of the Sacred Palace Giacinto Petroni, O.P., made it so on Saturday March 5, and we shall commemorate the anniversary fittingly on that day.

It is also worthy of note that today's solemn session was the occasion of Cardinal Bellarmine's report on his meeting with Galileo on the previous Friday, February 26. If Fantoli is correct, High Commissioner Segizzi's would have suffered bouts of quiet anxiety in the background while Bellarmine gave his report. Why would the powerful Dominican have been uncomfortable?

We have seen that at Holy Office's previous solemn session on Thursday February 25, a fairly detailed action plan regarding Galileo was decided (nominally) by the Pope:

  1. First, Bellarmine was to inform Galileo of the Paul V's and the Holy Office's position (which happened to be also Bellarmine's own position) on heliocentrism, and to "warn Galileo to abandon" it.
  2. Second, had Galileo refused, the High Commissioner "in the presence of a Notary and witnesses", was to "issue Galileo an injunction to abstain completely from teaching or defending [... or] discussing it."
  3. Third, in case Galileo would "not acquiesce" to the injunction, he was "to be imprisoned."

Historians argue as to what exactly happened on Friday February 26 because there are two very official-looking but mutually incompatible accounts: (A) Bellarmine's verbal report to the Pope and fellow Cardinals Inquisitors on March 3, recorded in the minutes of the meeting, indicating that Galileo was merely warned (action point number 1); and (B) notary's report claiming that an injunction (action point number 2) was issued. We have already quoted all of the documents in extenso, except for (B). Let us reproduce it, too:

Friday 26th. At the palace, the usual residence of the Lord Cardinal Bellarmine, the said Galileo, having been summoned and being present before the said Lord Cardinal, was, in the presence of the Most Reverend Michelangelo Segizzi of Lodi, O.P., Commissary-General of the Holy Office, by the said Cardinal, warned of the error of the aforesaid opinion and admonished to abandon it; and immediately thereafter (successive et incontinenti), before me [notary Pettini] etc. and before witnesses etc., the Lord Cardinal being still present, the said Galileo was by the said High Commissioner commanded and enjoined, in the name of His Holiness the Pope and the whole Congregation of the Holy Office, to relinquish altogether the said opinion that the Sun is the center of the world and immovable and that the Earth moves; nor further to hold, teach, or defend it in any way whatsoever, verbally or in writing; otherwise proceedings would be taken against him by the Holy Office; which injunction the said Galileo acquiesced in and promised to obey. Done at Rome, in the place aforementioned, in the presence of R. Badino Nores, of Nicosia in the kingdom of Cyprus, and Agostino Mongardo, from a place in the Abbey of Rose in the diocese of Montepulciano, members of the household of said Cardinal. [There are no signatures.] (Vat. MS, fol. 378v; trans. Santillana, p. 126.)

This document was discovered in the 1870s by Franz Reusch, creating quite an extensive debate among historians. The reason why the discrepancy between account (A) and (B) inspired a deluge of conjectures was because (B) appeared to many historians be one of the chief points brought against Galileo in 1633. This is no longer the case. Looking over Galileo's deposition of April 12, 1633, given in the presence of Reverendus Pater Frater [sic] Vincenzo Maculani de Firenzuola, O.P., the Commissioner General of the Holy Office (Favaro, XIX, 336-342, trans. Finocchiaro, pp. 256-262), I am inclined to agree with Fantoli, who says (p. 308) that the differences between (A) and (B) were of little practical consequence to the outcome of Galileo's trial in 1633. Galileo defended himself astutely using yet another document, superseding both (A) and (B). We shall return to this in due course, viz., on May 26, 2016, commemorating 400 years since Bellarmine gave Galileo this trump card.

