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The Vatican and Copernicus

John on November 3, 2005 at 4:25 pm

On the day that archeologists in Poland appear to have discovered the grave of Nicolas Copernicus, I find this story coming out of the Vatican very heartening. It might also make this a good time to review the history of Copernicus and his successor Galileo.

Copernicus was a devout believer and a church administrator most of his life. He died just as his book De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium was published in 1543. Copernicus was not a “scientific revolutionary” in the mold of later men like Darwin. He was a reformer who dedicated his book to the Pope Paul III and hoped that it would be accepted on its merit. There was no appreciable uproar after its publication. In fact, his work was widely read and even used by some university astronomers.

Things changed some 70 years later when Galileo began pushing for the recognition of the Copernican system in the wake of his telescopic discoveries, including the moons of Jupiter and the phases of Venus. When one of Galileo’s friends became Pope, he took his case directly to him, but became frustrated at the Pope’s seeming unwillingness to accept the truth of the heliocentric system.

In the defense of 16th and early 17th century Europeans, it must be said that the contrary view, that the Earth was at the center of the universe, had been widely accepted since Aristotle. The natural philosophers of Galileo’s day were not anti-science, they were simply committed to Greek science and to the astronomical work of Ptolemy, which had been around for more than 1000 years.

It must further be noted that the issue was not, as is often repeated today, the centrality of the Earth. Aristotle placed the earth at the center of Cosmos because it was the lowest point — the sump — of creation. There was nothing noble about Earth’s centrality, and in fact the Gods were assumed to be living far above in the realm of the stars. Christians adopted this view and so, we find in Dante that Hell is in the center of the Earth. There was nothing noble about centrality. In fact, Copernicus argues in his book De Revolutionibus that the earth is actually ennobled (not demoted) by moving it out of the center and into the realm of the planets. The idea that medieval Christians were tyring to hang on to a privileged place at the center of the universe is simply absurd.

In any case, Galileo returned home and later mocked the Pope in a “fictional” dialogue in which the Pope’s words were put in the mouth of a character named “Simplicius.” (You might say that Galileo displayed extremely poor people skills which played a significant role in his problems). With his best ally now angry with him, Galileo was left to face men like Cardinal Bellarmine, head of the Inquisition, who were only too ready to burn dissenters at the stake.

Galileo, much like Luther before him, was asked to recant his Copernican views as contrary to scripture and was placed under house arrest for the rest of his life. Copernicus’ heliocentric theory was perfected by Kepler (a contemporary of Galileo) and was eventually accepted as an accurate description of the solar system.

That’s the story and it’s one that, unfortunately, helped set a negative and divisive tone for the relationship between faith and science in the coming centuries. That’s why the news coming out of the Vatican today is good news for Catholics and for those Evangelicals, like me, who respect the good done by the Catholic church. Sometimes you just have to be humble enough to learn from your mistakes.

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Category: Science & Tech |

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