The Reading Room
Galileo and the Pope
“YOU ARE BROUGHT here under some very serious charges, Galileo Galilei,” Pope Benedict the Umpteenth intoned.
“Oh, really? Is that why I have been brought wearing my bedclothes to you in chains, Your Holiness?” the old, frail Galileo said.
“Please sit on that chair; make yourself fairly comfortable. Cardinal, remove the chains. It looks bad.”
The prosecuting Cardinal removed the shackles from Galileo’s arms.
“You know, Galileo, you are at risk of excommunication. If ever that happens, I can’t come over to your house for tea anymore.”
Galileo looked pretty mournful. His hair was tousled - he had been woken from his sleep and snatched out of bed by the Cardinal’s men, manacled, and driven through the rainy streets to the Pope’s chambers, accompanied by the incessant taunts of the Cardinal’s ill-educated cronies. When he was twenty, that kind of thing was fun. But now that he was past seventy, it was getting quite tiresome.
“I love having you for tea, Holiness. And you make the most superb crumpets I’ve ever eaten. But if it comes between your friendship and my scientific discoveries... I would be fool to pretend that I’ve never seen the wonderful and beautiful things that I have.”
“And your faith?”
“I can believe what I believe without your approval, Your Grace - be it a matter of faith or of science.”
“I know he’s your friend,” the prosecuting Cardinal broke in, “but I really want to prosecute this trouble-maker. This is not a talk among friends over tea, this is a trial. And I want to start trying.”
“Begin trying,” the Pope wearily said.
“Oh, goody,” the Cardinal started. “Now, Galileo, it has been said of you that...”
“Wait! Can I call my defense attorney?”
“Let him call in his defense attorney... I mean, fair is fair,” the Pope said.
“Oh, Defense Attorney! Yoo-hoo!” called the old man.
In came Galileo’s defense attorney, a smart-looking man with a fast step, dressed in a three-piece suit (with real gold cufflinks, mind you!) and carrying a briefcase.
“Hup-hup. Here I am, Mr. Galilei. Sorry, I did get here late... the traffic out on the Via Pendiculum was a bear, and I had to...”
“Shut up, and let’s rumble.” the prosecuting Cardinal sharply interrupted.
“Oh. Sorry,” the prosecuted attorney meekly answered.
The Pope was the one to get things rolling. “The court proceedings will now commence! Prosecutor, call the toss.” He flipped a golden senarii into the air.
“Heads,” the prosecuted Cardinal said.
“It’s tails,” the Pope revealed. “Defendant, you have the option of questioning first.”
The defense attorney, unversed in the ways of the Pope’s court practise, was pleasantly surprised. He gave Galileo a wink and said, “I shall question first, Your Holiness.”
“Good, then. Let’s get this show on the road. Amen.”
“State your name,” Galileo’s defense attorney asked.
“Galileo Galilei,” Galileo said.
“No, your full name,” the lawyer pressed.
Galileo sighed. “Galileo Gamamiel Ganymede Gallahad Galilei... the second.” he said.
“Thank you. Where were you on the night of last Thursday, Galileo?”
“I was in my study, looking out my window through my telescope,” the old man replied, without fear.
“And what were you looking at through your telescope?”
“I was looking into the sky.”
The defense attorney coughed, and cleared his throat. “No, Galileo. You were looking into the Pope’s bedroom, weren’t you?”
The Pope clapped his hands at this, glad to get Galileo out of here in one piece. “Aha! The penalty for staring into the Pope’s... eh, my bedroom, is no more than five hundred years in Purgatory... but as this is your first offense, I think we can let you go with a warning...”
“I was looking into the sky,” Galileo insisted.
“Oh, drat.” The Pope snapped his fingers. “But there might be hope yet. Perhaps, Galileo, you saw something to change your mind about this Copernicus thing?”
Galileo thought for a moment. “Which might be...?”
The Cardinal, growing impatient nearby, scoffed in disgust. “Why, of course, the evidence!”
“Evidence?” Galileo puzzledly
“The true evidence would surely exonerate the Church of these accusations of misknowledge.”
