Galileo and Peter Lombard

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Features, Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2007), Volume 15

Niall Toibí­n (centre) as Peter Lombard in Brian Friel's original production of Making History. (Field Day)

Niall Toibí­n (centre) as Peter Lombard in Brian Friel’s original production of Making History. (Field Day)

In 1979, in one of the first public addresses of his pontificate, Pope John Paul II called for a new study of the long-contested ‘Galileo affair’ that would permit ‘a frank recognition of wrongs from whatever side they came’. Needless to say, the initiative was widely welcomed, and when the pope established a formal commission in 1981 to carry through the plan expectations ran high. Over the course of the next ten years a small number of studies appeared, until finally, in 1992, the acting chair of the commission, Cardinal Paul Poupard, in a public session submitted a final report to the pope, who himself went on to read a further statement prepared for him which would wind up the inquiry. The two discourses, taken together, were generally interpreted as a belated (if still somewhat half-hearted) acknowledgement of fault on the church’s part in its dealings with Galileo.
Whose fault? One feature of the assessment delivered in 1992 should be of special interest to an Irish audience. Blame is laid on ‘some theologians’, unnamed, who (it is said) should have examined their own criteria of Scriptural interpretation in the light of the new science but ‘most of them did not know how to do so’. Who exactly did the author of the papal address have in mind? Who were those erring theologians? Presumably, by implication, the committee of theologian-consulters appointed by the Holy Office, the Roman Inquisition, to advise on the Copernican issue. And who presided over that committee? None other than Peter Lombard, the exiled archbishop of Armagh. Lombard is one of those—and, as chairman, perhaps first among those—who apparently are being held responsible, on the church’s side, for the Copernican ban and its disastrous after-effects. To what extent is this judgement warranted?


In 1609 Galileo improved on what had been until then no more than a toy (the telescope) and turned it to observe the heavens. Over the next few years he made a series of significant discoveries: what appeared to be mountains on the moon, four satellites circling Jupiter, slow-moving sunspots and, most significantly, phases of Venus, like the quarter and half phases of the moon. Taken together, they undermined the long-standing Aristotelian world-system: the heavenly bodies could no longer be regarded as unchanging, there was more than one cosmic centre of circular motion, and Venus circled the sun, not the earth. The work in which he announced the earliest of these discoveries, Sidereus nuncius (1610), was an instant sensation. It offered striking support to the work of Copernicus, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (1543), whose claim that the sun and not the earth was the centre of the planetary rotations had never previously been widely accepted.
But Galileo met with vigorous opposition from two quarters: first from the Aristotelian philosophers who dominated the philosophy faculties in most universities, and second from theologians who saw in the new ideas a challenge to the inerrancy of Scripture. There are several passages in the Old Testament that mention the movement of the sun across the sky and others that describe the earth as immobile. Galileo brushed aside the philosophers but the theologians were a different matter.

Galileo by Ottavio Leoni. (Biblioteca Marucelliana, Florence)

Galileo by Ottavio Leoni. (Biblioteca Marucelliana, Florence)


Pope John Paul II-in 1979, in one of the first public addresses of his pontificate, he called for a new study of the long-contested ‘Galileo affair'. (Connacht Tribune)

Pope John Paul II-in 1979, in one of the first public addresses of his pontificate, he called for a new study of the long-contested ‘Galileo affair’. (Connacht Tribune)

Galileo by Ottavio Leoni. (Biblioteca Marucelliana, Florence)

Pope John Paul II…
Pope John Paul II-in 1979, in one of the first public addresses of his pontificate, he called for a new study of the long-contested ‘Galileo affair’. (Connacht Tribune)

In a short letter to a friend, Benedetto Castelli (1612), he set out ‘to examine some general questions about the use of Holy Scripture in disputes involving physical conclusions’. His approach was a commonsense one. Of necessity, Scripture would have had to be accommodated to the capacities of its hearers, and thus to use their language to convey its message. It frequently departs, therefore, from the literal, as in such expressions as the ‘right hand’ of God. Second, Scripture is directed to truths that bear on human salvation, not to issues about nature that are already accessible to human reasoning. Third, it is open to multiple interpretations; natural knowledge, if demonstrated, is not. Finally, prudence should dictate that the church not commit itself prematurely on an issue that could later be decided otherwise by physical investigation: ‘Who would want to assert that everything knowable about the world is already known?’
His critics among the theologians were not persuaded and he was ultimately denounced to the Holy Office in Rome, with a copy of the letter to Castelli submitted as evidence. (A later, much more elaborate defence of his position, in the form of a letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, did not come to the notice of Rome at this time, so far as we can tell.) Meanwhile, the theological orthodoxy of the Copernican position was being actively debated by Roman theologians. The Holy Office, prodded by an irritated Pope Paul V, decided that a decision was called for. Following custom, as a first step, a group of their regular consulters was assigned to advise on the matter. Not surprisingly, they turned to Peter Lombard, one of their most trusted theologians, to preside over the committee.


