Even Doctors of the Church Make Theological Mistakes Now and Again

On the evening of February 26, 1616, Galileo Galilei had a meeting with a saint. The saint was 73-year-old Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, who, by this time, had a reputation as one of the most well thought after members of the college of cardinals. Bellarmine had spent a great deal of his ecclesiastical life in service to his order, the Jesuits, as professor, spiritual father, rector, and provincial. He had been frequently called to Rome in service of the Popes for his expertise in matters both diplomatic and theological. His De controversiis was the single most important book of Tridentine Catholic apologetics and it won him both fame and infamy all over Catholic and Protestant Europe respectively. Academic chairs at Protestant universities were created for the sole purpose of combating its arguments. It was a testament to Bellarmine’s intellectual virtue and reputation that he is the only modern author that Thomas Hobbes thought significant enough to mention by name in Leviathan.

Regarding his moral character, no better compliment could have been paid to a churchman of his time as that of Enrique de Guzmán, Count of Olivares, who thought that Bellarmine would make a lousy Pope because he cared too much for the interests of the Church and not enough for those of princes. In part for his role as a theological advisor during the controversy concerning free will and divine election between Luis Molina and Domingo Bañez, Bellarmine was made a Cardinal by Clement VIII in 1599. Since that time, he had been a judge at the heresy trial of Giordano Bruno, had his pen impressed into service against Paolo Sarpi in Venice, and again later against James I’s oath of allegiance in England. As a priest, a bishop, and now a cardinal, Bellarmine had been no stranger to controversy. His meeting with Galileo would mark the last notable ecclesial controversy in which the Cardinal would play a significant role. As we will see, there are differing accounts of what exactly transpired between Galileo and Bellarmine on the evening of February 16, 1616.

The controversy was, of course, Copernicanism, i.e., the claim that the constitution of the heavens is both heliocentric (the sun is at the center of the heavens) and geokinetic (the earth, like all other heavenly bodies, orbits around the sun) originally put forth by Nicholas Copernicus in his De revolutionibus in 1543. Galileo had been convicted of Copernicanism’s truth since his discoveries of, among other things, the phases of Venus, the Jovian satellites, and sunspots in 1610. There is no indication that he was a heliocentrist before these discoveries. Galileo’s Copernicanism was controversial on both philosophical/scientific and theological grounds.

Scientifically, it ran afoul of both the geocentric and geostatic cosmology of Aristotle that had been formalized by Ptolemy, which was the regnant theory in Galileo’s time. Theologically, it seemed contrary to the overwhelming consensus of the Church Fathers in interpreting certain biblical passages such as Joshua 10:12-13 and Psalm 19:5-6. Passages like these had been seen as clearly affirming a geocentric/geostatic worldview. Since his discoveries, Galileo had been subject to published written attacks by Francesco Ingoli, a mocking sermon delivered at Santa Maria Novella in Florence by Fr. Tommaso Caccini, and a formal complaint to the Holy Office (a.k.a. the Roman Inquisition) by Caccini’s Dominican confrere Niccolo Lorini—a complaint that the Inquisition quickly found to be groundless.

On top of all this Fr. Paolo Antonio Foscarini, a Carmelite theologian published a pro-Copernican tract under the auspices of a letter to his superiors, which had come to the attention of the Holy Office. All of these events brought the Copernican question before the Inquisition in a way it could no longer ignore. The Holy Office felt it had to make a decision. Famously, the decision was not in Copernicanism’s favor.

On the evening in question, Bellarmine had been ordered by Paul V to inform Galileo of a decision of the Holy Congregation of the Index. The Index decided that Nicolas Copernicus’s heliocentric and geokinetic account of celestial mechanics was erroneous and contrary to Sacred Scripture and that Galileo had to abandon this opinion. After outsourcing the problem to a panel of experts, the Inquisition concluded that Copernicanism was philosophically absurd and theologically heretical. The theological aspect of the problem faced by Bellarmine and the Inquisition pivoted on how one chose to answer three sets of questions.