“Exonerate? Misknowledge?” Galileo asked confusedly.
“What our Cardinal means,” Benedict explained in a gentle, filial tone, “is, have you, Galileo, perhaps seen the angels carting about the moon in a wheelbarrow, or the Great Northern Cow turning the crank of the celestial globe, or Cassiope wrapping herself in the Northern Lights and singing a chorus of ‘The Hootchie Coochie Hula’?”
Galileo, I think, was only more confused than before.
“I saw through my telescope the sky,” he answered, carefully, “and I was able to examine closely distant celestial bodies for which we had formerly no sight for, but our vivid imaginations.”
“Hmm,” replied the pope.
“Did you know,” Galileo continued, “that Saturn has ears, and Jupiter has eyes, and Venus has clouds of sulfuric acid and surface temperatures exceeding six hundred degrees Farenheit?”
“I can’t say that I did, Galileo. Did you see all of that in your telescope?”
“Oh, that and much more. Did you know that Venus also has phases?”
“We’ve always known that Venus had phases,” the prosecuting Cardinal quipped boredly.
Galileo smiled. He loved a good bon mot, and the source pleased him nearly as much as the word.
“But see here,” Galileo retorted, “isn’t this always what institutes of faith and mythology do to the enlightened minds of science? Suppress them, and when they cannot suppress them, trample them? Is not a minute’s time glancing through my telescope a hundred times more beneficial to a man than your church’s dogma, and does it not liberate a man, rather than shackling him to the ignorant superstition of the uncivilized….”
“Objection, Your Holiness,” the prosecuting Cardinal stated. “Galileo is speaking anachronisms... words stuck in his mouth by fools during the ‘Age of Reason’, which is still two hundred years hence. He knows himself that he is no less ‘backwards’ than we are.”
Galileo put his finger to the side of his head in consideration. “That is true.”
“Objection sustained, of course,” the Pope said. “Dear Galileo, please refrain from speaking the words Voltaire or Thomas Paine might have wished that you said, and speak contemporaneous and truthful words.”
“I always do... or try to. I wouldn’t have a choice, if it weren’t for that danged Hypocritates.” Here Galileo took a sip from his glass of water.
Nostrademus, who just happened to be sitting nearby, grabbed the glass of water from Galileo and started staring into it. “Uh-oh. This is going to be bad,” he foretold.
“Until you prove me wrong, though, I will continue to believe what I do.” Galileo was a calm man. For a court of oppression, this wasn’t bad after all.
“You know, we’ve got other things to worry about, Gal,” the Pope said chummily. “Lutherans are popping out of the woodworks, and they have come with many moving slogans. ‘Faith alone, and not works!’ ‘Read the Bible, and don’t rely on church superstition!’ ‘Fe, fi, fo, the Pope must go!’ ‘No taxation without representation!’ You’ve heard them.”
“Center on them, and not on me.” Galileo pleaded.
“You would rather center on the sun and not on the world. But where do you live? Is that logical?”
“Logical, maybe no. But I must believe what the evidence of my own eyes indicates. Besides,” and here he thought he’d try a pun of his own - “I would think you would want to center on the Son and not on the world, yourself.”
The Pope looked at Galileo weirdly. He didn’t get it.
Galileo tried again. “At least, center on the Sol, and not the world?” The puns were getting thick, and the water muddy. So Galileo’s prosecutor piped up.
“By the miracles of St. Agatha,” - which was a very odd way to begin an accusation - “this is getting ridiculous. Let us center on the issue at hand. Galileo has been indicted of heresy!”
“Heresy?” Galileo asked.
“Denying a tenet of the church,” the prosecuting Cardinal explained. “And worse, evangelizing this false belief to others. You are poisoning the fresh water of the well of the Catholic Church, and are shaming every true scientist in the world by purporting your false doctrine.”
“What? It is a tenet of the Church that the sun travels around the earth? Where in the Bible did that come from?”
The Cardinal walked over to the other side of the room and picked a volume off of one of the tables. He wiped the dust off of the cover and read the title: HOLY BIBLE. This he set down, and took the volume next to it. This one was well used, and titled A LOT OF ADDITIONAL STUFF TO MAKE THINGS COMPLICATED (but in Latin, of course.) He nodded and showed the great volume to Galileo.