Peter Lombard was born into a well-off family in Waterford in 1554. The University of Louvain at that time was becoming a major centre for young Irishmen studying for the priesthood. Lombard enrolled in philosophy there in 1572 and was rated as the outstanding student of that year in the university on completion of his philosophy degree in 1575. He would almost certainly have taken philosophy courses with the young Robert Bellarmine, the first Jesuit to join the Louvain faculty and a major figure in the Galileo story later. Notes from Bellarmine’s courses in natural philosophy during his time in Louvain (1569–76) show that he turned to the Bible rather than to Aristotle for inspiration in his cosmology, unusual among the Catholic philosophers of the day. For example, he argued against the Aristotelian doctrine of the nature of the heavens: they are made of fire, not of some mysterious fifth element; there are no carrier spheres for the planets (they move ‘like the birds of the air’); they are not incorruptible (they will perish on the last day). Bellarmine was already engaged in controversy with the Reformers and, like them, had resorted to a highly literalist approach to biblical interpretation. Lombard would undoubtedly have come to know Bellarmine’s position with regard to the primacy of the Bible in matters cosmological. It would be interesting to know the extent to which he was influenced by Bellarmine’s views in that respect.

Pope Paul V by Guido Reni-when he was elected pope in 1606, Lombard became a member of his official household. (Private collection)

Pope Paul V by Guido Reni-when he was elected pope in 1606, Lombard became a member of his official household. (Private collection)

Pope Paul V…
Pope Paul V by Guido Reni-when he was elected pope in 1606, Lombard became a member of his official household. (Private collection)

Lombard went on to gain his doctorate both in philosophy and theology and became a renowned teacher of philosophy at Louvain. In 1598 he was sent to Rome as an emissary of the university and rapidly became a major figure there in matters political as well as theological. Hugh O’Neill, still in Ireland, appointed him as his agent in the multifarious initiatives in which O’Neill was engaged in Rome at that time. This was probably a major factor in Lombard’s elevation to the archbishopric of Armagh in 1601. When a potentially divisive theological debate between Dominican and Jesuit theologians about the nature of grace led to the setting up of a special congregation de auxiliis in Rome to arbitrate on the issue, Lombard was chosen to preside over the deliberations of the congregation (1602–7), indicating the esteem in which his theological scholarship was held. When Paul V was elected pope in 1606, Lombard became a member of his official household, and evidently came to serve him as an adviser on matters political concerning Ireland.
The new king in England, James I, was at this point bearing down on Catholics in his dominions and was in the process of displacing much of the native Irish population in Ulster with settlers from Scotland and England. In the circumstances, did Catholics owe the king their loyalty? Could the pope depose him? Lombard tended on the whole to be conciliatory and worked for some years on a lengthy response to these delicate issues, resulting in a manuscript, Ad quaestiones XII, of more than a thousand pages. The manuscript was completed around 1616. It is not unlikely that he was in the final stages of this task in February of that year when the fateful decision was taken to convoke a committee of consulters to the Holy Office to advise on the orthodoxy or otherwise of the Copernican world-view. One can well imagine that his attention would have been focused elsewhere at that particular moment.
The condemnation of the Copernican world-view
The committee, under Lombard’s presidency, was convened on 19 February 1616. Many of its eleven members may already have had their minds made up about the issues even before deliberations started: these issues had, after all, been under active discussion in Rome for months. Whatever of that, the committee was instructed to report back to the Holy Office by 24 February, only four short days later. Their verdict was that the assertion that the sun is at rest is ‘foolish and absurd in philosophy [we might say: natural science] and formally heretical, since it explicitly contradicts the sense of Holy Scripture in many places’. The same judgement in philosophy was passed on the assertion that the earth is in motion, but it was given a less condemnatory verdict in theology: ‘at least erroneous in the faith’.

Copernicus's cosmological system, from De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium [‘On the revolutions of the heavenly spheres'], published in March 1543 at Nuremberg.

Copernicus’s cosmological system, from De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium [‘On the revolutions of the heavenly spheres’], published in March 1543 at Nuremberg.

Copernicus’s cosmological system…
Copernicus’s cosmological system, from De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium [‘On the revolutions of the heavenly spheres’], published in March 1543 at Nuremberg.

At that point the Holy Office took over, and the following day, at a meeting with the pope present, the censures agreed on by the consulters were discussed and the pope ordered Cardinal Bellarmine, the leading member of the Holy Office, to instruct Galileo privately that he must abandon the Copernican views he had been defending, and to specify the penalties for not complying. The matter was then turned over to the Congregation of the Index, whose task it was to formulate the terms of the condemnation. Members of the congregation met on 1 March at Bellarmine’s home. After what was evidently a lively discussion, it was decided, apparently at the urging of Cardinals Caetani and Barberini (the future Pope Urban VIII), not to use the consulters’ term ‘formally heretical’ but to describe the Copernican theses simply as being ‘false and altogether opposed to Holy Scripture’ in the decree banning the work of Copernicus and several theological treatises sympathetic to the Copernican world-view.
Perhaps it should be added that they were not adjudicating on the merits at that point of what we would call the scientific case for the Copernican world-view. They clearly took it for granted that no such case could be made. After all, as they were well aware, hardly any of the authorities in astronomy of the day, save Kepler, gave it any credence. The issue, in their eyes, was strictly a theological one: it was primarily Scripture and their authority as its interpreter that they saw as threatened. This, then, was the decree on the grounds of which Galileo would be condemned many years later.

