The Church and Copernicus

Copernicus, without a doubt one of the most important scientists in history, has become a pawn, centuries after his death, in attacks on the Church. For years, those attacking the Church for being “anti-science” had a single person they could point to: Galileo. And those defending the Church pointed to Copernicus, who came some seventy years before Galileo, with fundamentally the same heliocentric views, and wasn’t punished for it. It’s true that in the anti-Galileo backlash, the Church’s Congregation of the Index suspended Copernicus’ book pending “corrections.” But this was in 1616, some 73 years after Copernicus’ death, and was a direct result of the hysteria surrounding Galileo’s belief that the heliocentrism undermined the Bible. During his lifetime, Copernicus enjoyed the support, not the persecution, of the Church.

In other words, it’s false to say that the Church was anti-heliocentrism; more correct that the manner in which Galileo presented the case for heliocentrism seemed as though he thought that contemporary science trumped the Bible (while Copernicus apparently saw no conflict between the two). From this perspective, while the verdict against Galileo was wrong (since he was, after all, right), it was largely a clash of big egos, not a debate on heliocentrism as such, and the treatment of Copernicus supports this view.

The reaction from those against the Church has been absurd. They now start with the major premise, “The Church punished Galileo for being pro-heliocentrism,” add the minor premise, “Copernicus was pro-heliocentrism as well, more than half a century earlier,” and deduce, “therefore, the Church oppressed Copernicus.” It’s dogmatic anti-Catholic blindness at its worst. It’s flared up, because the body of Copernicus is being moved to a more visible location.
The media reporting describes his body’s original home as in an “unmarked grave,” neglecting to mention it’s an unmarked grave under the Fromberg Cathedral. From this, Vanessa Gera deduces, “His [re-]burial in a tomb in the cathedral where he once served as a church canon and doctor indicates how far the church has come in making peace with the scientist whose revolutionary theory that the Earth revolves around the Sun helped usher in the modern scientific age.” Of course, there was no lack of peace between the two at the time of Copernicus’ death, so her rendition relies upon false history.

Mark Shea takes a particular proponent of the whole “Copernicus was a martyr for science” theory to task quite well here (although he makes one important error: Copernicus was apparently a secular canon of the Cathedral, not a priest). He points out some pretty obvious things suggesting that the Church was, in fact, quite pro-Copernicus, including the patronage of various Cardinals in supporting his research, and the fact that in death, he was given a place of prominence, buried (as I said) beneath the Fromberg Cathedral itself.

The reaction of Mark’s antagonist was, and this is a direct quote:

Hi Mark, you really get around.Its hard to follow your train of thought. Yes, the catholic church wanted Copenicus head on a platter.No debating that.The only reason the pope didnt burn Gallieo is cause they were childhood friends.So the pope just put him in house arrest. Boy, im sure glad the vatican doesnt rule the world anymore. Cause id be toast


It’s ironic that those who loudly proclaim they’re pro-“reason” over “blind” religion are the ones who seem so often woefully underinformed, dogmatic in their views, and unwilling to respond to the weight of actual evidence or argumentation. Thomas E. Woods, Jr., wrote a book called How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, and while I haven’t read it, he certainly has an impressive weight of authority to rely upon. One of his major arguments, which is obvious from the various reviews of the book, is that the Church (and particularly the Jesuits) served as an enormous scientific powerhouse, due to the belief that all Truth points to God. Certainly, given that the monk Gregor Mendel was the world’s first geneticist, and that Msgr. Georges LemaĆ®tre was the man who developed the theory we know as the Big Bang Theory, the track record of scientific achievements of Catholics easily outshines any other religious group. So can we put the “faith v. reason” trope to rest yet? Probably not, given that its adherents have little of either.

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