Galileo's "Confession"

On 15 January 1633, Galileo wrote to his friend Ella Diodati setting out his views on why the Bible should not be treated as literally true. At this time he was in deep trouble over his claims that the earth moved and was facing a trial which took place a few months later. We give a translation:

When I ask: whose work is the Sun, the Moon, the Earth, the Stars, their motions and dispositions, I shall probably be told that they are God's work. When I continue to ask whose work is Holy Scripture, I shall certainly be told that it is the work of the Holy Ghost, i.e., God's work also. If now I ask if the Holy Ghost uses words which are manifest contradictions of the truth so as to satisfy the understanding of the - generally uneducated - masses, I am convinced that I shall be told, with many citations from all the sanctified writers, that this is indeed the custom of Holy Scripture, containing as it does hundreds of passages that taken literally would be nothing but heresy and blasphemy, for in them God appears as a Being full of hatred, guilt and forgetfulness. If now I ask whether God, so as to be understood by the masses, had ever altered His works, or else if Nature, unchangeable and inaccessible as it is to human desires, has always retained the same kinds of motion, forms and divisions of the Universe, I am certain to be told that the Moon has always been round, even though it was long considered to be flat. To condense all this into one phrase: Nobody will maintain that Nature has ever changed in order to make its works palatable to men. If this be the case, then I ask why it is that, in order to arrive at an understanding of the different parts of the world, we must begin with the investigation of the Words of God, rather than of His Works. Is then the Work less venerable than the Word? If someone had held it to be heresy to say that the Earth moves, and if later verification and experiments were to show us that it does indeed do so, what difficulties would the church not encounter! If, on the contrary, whenever the works and the Word cannot be made to agree, we consider Holy Scripture as secondary, no harm will befall it, for it has often been modified to suit the masses and has frequently attributed false qualities to God. Therefore I must ask why it is that we insist that whenever it speaks of the Sun or of the Earth, Holy Scripture be considered as quite infallible?

On 22 June 1633 Galileo, having been found guilty at his trial, was forced to make a 'confession' to the Cardinals of the Holy Office of the Church. He read from the text of which a translation is given below:

I, Galileo Galilei, son of the late Vincenzio Galilei of Florence, aged seventy years, being brought personally to judgment, and kneeling before you, Most Eminent and Most Reverend Lords Cardinals, General Inquisitors of the Universal Christian Commonwealth against heretical depravity, having before my eyes the Holy Gospels which I touch with my own hands, swear that I have always believed, and, with the help of God, will in future believe, every article which the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church of Rome holds, teaches, and preaches. But because I have been enjoined, by this Holy Office, altogether to abandon the false opinion which maintains that the Sun is the centre and immovable, and forbidden to hold, defend, or teach, the said false doctrine in any manner ... I am willing to remove from the minds of your Eminences, and of every Catholic Christian, this vehement suspicion rightly entertained towards me, therefore, with a sincere heart and unfeigned faith, I abjure, curse, and detest the said errors and heresies, and generally every other error and sect contrary to the said Holy Church; and I swear that I will never more in future say, or assert anything, verbally or in writing, which may give rise to a similar suspicion of me; but that if I shall know any heretic, or any one suspected of heresy, I will denounce him to this Holy Office, or to the Inquisitor and Ordinary of the place in which I may be. I swear, moreover, and promise that I will fulfil and observe fully all the penances which have been or shall be laid on me by this Holy Office. But if it shall happen that I violate any of my said promises, oaths, and protestations (which God avert!), I subject myself to all the pains and punishments which have been decreed and promulgated by the sacred canons and other general and particular constitutions against delinquents of this description. So, may God help me, and His Holy Gospels, which I touch with my own hands, I, the above named Galileo Galilei, have abjured, sworn, promised, and bound myself as above; and, in witness thereof, with my own hand have subscribed this present writing of my abjuration, which I have recited word for word.

Note: Rather strangely, the very first sentence contains a factual error since in fact Galileo was aged sixty-nine years at the time. He was, of course, in his seventieth year and this may indeed be the meaning. Another possibility is that he deliberately introduced a factual error feeling that would invalidate the 'confession'.

Last Updated December 2008