First, was Copernicanism a plausible account of the heavens such that, though yet unproven, it likely could be demonstrated in the future given more evidence and arguments? If so, as Galileo argued basing himself on St. Augustine’s exegetical principles contained in De Genesi ad litteram, then one ought to be careful on rendering a definitive geocentric interpretation to scriptural passages that mention physical phenomena like Joshua 10:12-13 lest one open up the faith to the scorn of the unbelievers. Augustine knew that basing a physical theory on a scriptural interpretation is a dangerous business because a pagan natural philosopher might show you to be wrong!

Second, could the literal sense of the biblical passages in question be plausibly reinterpreted heliocentrically according to sound exegesis? Galileo obviously thought they could and he even offered a possible heliocentric reading of the Joshua passage in his 1613 Letter to Castelli as proof. He thought that the Joshua passage could be more cogently explained by reading it as asserting that the rotational motion of the sun was halted which in turn stopped the orbital motion of the rest of the heavenly spheres and thus lengthened the day.

Finally, was an attempt at reinterpreting Scripture in this regard allowable since the Council of Trent’s fourth session prohibited interpreting the Bible in ways contrary to the consensus of the Church Fathers in matters of faith and morals? That the patristic interpretations of the passages in question were unanimously geocentric was undeniable. The only relevant concern was whether or not the matter at hand, the physical constitution of the heavens, was a matter of faith and morals and thus subject to Trent’s prohibition. Both Galileo and Foscarini had gone to great lengths to show that it was not, hence Galileo’s taking up of Cardinal Baronio’s dictum, “The intention of the Holy Spirit is to teach us how to go to heaven and not how heaven goes.”

As it turned out, Bellarmine and the Holy Office answered a resounding “no” to all three central questions. It is the theological aspect of the controversy that interests us here, specifically Bellarmine’s anti-Copernican position and the form and content of his scriptural warrants for it. We have come here neither to bury the saintly Cardinal nor to praise him. Rather, we are here to see what lessons can be gathered from Bellarmine’s assumptions about and approach to Scripture that informed his and the Inquisition's judgments about Galileo and his Copernicanism. It will be a mixed bag.

To see why one needs to look no further than De controversii I-III where Bellarmine’s commitments regarding the nature of scriptural inspiration and inerrancy coupled with how these commitments inform his method of exegesis. It is important to note that his position on these matters was quite traditional in many ways and as such, it is emblematic (mutatis mutandis) of the reaction to Copernicanism of many theologians of the period. According to Bellarmine, the sacred authors of the Bible were inspired either by a direct revelation such that the words they wrote were the result of something very much like dictation or the authors were moved by the Holy Spirit to write from their own store of knowledge only what God wished them to write in the manner that he wished.

Therefore, as the Word of God, Scripture was fully and absolutely inerrant not only in its assertions but down to the choice of each word. While Bellarmine grants that, as divine revelation, the Bible’s main purpose is salvific, he clearly maintains that every assertion contained in its pages, even those concerning matters mundane, are guaranteed as absolutely inerrant, even down to the greetings of the Pauline epistles!

On Bellarmine’s account, we must believe in the mundane matters contained in Scripture not because they were written as necessary for our salvation, but “it is necessary to believe in them because they were written.” Scripture is fully and absolutely inerrant. Mundane matters are in Scripture. Therefore, the mundane matters in Scripture must be believed. The clear implication seems to be that even though Scripture was meant for our salvation, it is also a reliable guide for any and all matters, no matter how trivial or mundane, when and if it happens to mention them, up to and including truths about the natural world.

Furthermore, the truth of Scriptural passages lies fundamentally in their character as assertions. This is to say that the proper meaning of the Bible lies in its literal sense, i.e., “the meaning immediately presented by the words.” This meaning could be either simple, the proper meaning conveyed by the words, or figurative, the words used in a metaphorical way. According to Bellarmine, every passage in Scripture has a literal sense and this sense is its properly revelatory sense. The only question is whether or not the passage being interpreted is conveying a simple or figurative meaning.

It is in this light that one ought to understand Bellarmine’s position on the Copernican question. His attitude toward Copernicanism was laid bare in a 1615 letter he wrote to Foscarini, who supplied Bellarmine with his own published letter that defended Copernicanism as a plausible account of celestial mechanics and that offered arguments as to why the heliocentric world view is consonant with certain Scriptural passages. Foscarini wanted Bellarmine’s opinion on the matter, most probably hoping for an ally. Although the letter is addressed to Foscarini, Bellarmine’s reply is also directed at Galileo whom he mentions by name. Galileo had been in dialogue with Bellarmine through Monsignor Piero Dini (1570-1625) earlier in the year in an attempt to elicit sympathy from notable Jesuits such as Bellarmine and Christoph Grienberger (1561-1636) of the Roman College.