Who should be held responsible?

Should Lombard and the other consulters be held primarily responsible for a condemnation that proved to be a very costly theological error? The answer is a resounding ‘no’, for two quite different reasons. First, it is safe to say that the theologians responsible were in the first instance Cardinal Bellarmine and, to a lesser degree, Pope Paul V, who himself took a major initiative in the matter. The evidence for this is complex and can be only briefly indicated here. Bellarmine’s uncompromisingly literalist approach to the reading of Scripture where cosmology was concerned would have made him especially resistant to allowing the biblical passages mentioning the sun’s motion and the earth’s immobility to be treated as metaphorical. In a warning letter, partly meant for Galileo, he had already indicated that he believed it to be in principle impossible to demonstrate the earth’s motion, and made it clear that, in the absence of a demonstration, the literal interpretation of the disputed passages in his view could not be given up.
The 1992 address tries to present Bellarmine as the open-minded discussant by quoting this same letter to the effect that if a demonstration were to be given it would be necessary to reconsider how to read the passages in question. But this was quite clearly a rhetorical flourish on his part since he then goes on to say that for several reasons a demonstration is forever out of reach. In any event, the demand for demonstration in this context was inappropriate to begin with, as Scripture scholars would now agree. Galileo was right (as the encyclical of Pope Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus, in 1893 implicitly allowed): the disputed ways of speaking about the sun’s motion and the earth’s immobility were clearly accommodated to ordinary speech—as, indeed, they still are! If any one of the theologians concerned were to merit the criticism of failing to scrutinise adequately the criteria he was relying on in his interpretation of Scripture, it was surely Bellarmine.
But this leads to a broader question. In context, how serious a failure was this, in fact? The Protestant Reformation a century before had led to a new literalism in biblical interpretation among Protestants with their rule of sola Scriptura, and later, by way of response, among Catholic theologians as well. The Council of Trent that initiated the Catholic answer to the Protestant challenge had laid down the principle that no one was permitted to depart from the sense given to any particular biblical passage by the Fathers of the Church. It was all too easy to interpret this as a freeze on the reinterpretation of Scripture generally. Bellarmine may have been more literalist than were most of his colleagues. But this is easily understood if it is remembered that he was for years the major controversialist on the Catholic side in disputes with Protestant theologians that hinged, as often as not, on the interpretation of specific passages of Scripture.

Peter Lombard's De regno Hiberniae, sanctorum insula, commentarius (Louvain, 1632).

Peter Lombard’s De regno Hiberniae, sanctorum insula, commentarius (Louvain, 1632).

Peter Lombard’s De regno Hiberniae, sanctorum insula, commentarius…
Peter Lombard’s De regno Hiberniae, sanctorum insula, commentarius (Louvain, 1632).

This is not to say that the outcome of the debate about the acceptability of the Copernican proposal could not have gone differently, given the theological climate in Rome in the immediate post-Trent era. With a dominant voice other than Bellarmine’s, with a pope less theologically rigid than Paul V, the verdict could perhaps have been at least more nuanced. But that being said, to reproach the theologians of that day, Bellarmine included, for not knowing how to scrutinise the criteria they were employing in the interpretation of Scripture would be too severe. True, it would have been sufficient for them to have accepted the principle of accommodation suggested by Galileo, an accepted principle in earlier Catholic theology. Had they done so, a great deal of grief could have been saved for the church. But in the troubled climate of that post-Reformation period it would have been a lot to ask.
One wonders what Lombard made of the whole matter. It seems doubtful that he spent much time worrying about it. His old teacher, Bellarmine, was universally regarded as the pre-eminent Catholic theologian of the day, someone on whose authority one could safely rely. If Galileo’s criteria for how the disputed passages of Scripture should be read gave him pause, there was the weight of authority and tradition on the other side of the debate to quiet his doubts. And there was, after all, the encyclopaedic response to James I’s treatment of his Catholic subjects that needed finishing touches.

Ernan McMullin is Director Emeritus of the Program in History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Notre Dame, is a priest of the diocese of Raphoe and was an advisor to the Galileo Commission (1981–92).

Further reading:
M. Finocchiaro (ed.), The Galileo Affair: a documentary history (Berkeley, 1989).
E. McMullin (ed.), The Church and Galileo (Notre Dame, 2005).
T. Ó Hannrachaín, ‘Peter Lombard’, in Dictionary of Irish Biography (Cambridge, forthcoming).
J.J. Silke, ‘The Irish Peter Lombard’, Studies 64 (1975).


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