There is a popular Youtube video, Priest Debunks Common Catholic Myths, in which Casey Cole, a Catholic and Franciscan, "debunks" the idea that the church wrongly tried Galileo.

The Church certainly held a trial against Calilio and stripped him of his teaching faculties. That happened. But not because it didn't like science - it was because Galileo didn't. The issue with Galileo was that he was teaching in schools what he could not yet prove, the very antithesis of scientific enquiry.

Does the above claim have any merit? I guess this can be broken down into two questions:

  1. Did Galileo teach scientific theories which were not yet proven?

  2. Was this the nature of the crime for which Galileo was charged?

I doubt these claims very much, especially the second one.

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    I think the video is disingenuous, facile. Is it supposed that if Galileo had proved the Copernican theory to be correct (instead of proving the Ptolemaic theory to be wrong) then the Catholic Church would have said "thanks we knew that all along" when it challenged their world model? And having burned Galileo's colleague Giordano Bruno at the stake for teaching the heliocentric theory? Galileo was considered dangerous, and the more proof he could find the more dangerous he became. Commented Jun 2, 2020 at 18:53
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    @WeatherVane Giordano "Bruno was not condemned for his defence of the Copernican system of astronomy, nor for his doctrine of the plurality of inhabited worlds, but for his theological errors, among which were the following: that Christ was not God but merely an unusually skilful magician, that the Holy Ghost is the soul of the world, that the Devil will be saved, etc." Cf. also his Dictionary of Scientific Biography entry.
    – Geremia
    Commented Jun 2, 2020 at 19:34
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    @Geremia so, as with Galileo, the official and indictable excuse becomes the one simple reason? Life is more complicated than one reason: Al Capone was jailed for tax evasion, but he did not come to fame for that. Re your answer, AFAIK the reason that Copernicus was not persecuted was because he was afraid to publish. Commented Jun 2, 2020 at 19:41
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    Note that, at least since the 20th Century, scientists don't talk about "proving" a hypothesis. That is a word that belongs in mathematics and law courts. So saying teaching something that isn't proven is the antithesis of scientific inquiry is wrong from definitions. Nothing in science is proven.
    – Oddthinking
    Commented Jun 2, 2020 at 20:07
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    ... and the video posted in the question is just another attempt to airbrush that out of history. Commented Jun 2, 2020 at 20:12

2 Answers 2


Mostly true.

  1. Did Galileo teach scientific theories which were not yet proven?

Indeed. In 1632 Galileo published "Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems". In it he presented a fictional dialogue between proponents of heliocentrism and geocentrism. However, he was merely repeating the same inconclusive or false arguments that had been debunked or questioned previously by several prominent geocentrist scientists such as Tycho Brahe.

His book can be viewed as a late response to the 18 arguments against heliocentrism that Francesco Ingoldi had sent him several years before. However, while with the hindsight of today's knowledge it may seem obvious that Galileo was right, most of the arguments against heliocentrism could be explained away with alternative hypothesis, but none of those hypothesis could be substantiated with evidence.

The main argument Galileo tried to provide in support of heliocentrism was that he argued that the Earth's movement was responsible for the sea tides.

Historical writer E. J. Aiton states that the discourse "is among the least successful of [Galileo's] investigations and completely misrepresents the phenomena it is supposed to explain,". (Aiton, E.J. “Galileo’s Theory of the Tides.” Annals of Science 10. 1 (1954). 44-57)

He also tried to answer common criticisms of the heliocentric model, such as why objects didn't fly off the surface due to centrifugal force. Galileo's argument was that the Earth is spinning too slowly to notice the effect, since it takes a whole day to complete a turn. However, other scientists correctly calculated that despite this, tangential velocity at the equator is more than 1500 km/h. Before Newton's gravity, there wasn't any explanation that could make those numbers believable. He also developed the first theory of relativity, which, like heliocentrism, was right but he couldn't prove either conclusively.

The main obstacle to heliocentrism was lack of stellar parallax. In 1588 Tycho Brahe presented his Tychonic system, which was not discredited by the Galileo observations with the telescope and still had a motionless Earth in the center of the Universe. Although it was known then that lack of stellar parallax could be explained if the stars are nearly infinitely far away from us, that was considered unthinkable back then, and no copernican follower could explain that until the XIXth century.