In order to fully understand Bellarmine’s intentions in the letter, one must keep in mind that it was a terse, yet specific response and refutation to claims made by Foscarini and by extension Galileo:

  1. that Copernicanism was a viable account of the heavens and therefore should be taken seriously,
  2. that if true, Copernicanism is consonant with the literal sense of certain biblical passages and hence no threat to the Catholic Faith,
  3. and that the constitution of the heavens is not a matter of faith or morals, so Trent’s injunction against interpreting Scripture against the consensus of the Father’s does not apply. Bellarmine denies them all.  

Bellarmine begins the letter by congratulating both Foscarini and Galileo for holding Copernicanism only “suppositionally” rather than literally. He has no problem with astronomers assuming whatever model they choose if it helps them to better calculate and predict celestial phenomena. As we will see in a moment, Bellarmine may have thought it probable that one could not do much more than this in terms of astronomy. Be that as it may, it is hard to believe that his congratulations are in earnest.

Bellarmine was one of the sharpest men of his time and he had been in contact with both Galileo, Foscarini, and many mutual friends. Bellarmine probably knew that both men thought that Copernicanism was true. Rather, the “congratulations” was a veiled warning to Galileo and Foscarini to be careful in the way they publicly presented their positions. He likely had an inkling of where the issue was headed and he was fundamentally a great-hearted and decent man. In point of fact, Galileo never again wrote publicly on matters of scriptural interpretation and heliocentrism. His Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems, the work that got him tried for heresy, contains only scientific and philosophical arguments.

When reading Bellarmine’s Letter to Foscarini, one gets the distinct impression that Bellarmine does not consider Copernicanism a plausible account of the heavens. At no point does he seem at all worried that heliocentrism will someday be proved true. He insists that he would not believe the putative demonstration on testimony, but only if it were shown to him directly. Why the skepticism? He insists that the main reason that Copernicanism cannot be held as literally true is that it would “harm the Holy Faith by rendering Holy Scripture false.” This is his main warrant. Bellarmine makes no mention here or anywhere else of any scientific grounds whatsoever. Astronomy is only concerned with “saving the appearances” and constructing mathematical fictions like eccentrics and epicycles in order to do so. There is reason to believe that he thought philosophy of nature could not do much better.

Bellarmine believed that the heavens were geocentric and geostatic and can be known by others as such on mainly biblical grounds. In a series of then unpublished lectures delivered at Louvain between 1570 and 1572 on the Prima pars of St. Thomas’s Summa, he laid out a geocentric and geostatic cosmology founded in part upon scriptural passages and inferences therefrom. His cosmology is clearly non-Aristotelian in content and character, e.g., he thinks that the heavens are mutable (made of possibly fire instead of ether) and subject to change, and that the heavenly medium is immobile, but all of the heavenly bodies, including the stars, move. We know that he held this position to the end of his life because he affirms it as his settled opinion in a 1618 letter to Fredrico Cesi, head of the Lincean Academy.

In short, Bellarmine had no Aristotelian dog in the hunt. Rather, he was committed to a geocentric and geostatic cosmology because he thought Scripture clearly taught it, not because he thought it had been demonstrated in philosophy! It seems that Bellarmine’s reasoning was something like, “It is all but certain that Copernicanism cannot be true because Scripture clearly shows it to be false.” It is more than plausible that this is why he was unmoved by Galileo’s call for Augustinian caution when interpreting passages that had relevance to matters of natural philosophy—in this case, Bellarmine thought that the truth was clear and caution was unwarranted. While it might not seem so at first glance, this is consistent with Bellarmine’s famous concession in the Letter to Foscarini:

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 . . . then one would have to proceed with great care in explaining the Scriptures that appears contrary, and say rather that we don’t understand them than that what is demonstrated is false. But I will not believe such a demonstration, until it is shown me.

