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Today virtually every child grows up learning that the earth orbits the sun.
But four centuries ago, the idea of a heliocentric solar system was so controversial that the Catholic Church classified it as a heresy, and warned the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei to abandon it.
Many people believe that Galileo was hounded by the church for almost two decades, that he openly maintained a belief in heliocentrism, and that he was only spared torture and death because his powerful friends intervened on his behalf. But an examination of the fine details of Galileo’s conflict with church leaders doesn’t bear that out, according to English department distinguished research professor Henry Kelly.
In an article published this month in the journal “Church History,” Kelly clarifies some popularly held notions around Galileo’s travails with the church.
“We can only guess at what he really believed,” said Kelly, who for his research undertook a thorough examination of the judicial procedure used by the church in its investigation of Galileo. “Galileo was clearly stretching the truth when he maintained at his trial in 1633 that after 1616 he had never considered heliocentrism to be possible. Admitting otherwise would have increased the penance he was given, but would not have endangered his life, since he agreed to renounce the heresy — and in fact it would have spared him even the threat of torture.”
This year marks the 400th anniversary of the beginning of the Catholic Church’s investigation into Galileo.