“Here,” he began in a stuffy tone which only a medieval Cardinal could master - none other has ever tried it - “in this incredibly large book are preserved the ancient wisdom of the great Rabbis, the traditions and observances of the Sadducees, the proclamations of the early Church Fathers, the revelations of early Mystics, the poetry of the old Ascetics, all of the greatest pure wisdom of the Pagan world, and the recipes of my grandmother, for good measure.”
“What was the first book you took?”
“Oh, that’s not important right now.” The Cardinal set the book down and flipped busily through the pages. “It reads here in this book of Ptolemy - who was a heathen, but a very enlightened one - that the sun travels around the Earth. And what’s more, this agrees with the writings of Aristotle, and if Aristotle says it, it must be so.”
It was an ironclad case. And Galileo knew that unless something happened quickly, he was in trouble.
Just then, a strange figure stepped into the court, wearing a hooded cloak. He withdrew a piece of paper from his cloak and began nailing it to the wall. The loud banging disrupted the court posthaste.
“Hey! Hey, you! Don’t you see the sign? ‘Post No Bills’!” the Cardinal shouted.
The man kept hammering.
“Oh, drat,” the Pope blurted. “Now I’m going to have to repaint the walls. Archbishop Serra, is Michelangelo available anytime soon?”
The Cardinal ran up to the man, and started shaking him.
“Hey, hey, you! The Pope doesn’t accept any solicitors!”
The Cardinal kept shaking, but the man kept hammering his paper to the wall, as if he wasn’t even there. Then, in the shaking, the hood fell back from his face.
“Why... why, it’s you!”
The Pope stood up from his chair, and walked down the steps from his bench.
“Martin! How’s it hanging? Read any good theses lately?” he began.
“Sure, Your Holiness. I’ve left a few for you to read and think about,” Martin Luther replied.
“Oh, blast, what’s this say? ‘Kilroy Was Here’?” The Pope walked to the billet and began to read it. “Hm.” He tore it down and said to Luther, “Do you want to go over this with me in the next room?”
“Cardinal, you’re going to have to finish this Galileo thing. I have something more important to do right now.”
The Cardinal snickered at Galileo. “Oh, I’ll finish it, all right.”
Galileo sighed. This was it.
Once the Pope left the room, the prosecuting Cardinal again put the shackles on Galileo’s arms. “You’ll have to come with me,” he said.
“Now, wait, wait!” Galileo’s defense attorney complained. “This is unstandard procedure.”
“Oh, get away,” the Cardinal growled as he kicked the defense attorney away. “Come, guard; let’s finish off this Galileo problem once and for all.”
“Oh, I suppose you’re going to lock me up in my house and keep me from publishing my work,” Galileo said.
“We might.” The unreasonable Cardinal began to escort the poor old astronomer from the Pope’s lodgings.
Out into the street they went. “It’ll do you no good!” Galileo protested. “Because though you can lock an old man up, there’s no way you can lock the truth up - and you know it, if you’re anything like men of the Church!”
“We’re not like men of the Church.” the Cardinal replied, and it seemed to Galileo quite true. “We don’t have to be anything to anyone.”
They were nearing Galileo’s street. “Well, you can say that when you have power, but when Truth isn’t on your side, someday you will be defeated! You can take away my freedom, but you can’t take away the truth!”
“And why are you so sure that you’re right and we’re wrong, Galileo? Perhaps it is all a matter of perspective.”
“Ha! Look through my telescope, and see if you aren’t a believer then!”
“You need glasses, Galileo. And I think you also need a little bit of convincing. Right, men?”
They nodded in fiendish agreement, and as one turned away from Galileo’s street.
“Hey! Where are we going?”
“Oh, here will do.” They all stopped, and with a heave! they threw Galileo off the edge of the world.
Satisfied, they watched the old man fall into the nothingness. Just as he disappeared from sight, they heard him shouting out his last words:
“OK, maybe you have a point or two!...”