Bellarmine was committed to the unity of the truth and the harmony between faith and reason. With Galileo, Bellarmine thought that when the Bible mentioned some natural phenomena, it should be interpreted in light of scientific knowledge, if such knowledge was proven. It is just that in this case, he thought that it was highly unlikely it would be proven. In a way, the cards had been dealt in advance. And besides, Galileo did not technically have proof. All of his observations could be explained by the geocentric and geostatic model of Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) which had all celestial bodies orbit the sun as the sun and the moon orbit a stationary earth. 

Regarding Scriptural interpretation, Bellarmine thought that Foscarini and Galileo’s attempts to reinterpret seemingly geocentric passages contra patres was doomed to failure. For Bellarmine, the literal sense of such passages seemed straight forward and simply geocentric and/or geostatic. Galileo and Foscarini’s alternative figurative readings did not seem to make much sense to Bellarmine. For one thing, many of the passages do not seem to be either straightforwardly metaphorical in the way that references to “God’s right hand” (Psalm 63:8) or Jesus’s exhortation to cut out one’s eye if it causes him to sin (Matt 5:29) are. Besides, to Bellarmine’s credit, it is not at all clear what talk of the sun “stopping” or the earth “resting in its place” could be metaphors for! Galileo’s position that the biblical authors are “accommodating” their utterances to the understanding of the common person, to whom the sun certainly appears to rise and set, only works if one assumes heliocentrism to be true. Bellarmine has already virtually eliminated this as a viable possibility. Q.E.D.   

By now one might be able to see what was coming regarding the last question concerning Trent’s prohibition. Bellarmine granted that Foscarini and Galileo were right that the constitution of the heavens was not a matter of faith and morals “as regards the topic,” but it was certainly a matter of faith “as regards the speaker.” Since the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture are matters of faith, and every assertion, no matter its subject, must be believed in virtue of its inspiration, therefore every assertion of Scripture is a matter of faith. To deny the truth of any scriptural assertion implies the denial of its inspiration and inerrancy. As we have seen, Bellarmine thinks he has very strong reasons to think that Scripture asserts a geocentric and geostatic cosmos. This, in addition to the clear patristic consensus. Again, Bellarmine has closed the door.  

Now we return to Bellarmine’s meeting with Galileo. Galileo’s trial for heresy before the Inquisition seventeen years later would in large part pivot around differing accounts of what transpired that night. A record of the meeting found in the archives of the Inquisition in 1633 stated that Galileo agreed “not to hold, teach, or defend it [heliocentrism] in any way whatever, either orally or in writing.” Scholars disagree on whether or not this record was genuine or a forgery. Galileo, however, claimed to have understood Bellarmine in a less restrictive sense in that he could hold Copernicanism as a theoretical model for the sake of astronomical calculations and predictions, but not as a literally true account. It had been seventeen years since the meeting and he was getting up in age. He had no recollection of the qualification “in any way whatever.”

At the trial, he showed the court a certificate that Bellarmine had given him at a second meeting in May of 1616 stating that Galileo was not under any official investigation or sanction, but only that he had been told that Copernicanism “cannot be defended or held” lacking any other more restrictive qualifications. Bellarmine had died in 1621 and could not adjudicate the matter. The Inquisition believed the former agreement to be genuine and ruled that Galileo violated its tenets in his Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems and he was convicted of vehement suspicion of heresy in 1633.

To even the less than attentive reader it is fairly clear that in the Dialogue Galileo does a bit more than speak on Copernicanism’s behalf “suppositionally.” In any case, Galileo’s condemnation has been the gift that keeps on giving for all those who want to hold the Catholic Church up to scorn for being anti-science, superstitious, etc. Ironically, this is the same scorn that Augustine warned his readers of in those passages of De Genesii that Galileo was so fond of quoting. Did Bellarmine’s position have to be anti-Copernican? How was Galileo able to see things that Bellarmine could not, and therefore did their respective approaches to Scripture fundamentally differ?

One might say that Bellarmine’s position was purely a function of his theory of inspiration as dictation, his understanding of inerrancy as unqualified, plenary, and absolute, and his view that the goal of biblical interpretation is uncovering the meaning of assertions. Both the manner and content of the sacred authors’ inspired utterances are reflective of either revealed or recalled knowledge that, no matter its salvific import, is inerrant as meant. Solomon says that the earth is stationary, so it is stationary. David says that the sun moves, so it moves. In such mundane matters not formally salvific, if there is no certain/proved rational account that would cause us to interpret a passage figuratively, it ought to be interpreted simply. Scripture gets the benefit of the doubt in all matters of which it speaks. This certainly has some truth to it. One might further say that a more nuanced version of the above could have provided Bellarmine with a means of escape.

