Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
So the other day one of my readers declared:
Copernicus was so afraid of the catholic church that he waited until he was on his death bed to proclaim that the earth as was believed by the catholic church was not the center of the universe and that it was the sun.
The best answer to these sorts of claims is “Documentation please?” An even better answer, if you have the time and inclination, is to provide the answer yourself, which I helpfully did since I had the time and inclination. If you want it yourself, go here.
My reader, daunted by actual fact, replied “Ok, I am not going to debate history with you” and then proceeded to change the subject to “Has any Catholic anywhere ever done bad things? Ah HA!!!!”
Fair enough. When you are shown to not have the slightest idea what you are talking about it’s best to play to your strengths.
However, a few days later, this particular troll returned, renewed and invigorated by this promising story:
Mark Shea please read and comment
This what I had stated before about Copernicus !!! You are so blind ! Yea keep donating to a group of enablers and abusers !!
Actually, no. Nothing has changed. However, the article (and some of the headlines from spinoff syndications of the article) is calculated to make inattentive slaves of our anti-Catholic culture think that it supports the “Church persecuted Copernicus” myth. Take for instance this headline on the same story from CBS:
The opening of the story is calculated to make inattentive readers like my troll assume exactly the “Church persecuting great scientists” narrative they are pre-disposed to regurgitate. Copernicus was buried in an unmarked grave. But they dug him up and figured out from his DNA and a facial reconstruction that this was the guy. So they reburied him with honors.
What does my reader think? Boy, that Catholic Church. Finally admitting the earth goes around the sun and repenting their bitter persecution of this Giant of Science. Unmarked grave! What ignominy! Why I read in Angels and Demons that he was murdered by the Church! They have no shame, do they?
Here’s the thing. Copernicus died of natural causes. He wasn’t murdered. He was also a Catholic priest in good standing. That’s why it was relatively easy to find his remains. Because, you see, the investigators did not have to pick through a six century old pile of ashes from some ancient heretic burning. They didn’t have to search all over Poland and comb graveyards reserved for the ignominious end of the medieval heretic.
All they had to do was poke around under the floor of Fromberg Cathedral until they found his grave.
Now, a smart reporter would note that getting buried under a cathedral is not exactly regarded as a sign of heresy or dishonor in medieval Poland. But an MSM reporter just regurgitates a Dan Brownian meme without thinking about it too much. And readers like my troll take the bait. After that, all you have to do is note that Copernicus’ theory was published at the end of his life and it’s suddenly an Established Historical Fact that the only reason for this must be due to the Evil Persecuting Catholic Church.
But the thing is, the AP story itself (finally) gets around to making it clear that Dan Brown Kool-Aid drinkers really don’t know what they are talking about. However, you have to scroll down to nearly the bottom of the article to get it. The truth is much more, well, boring:
Copernicus’ burial in an anonymous grave in the 16th century was not linked to suspicions of heresy. When he died, his ideas were just starting to be discussed by a small group of European astronomers, astrologers and mathematicians, and the church was not yet forcefully condemning the heliocentric world view as heresy, according to Jack Repcheck, author of “Copernicus’ Secret: How the Scientific Revolution Began.”
The full attack on those ideas came decades later when the Vatican was waging a massive defense against Martin Luther’s Reformation.
“There is no indication that Copernicus was worried about being declared a heretic and being kicked out of the church for his astronomical views,” Repcheck said.
“Why was he just buried along with everyone else, like every other canon in Frombork? Because at the time of his death he was just any other canon in Frombork. He was not the iconic hero that he has become.”
As to the actual history of his relationship with the Church regarding his heliocentric theory, he remains a frustrating hope for the Noble Scientist vs. Evil Religion Crowd. Here’s the Catholic Encyclopedia with actual, you know, facts and stuff:
His reputation was such that as early as 1514 the Lateran Council, convoked by Leo X, asked through Bishop Paul of Fossombrone, for his opinion on the reform of the ecclesiastical calendar. His answer was, that the length of the year and of the months and the motions of the sun and moon were not yet sufficiently known to attempt a reform. The incident, however, spurred him on as he himself writes to Paul III, to make more accurate observations; and these actually served, seventy years later, as a basis for the working out of the Gregorian calendar.
Twenty-five years after his university career, he had finished his great work, at least in his own mind, but hesitated a long time, whether to publish it or to imitate the Pythagoreans, who transmitted the mysteries of their philosophy only orally to their own disciples for fear of exposing them to the contempt of the multitude. His friends who had become interested in the new theory prevailed on him to write at least an abstract for them, manuscript copies of which have been discovered in Vienna (1873) and Stockholm (1878). In this commentary Copernicus stated his theory in the form of seven axioms, reserving the mathematical part for the Principal work. This was in 1531, or twelve years before his death. From this on the doctrine of the heliocentric system began to spread. In 1533 Albert Widmanstadt lectured before Pope Clement VII on the Copernican solar system. His reward consisted in a Greek codex which is preserved in the State library of Munich. Three years later Copernicus was urged by Cardinal Schonberg, then Archbishop of Capua, in a letter, dated at Rome, 1 November, 1536, to publish his discovery, or at least to have a copy made at the cardinal’s expense. But all the urging of friends was in vain, until a younger man was providentially sent to his side.
