Apr 29 2005

The rise of Catholic objections to Copernican ideas

(For those following the Copernican postings in sequence, I made a mistake. Today’s posting should have appeared BEFORE the one that dealt with The role of Protestant opposition to Copernicus. Sorry about that!)

The last myth that I will address concerning the Copernican revolution is that it met immediate, widespread, and religious opposition from the Catholic Church. This took the form of releasing the full force of the Inquisition against his ideas, which resulted in Copernican Giordano Bruno being burned for advocating those ideas and Galileo being forced to recant his support for Copernicus’ sun-centered universe. This is the view, for example, expressed by Bertholt Brecht in his famous play Life of Galileo.

Religious opposition did eventually arise but not immediately and the initiative came from the newly formed Protestant churches, not the Catholic Church.

One reason that there was no immediate religious opposition to Copernicus’ book De Revolutionibus Orbium Caelestium was because his book was very mathematical and hence incomprehensible to anyone other than other mathematical astronomers. And we saw that this small group had good reason to be skeptical, on scientific rather than religious grounds, of the idea that the Earth was in motion.

Another possible reason for the lack of religious opposition was that putting the Earth in orbit around the Sun was not perceived at that time as a demotion for human beings, as is now portrayed.

A third possible reason was that the Catholic Church did not find this new idea as heretical as is now supposed. It is worthwhile to quote Thomas Kuhn’s book The Copernican Revolution more fully on this point:

For sixty years after Copernicus’ death [in 1543] …individual Catholic clergymen expressed their incredulity or abhorrence of the new conception of the earth, but the Church itself was silent. The De Revolutionibus was read and at least partially taught at leading Catholic universities. Reinhold’s Prutenic Tables, based on Copernicus’ mathematical system, were used in the reformation of the calendar promulgated for the Catholic world in 1582 by Gregory XIII. Copernicus himself had been a cleric and a reputable one, whose judgment was widely sought on astronomical and other matters. His book was dedicated to the Pope, and among the friends who urged him to publish it were a Catholic bishop and a cardinal. During the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries the Church had not imposed cosmological conformity on its members. The De Revolutionibus was itself a product of the latitude allowed to Churchmen in matters of science and philosophy, and before the De Revolutionibus the Church had spawned even more revolutionary cosmological concepts without theological convulsions. In the fifteenth century the eminent cardinal and papal legate Nicholas of Cusa had propounded a radical Neoplatonic cosmology and had not even bothered about the conflict between his views and scripture. Though he portrayed the earth as a moving star, like the sun and other stars, and though his works were widely read and had great influence, he was not condemned or even criticized by his church. (p. 196)

And yet it is true that, beginning in 1616, the Church banned teaching of the idea of a sun-centered universe and De Revolutionibus was placed on The Catholic Index of forbidden book in 1616 (and stayed there until 1835). This period also began the dismissal and banishment of prominent Catholic Copernicans, culminating in the forced recantation of Copernicus’s ideas in 1633 by Galileo (then nearly 70 years old) under threat of torture by the Inquisition, and his subsequent house arrest. The Church ban on Copernican ideas remained until 1822 and has been a source of embarrassment for the Church ever since.

(In 1600 the Church burned the philosopher Giordano Bruno (who was a Copernican) at the stake for heresy, but it was not explicitly for that particular belief. He had committed other heresies involving the doctrine of the Trinity for which other people had also been executed earlier. Bruno had been an advocate and popularizer of Copernican ideas, though, which might have led to the popular perception that he was the first martyr for the new science.)

But by 1633 it was too late for the Church to stop Copernican ideas because by then new supporting evidence for it was arriving thick and fast. They were trying to stop the tide when it was in full flood, and the attempt was a hopeless failure.

Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), although a believer in an Earth-centered universe, had by then produced accurate naked eye observations of stars which had removed many false old data that had confused the picture and provided a whole set of new data that planetary models needed to fit.

Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) was a life-long Copernican who devoted himself to address the problems of the sun-centered model and his eventual adoption of elliptical orbits led to the elimination of the awkward epicycles in Copernicus’ model. His three laws of planetary motion were a triumph of simplicity in explaining planetary motion and his Rudolphine Tables, published in 1627, was so superior to all other astronomical tables that they became widely used and their underlying Copernican basis was becoming widely known and appreciated. “Kepler solved the problem of the planets.” (p. 219)

And the final nail in the earth-centered cosmology was Galileo’s use of the telescope for astronomy, beginning in 1610. These telescopes were soon freely available and suddenly everyone could observe the stars and planets and see for themselves what had hitherto been just the province of astronomers. Among other things, Galileo’s discovery of the moons of Jupiter was a devastating blow to the Ptolemaic model since it showed that not everything was orbiting around the Earth, as was the key assumption of the geocentric models.

Finally, Isaac Newton’s (1643-1727) dynamical theories of motion and gravitation that explained Kepler’s laws were the sign that the Copernican revolution, begun about 150 years earlier, was complete.

But although the Church lost this battle a long time ago, it took over three centuries for it to formally acknowledge this. It was only in 1992 that Pope John Paul II lifted its edict of Inquisition against Galileo. The Pope even went so far as to claim that Galileo may have been divinely inspired, saying: “Galileo sensed in his scientific research the presence of the Creator who, stirring in the depths of his spirit, stimulated him, anticipating and assisting his intuitions.” This may have been a rather futile effort to recover some dignity from an embarrassing debacle for religion.

But what happened between 1543 and 1610 to cause the Catholic Church to switch from neutrality to opposition, and adopt such a hard-line, long-lasting, and ultimately futile anti-Copernican stand? We’ll see that in a future post. (Update: Due to the mis-sequencing, this ‘future’ posting already appeared three days ago as The role of Protestant opposition to Copernicus.)

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