So the only advantage heliocentrism offered over geocentrism was a slightly less mathematically complex system (only slightly because without elliptical orbits at variable speeds, Galileo still had to resort to epicicles), but at the cost of a system which contradicted pretty much any intuition and observable phenomena known at those times. Heliocentrism was gaining supporters slowly thanks to scientists like Kepler, whose elliptical orbits provided a vastly simpler explanation to planet movements, but, incredible as it may sound, the first proof of Earth's movement didn't came until 1727 with the discovering of light aberration by Bradley, and stellar parallax wasn't confirmed until a century later.

  1. Is this the main reason why the Catholic Church prosecuted him?

He was prosecuted for publishing a book, yes, but not because the theories discussed in it weren't yet proved (though, they weren't, see point 1), but because he had been forbidden to espouse heliocentrism as a real thing.

Although initially published without any problems in 1543, Copernicus books and the copernican system had been banned in 1616.

The immediate result of the 1543 publication of Copernicus's book was only mild controversy. At the Council of Trent (1545–63) neither Copernicus's theory nor calendar reform (which would later use tables deduced from Copernicus's calculations) were discussed.(1) It has been much debated why it was not until six decades after the publication of De revolutionibus that the Catholic Church took any official action against it, even the efforts of Tolosani going unheeded. Catholic side opposition only commenced seventy-three years later, when it was occasioned by Galileo.(2)

It has been much debated why, but the main reason seems to be the religion wars that would ravage Europe for nearly a century. What started as a mere scientific hypothesis could be taken as an argument to disprove the literality of the Bible and then starting a new doctrine. In a time where no real separation between religion, science and state existed, this would mean war. Literally, with cannons and armies.

Galileo had had several interviews with the Pope, who invited him to publish a book comparing the two systems, heliocentrism and geocentrism, and suggested to include the Pope's own opinions in this book, but he should stay away from suggesting that heliocentrism was anything else that an useful mathematical trick to calculate the orbital movement, never an actual depiction of reality.

Galileo, however, wrote that book making a clear assumption that heliocentrism was real, and to make things worse, put the Pope's words in the character of Simplicius, who despite being named so because of a philosopher used in Aristotle's books, sounds very much like "simpleton" in Italian, and indeed spoke like a fool.

So, actually, he was arrested by flagrant disobedience, not because the Church opposed his theories - even if they remained unconvinced. Curiously enough, the Church was siding with the prevalent scientific consensus of the time, which was geocentrism.

As for the reasons for the Catholic Church to forbid him to present heliocentrism as something real, were many and quite sound. Postulating a novel astronomic theory and hence creating a new religion because of, was not only not uncommon, but almost inevitable. Several people had lead revolts in the name of a new interpretation of the texts of the Bible, in some cases starting with espousing a new discovery which contradicted the scriptures - if the discovery was a real thing or not it wasn't that important -, and the biggest of them all, the 30 Years War, was in all its rage right then. Several influential people, including nobles close to the king of Spain were accusing the Pope of not being stern enough in prosecuting those who, in the name of science, were disseminating falsehoods against the true religion (his own, obviously). The Pope couldn't risk loosing the help of the catholic kingdoms in the middle of a war, nor the risk of somebody using the teachings from Galileo, Giordano Bruno or anyone else to divide even more the christendom.

It is worthy to note than protestant movements thought pretty much the same about it. In his 'Commentary on Genesis' John Calvin said that

"We indeed are not ignorant that the circuit of the heavens is finite, and that the earth, like a little globe, is placed in the centre." (1)

And remember that Giordiano Bruno was burnt by the Catholic Church only because he managed to flee from Helmstedt before luterans did it. Luter did not approve heliocentrism either:

"This is what that fellow does who wishes to turn the whole of astronomy upside down. Even in these things that are thrown into disorder I believe the Holy Scriptures, for Joshua commanded the sun to stand still and not the earth" (Donald H. Kobe (1998). "Copernicus and Martin Luther: An Encounter Between Science and Religion". American Journal of Physics. 66 (3): 190)

So, as a resume, theologian Thomas Schirrmacher argued:

Contrary to legend, Galileo and the Copernican system were well regarded by church officials. Galileo was the victim of his own arrogance, the envy of his colleagues, and the politics of Pope Urban VIII. He was not accused of criticizing the Bible, but disobeying a papal decree. (3) (Emphasis mine)

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    Please provide some references to support your claims.
    – Oddthinking
    Commented Jun 4, 2020 at 16:27
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    "However, he was merely repeating the same inconclusive or false arguments that had been debunked or questioned previously by several promiment geocentrist scientist such as Tycho Brahe." <- This needs a pretty strong reference!
    – Oddthinking
    Commented Jun 4, 2020 at 16:32
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    @Oddthinking You say "strong reference" as though it's a particularly strong claim. It's not. Brahe is known in history for two main reasons: he observed the lack of parallax in the stars (and therefore the impossibility of heliocentricity), and he trained Kepler. I hope you didn't downvote this post for committing a faux pas equivalent to crediting without a source, say, Kepler's discovery of elliptical orbits.
    – pokep
    Commented Jun 5, 2020 at 17:13
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    Can't help it: "with canons [sic] and armies" :) Commented Jun 19, 2022 at 3:21
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    This would be like saying that it would have been justified to convict and imprison Einstein for correctly postulating the existence of black holes or the relationship between the passage of time and velocity of an object. Neither of those were possible to be proven or disproven by measurements for many, many decades, but the logical construct and weight of observation led them to be generally accepted, even before the final proof came in. He was considered that much more of a genius for being that far ahead of his time, not the antithesis of a scientist. Commented Jun 20, 2022 at 18:50

1) Did Galileo teach sciencific theories which were not yet proven?

The Jesuit Cardinal Robert Bellarmine thought that there was not sufficient proof in his time. He wrote, in his 12 April 1615 letter to the Carmelite priest Fr. Foscarini* (my emphases):

I say that if there were a true demonstration that the sun is at the center of the world and the earth in the third heaven, and that the sun does not circle the earth but the earth circles the sun, […]. But I will not believe that there is such a demonstration, until it is shown me. Nor is it the same to demonstrate that by assuming the sun to be at the center and the earth in heaven one can save the appearances, and to demonstrate that in truth the sun is at the center and the earth in heaven; for I believe the first demonstration may be available, but I have very great doubts about the second

*Foscarini wrote a theology book trying to reconcile heliocentrism with Scriptures.

2) Is this the main reason why the Cathlic church persecuted him?

To say Galileo was persecuted seems to imply he adhered to a different religion than Catholicism. He was a devout Catholic, hence the Church had jurisdiction over him in moral or religious matters. His house arrest was quite unusual; it was really a paid retirement, during which he wrote his most important physics work, The Two New Sciences (1638).*

*For quotes and supporting documentation, cf. this answer to the question "Why was Copernicus not persecuted by the church, but Galileo was?"

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    "persecute" doesn't imply someone follows a different religion. But it does imply malicious intent, so "prosecute" is much better here. Commented Jun 2, 2020 at 21:09
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    What is this narrating? Bellarmin argues against Foscarini, in 1615, Galilei is not involved. Then in 1632 Galilei provokes his old friend, now infallible pope, and falls out of favour. Is that relevant here? Or is it just important to somehow allude to 'not persecuted'? The heretical insight from Saggiatore that basic atomism contradicts Catholic doctrine of Eucharist transsubstantation should play no role? Circumventing a mod-suspension (inquisition & censorship)? That the pope encouraged GG to write Dialogo without knowledge of Bellarmin conditional: Kopernikus must be hypothesis? Commented Jun 2, 2020 at 21:18
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    "I will not believe that there is such a demonstration, until it is shown me". This may well have been fake open-mindedness; the speaker claims that they will accept good evidence, but when evidence is produced it is dismissed or ignored. Commented Jun 4, 2020 at 10:36
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    Just checked the reference. Bellarmine goes on to say that even if assuming that the sun is at the centre of the universe "can save the appearances", that doesn't imply that it is true. In modern terms he seems to be saying that heliocentrism may merely be a convenient model that just happens to produce the right predictions despite being false. Commented Jun 4, 2020 at 10:44
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    @PaulJohnson cf. Structural Realism vs. Scientific Formalism
    – Geremia
    Commented Jun 4, 2020 at 17:42

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