It was George Joachim Rheticus who quitted his chair of mathematics in Wittenberg in order to spend two years at the feet of the new master (1539-41). Hardly ten weeks after his arrival in Frauenburg he sent a “First Narration” of the new solar system to his scientific friend Schöner in Nuremberg, in the form of a letter of sixty-six pages, which was soon after printed in Danzig (1540) and Basle (1541). Rheticus next obtained for publication the manuscript of a preliminary chapter of the great work on plane and spherical trigonometry. Finally Copernicus, feeling the weight of his sixty-eight years, yielded, as he writes to *****Paul III*****, to the entreaties of Cardinal Schonberg, of Bishop Giese of Culm, and of other learned men to surrender his manuscripts for publication. Bishop Giese charged Rheticus, as the ablest disciple of the great master, with the task of editing the work. The intention of the latter was to take the manuscript to Wittenberg and have it published at the university but owing to the hostility prevailing there(*) against the Copernican system, only the chapter on trigonometry was printed (1542). The two copies of the “First Narration” and of the treatise on trigonometry, which Rheticus presented to his friend Dr. Gasser, then practising medicine in Feldkirch, may be seen in the Vatican Library (Palat. IV, 585) Rheticus then turned to Schöner in Nuremberg, who, together with Osiander, accepted the charge and engaged the printing-house of Petreius in the same city. In the meanwhile Rheticus tried to resume his chair in Wittenberg, but on account of his Copernican views had to resign (1542) and turned to Leipzig (1543). He was thus prevented from giving his personal attention to the edition, nor was the author himself able to superintend it. Copernicus became paralyzed on the right side and weakened in memory and mind many days before his death. The first copy of the “Six Books on the Revolutions of the Celestial Orbits” was handed to him the very day he died. Fortunately for him, he could not see what Osiander had done. This reformer, knowing the attitude of Luther and Melanchthon against the heliocentric system, introduced the word “Hypothesis” on the title page, and without adding his own name, replaced the preface of Copernicus by another strongly contrasting in spirit with that of Copernicus. The preface of Osiander warns the reader not to expect anything certain from astronomy, nor to accept its hypothesis as true, ne stultior ab hac disciplinâ discedat, quam accesserit. The dedication to Pope Paul III was, however, retained, and the text of the work remained intact, as was ascertained later when access was had to the original manuscript, now in the family library of the Counts Nostitz in Prague.
Opposition was first raised against the Copernican system by Protestant theologians for Biblical reasons and strange to say it has continued, at least sporadically, to our own days. A list of many of their Pamphlets is enumerated by Beckmann. On the Catholic side opposition only commenced seventy-three years later, when it was occasioned by Galileo.(**) On 5 March, 1616, the work of Copernicus was forbidden by the Congregation of the Index “until corrected”, and in 1620 these corrections were indicated. Nine sentences, by which the heliocentric system was represented as certain, had to be either omitted or changed. This done, the reading of the book was allowed. In 1758 the book of Copernicus disappeared from the revised Index of Benedict XIV. New editions were issued in Basle (1566) by Rheticus; in Amsterdam (1617) by Müller of Göttingen, in Warsaw (1854) an edition de luxe with Polish translation and the real preface of Copernicus; and the latest (5th) in Torun (1873) by the Copernicus Society, on the four hundredth anniversary of the author’s birthday, with all the corrections of the text, made by Copernicus, given as foot-notes. A monument by Thorwaldsen was erected to Copernicus in Warsaw (1830), and another by Tieck at Torun (1853). Rheticus, Clavius, and others called Copernicus the second Ptolemy, and his book the second “Almagest.” His genius appears in the fact that he grasped the truth centuries before it could be proved. If he had precursors they are to be compared to those of Columbus. What is most significant in the character of Copernicus is this, that while he did not shrink from demolishing a scientific system consecrated by a thousand years’ universal acceptance, he set his face against the reformers of religion.
(*) Why hostility at Wittenberg? Because it was a Protestant stronghold and heliocentrism seemed to Sola Scriptura Protestants to be contrary to Scripture.
(**) For a brief rundown of what really happened with Galileo, go here.
Bottom line: there was no persecution of Copernicus by the Church. It was Catholics who pushed him to publish despite his quirky enthusiasm for Pythagorean secrecy.
By the way, if the Church is just now getting around to rehabilitating Copernicus, how come the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia is smiling on him so much?