For instance, one might suggest that there is a difference between a background assumption and what one is actually trying to convey or assert by means of that assumption. If I assume that the cosmos is a three-layered cake of firmament enclosed water, dry land, and more water below, that assumption will affect how I package theological assertions about the harmony and order of creation as a result of divine wisdom. It is the latter that I am really trying to convey, not the former. To take another example, one might suggest, as some interpreters of Dei Verbum 11 do, that Scripture is absolutely inerrant under the formality of truths revealed for us and our salvation, but not necessarily under other formalities such as scientific ones.

However, it is not at all clear that these latter two possibilities were conceptually available to Bellarmine, and they are thus a bit anachronistic. In fact, Bellarmine and Galileo were in essential agreement on inspiration, inerrancy, and most rules of interpretation—Augustine was the master of them both in this regard. So, the question arises how was it that Galileo felt able to give certain passages a figurative reading by invoking the principle of accommodation and Bellarmine did not? It was not that they disagreed about inspiration or inerrancy. Galileo thought, just as Bellarmine undoubtedly would have, that in virtue of inspiration, the author of Joshua knew perfectly well the actual constitution of the heavens, but intentionally chose to express it after the common fashion so as to not confuse his audience.

The difference, and this made all the difference, was that Galileo thought “that in discussion of physical problems we ought to begin not from the authority of scriptural passages, but from sense-experiences and necessary demonstrations” precisely because the main purpose of Scripture was salvific and not mundane. In questions concerning physical problems, sense experience and reasoned argument get the benefit of the doubt. Galileo firmly believed any and every Scriptural assertion about mundane things would undoubtedly accord with reason and inquiry if properly interpreted.

In this way Bellarmine was perceptive: Galileo’s reinterpretations only made sense, or rather were only warranted, if one supposed that heliocentrism was true. For Bellarmine such thinking would have been the exception to the rule, for Galileo it was just the opposite. This fundamental difference in starting point accounts for much of the difference between the two men. Galileo evidently saw that this approach was required if both Scripture and human inquiry were to be saved. History has vindicated Galileo’s approach.  

Reflecting on the Galileo affair St. John Paul II observed that:

The problem posed by theologians of that age was, therefore, that of the compatibility between heliocentrism and Scripture. Thus the new science, with its methods and the freedom of research which they implied, obliged theologians to examine their own criteria of scriptural interpretation. Most of them did not know how to do so. Paradoxically, Galileo, a sincere believer, showed himself to be more perceptive in this regard than the theologians who opposed him.

Although he does not mention him specifically, it seems clear that Bellarmine, as utterly remarkable as he was, was one of those theologians not up to the task. Herein might lie a lesson as we draw to a close. For Bellarmine, neither brilliance and theological acumen (a fine thing) nor sanctity (a far finer thing) were able to lift him beyond the conceptual horizons of his age. Even Doctors of the Church make theological mistakes now and again.

His age was one of a post-Reformation Church that was embattled and focused in on herself. Novelty is rarely prized in such circumstances. All answers are to be found within. The problem is that this is never quite true in any age. Even Sacred Scripture does not have all the resources within itself to solve all problems concerning itself. Sometimes a problem intrudes from outside and causes a crisis. Sometimes it is the crisis itself and an honest acknowledgment of it as such which enables one to ask the right questions in order to begin deepening our understanding of the issues involved and a way forward. Sometimes horizons cannot be broadened unless they are first broken. In any case, St. Robert Bellarmine (pray for us, in a new time of crisis!) now knows the truth of the matter and a great deal more besides.

Featured Image: Portrait of Robert Bellarmine by unknown artist, c. 1623; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Cory Hayes

Cory Hayes is Senior Professor of Philosophy and Theology at St. Joseph Seminary College. His research and teaching interests include Byzantine and Eastern Christian theology, philosophy of nature, and the relation between theology, philosophy, and empirical science.

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