But let us return to the feelings of Commissioner General Segizzi 400 years ago today. Let us imagine various scenarios

Zeroth scenario: According to some historians (B) is a forgery from 1632 or 1633. Most experts disagree with that notion. If it were true, however, it would mean that Segizzi may not even have been present when Bellarmine spoke with Galileo, or at least that he would have remained silent on that day. That is why I call this 0th scenario: Segizzi would have felt nothing on March 3 because he would not have been involved on February 25.

First scenario: Segizzi had Pettini draft document (B) before Bellarmine's meeting with Galileo (maybe to save time). Then Segizzi and Pettini, draft ready in hand, attended the meeting but said nothing because Galileo gave no cause for such action. In this case, Segizzi could have felt mild frustration on March 3, recalling the disappointment that he could not command Galileo "in the name of the Pope" (I am sure Segizzi would have enjoyed that). This scenario is unlikely because (a) Pettini would not have known the names of the two witnesses, and (b) a good notary would have destroyed such a draft.

Second scenario is essentially the same as the first, except that document (B) would have been written at Bellarmine's palace while waiting for Galileo to appear. This deals with objection (a) satisfactorily. Objection (b) stands but it is not such a stretch to imagine that Pettini (not a perfectionist according to Mayer's delightful book, p. 143) somehow failed to destroy the draft and that it found its way into Galileo's file.

Third scenario (or family of scenarios): Segizzi did interfere as described in (B), and Bellarmine's account (A) is a result of the latter's exercise in damage control. This general scenario, advocated among others by Fantoli, allows for a number of options. When did Galileo come and when did he go? Was it before or after Segizzi? Why did Segizzi interfere?

An intriguing point in (B) are the adverbs successive et incontinenti ("immediately afterwards and not holding back"; emphasized by Drake, pp. 253-254). Andrea Pettini da Forli, Sanctae Inquisitionis Universalis Romanae Notarius (as he styled himself, cf. Mayer, p. 35), was a high-ranking civil servant who delegated as much as he could to the numerous sub-notaries he hired for the purpose. He was not beholden to Segizzi. Pettini could have intentionally left us the two adverbs to indicate that Segizzi overstepped his bounds. These would have been the bounds set out by Paul V on the previous day (cf. action point 2 above), and also the basic bounds of etiquette (letting the Eminent Cardinal Inquisitor conduct the business in his own house on his own terms). After that the ball was in Bellarmine's court. He could have chosen to ignore and mitigate Segizzi's unwarranted intervention, maybe by a few kind words to Galileo, and certainly by omitting it from his report (A). Segizzi, on the other hand, could have made Pettini report (B) regardless. On March 3, Segizzi would have felt awkward but coram Summo Pontifice Bellarmine did not mention Segizzi's impropriety.

To be continued.

Fr. Paul Gabor

About Fr. Paul Gabor

Fr. Paul Gabor SJ was born in 1969 in Košice, Slovakia. He studied Particle Physics at Charles University Prague, Czech Republic (1988-1995). His work was primarily instrumental, participating in the development of the ATLAS detector for the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics in Geneva, Switzerland.

He entered the Society of Jesus in 1995, did his 2-year novitiate in Kolin, Czech Republic, then 2 years of Philosophy studies in Cracow, Poland. After this, he taught philosophy for a year in Olomouc, Czech Republic, and studied Theology in Paris, France. He was ordained to the priesthood in 2004. After ordination, he earned a PhD in astrophysics in 2009 in Paris, where he again opted for instrumentation, working with Alain Léger, the author of the proposed Darwin space observatory. Gabor's work under Alain Léger was carried out at the Institut d’Astrophysique Spatiale, University of Paris XI, focusing on two optical test beds, SYNAPSE and NULLTIMATE.

Fr. Gabor is interested in the tests of achromatic phase shifters, stabilization (through optical path dithering), wave front filtering (with single mode fibers), polarization and other issues regarding the implementation of nulling interferometry, techniques and instrumentation that can be used to discover planets orbiting other stars.

Fr. Gabor joined the Vatican Observatory in September 2010. He became its Vice Director in September 2012 and is in charge of its Research Group in Tucson.

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