The Priest Who Realized the Earth Revolved Around the Sun

As a Catholic priest and scientist, Copernicus knew that the universe revolves around the Son, and that the earth revolves around the sun.

Jan Matejko, “Copernicus” (1872)
Jan Matejko, “Copernicus” (1872) (photo: Public Domain)

Some atheists would have us believe Fr. Nicolaus Copernicus was fearful of publishing his heliocentric model because of the Catholic Church. This is completely untrue.

In fact, several high ranking bishops and cardinals recommended the astronomer publish his research after they learned about it. Fr. Copernicus acquiesced by publishing an abstract, copies of which were discovered in Vienna in 1873 and Stockholm in 1878. In this commentary Fr. Copernicus stated his theory in the form of seven axioms, reserving the mathematical part for his posthumously published book. This was in AD 1531—twelve years prior to his death. From this point onwards, the doctrine of the heliocentric system began to spread throughout Christendom.

In 1533, Albert Widmanstadt, secretary to Pope Clement VII and Fr. Copernicus' uncle, lectured before the Pope on the Copernican solar system. The Pope was so taken by this research that he rewarded Widmanstadt with a Greek codex.

Three years later, Cardinal Schonberg, then Archbishop of Capua, urged Fr. Copernicus in a gentle and positively-worded letter (dated Nov. 1, 1536) to publish his discovery, or at least to have a copy made at the cardinal's expense.

Fr. Copernicus didn't comply until his aide, George Joachim Rheticus, professor of mathematics in Wittenberg, came to assist him with the task (1539-41). Within ten weeks of the scholar's arrival in Frauenburg, he sent a "First Narration" of the new solar system to his scientist friend Schöner in Nuremberg in a 66-page letter. This synopsis of the heliocentric theory was quickly printed in Danzig (AD 1540) and Basle (AD 1541) to be distributed to scholars who were very eager to consider the intriguing concept.

Rheticus next prepared Copernicus' preliminary chapter of his great work on plane and spherical trigonometry for publication. At the age of 68, Fr. Copernicus wrote to Pope Paul III, telling him that he would yield to the entreaties of Cardinal Schonberg, Bishop Giese of Culm and his fellow scholars to release his research. Rheticus was put in charge of editing Fr. Copernicus' manuscript and to publish it though the University of Wittenberg. However, because of hostility of some astronomers with the Copernican system, only the chapter on trigonometry was printed in 1542.

Rheticus presented two copies of Fr. Copernicus' First Narration and of the treatise on trigonometry to his friend Dr. Gasser, a physician in Feldkirch. Rheticus and Andreas Osiander who, in turn, engaged the printing house of Petreius in the same city to make copies of Copernicus' works.

Rheticus tried to resume his chair in Wittenberg, but was forced to resign in 1542 because he espoused Fr. Copernicus' heliocentrism. In 1543, he started teaching in Leipzig but he was preoccupied and didn’t get the astronomer's manuscript printed. Unfortunately, neither could Fr. Copernicus as he become paralyzed on his right side and suffered from greatly diminished memory for several days before his death.

The first copy of the Six Books on the Revolutions of the Celestial Orbits was handed to him hours prior to his death. Fortunately for Fr. Copernicus, he could not see the changed Osiander had ordered. Without Copernicus' permission, in deference to the Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon's fury at the heliocentric system, Osiander added the word "Hypothesis" to the manuscript's title page. In addition, he replaced Copernicus' own preface with another which didn't represent the astronomer's opinions. Instead, Osiander's preface warned the reader to neither expect anything certain from astronomical science nor to accept the book's hypotheses as true.

Fortunately, the dedication to Pope Paul III was retained as was the text in its entirety.

The real reason Fr. Copernicus hesitated about publishing his research was his fear of exacerbating Protestant ire against the Catholic Church because both Luther and Calvin had already denounced heliocentrism as a heresy.

The Catholic Church never had an official opinion one way or the other when it came to that particular theory. Though it's true that Galileo Galilei was accused of disseminating "Copernican ideas," this shouldn't be taken to mean that the Copernicus was on the outs with the Church. Rather, it was Galileo had taken great steps to make himself persona non grata by burning many bridges in his life.

It wasn't heliocentrism that upset the Church but rather Galileo's refusal to admit that his ideas were theories rather than facts not subject to questions or criticism. As proof of this, we see the Church's attitude toward the work of Nicholas of Cusa.

Unbeknownst to Fr. Copernicus, Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa, a German philosopher and astronomer (1400-1450) anticipated his heliocentric theory and, in fact, was celebrated for it by the Church. Admittedly, his theories are more philosophical and speculative than scientific and strictly empirical but the ideas are there nonetheless.

Cardinal Nicholas believed the earth was a star like other stars, that it wasn't the center of the universe, that it moved around the sun and that its poles weren't fixed. In addition, he believed that celestial bodies aren't strictly spherical, nor were their orbits perfectly circular—the later idea anticipated Johannes Kepler's discovery of the elliptical orbits of the planets by almost 200 years.

Cardinal Nicholas advocated the idea that the difference between astronomical theory and physical observation of the planet's orbits was explained by relative motion—an idea that anticipated Einstein's by nearly 500 years.

Had Fr. Copernicus been aware of Cardinal Nicholas' already published ideas, he would have probably been eager to publish his own research.

Though fundamentalist atheists are fond of rewriting history to maintain their cynical and anti-intellectual myopia, the truth is that Fr. Copernicus and Galileo were mostly vilified by Protestants rather than Catholics. Protestants Martin Luther, John Calvin, Philipp Melanchthon and John Owen were fiercely critical of heliocentricism.

In fact, Melanchthon stopped reading after the first few pages of Fr. Copernicus' treatise. He wrote to his friend Mithobius on Oct. 16, 1541 condemning the theory and calling for it to be violently repressed by governmental force. He wrote that “certain people believe it is a marvelous achievement to extol so crazy a thing, like that Polish astronomer who makes the earth move and the sun stand still. Really, wise governments ought to repress impudence of mind.”

There were certainly some Catholic critics as well but none of it appeared for 60 years after De revolutionibus was published. If atheists were correct about the Church wanting to destroy the heliocentric paradigm, those critics wouldn't have waited an entire lifetime to do so. In addition, Copernicus' De revolutionibus remained completely accessible to scholars throughout Christendom for the entire 60 years without a sanction attached to it.

In fact, neither Copernicus' theory nor calendar reform were even discussed at the Council of Trent (1545-1563).

In defense of the Catholic clerics such as Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, Francesco Ingoli, Nicolaus Serarius, and Dominicans Bartolomeo Spina and Giovanni Maria Tolosani, who denounced the Copernican theory, they used logic and empirical science to demonstrate, incorrectly, that heliocentrism was wrong. Protestants rejected the theory solely on the basis of Scripture which referred to the earth as not moving (Psalm 104:5, 1 Chronicles 16:30, Joshua 10:1-15).

Thus, fundamentalist atheists, refusing to research the irate and unintelligible gossip upon which they willingly choke, continue the nonsensical and ahistorical lies to which they've become accustomed.

Fundamentalist atheists angrily claim to be dedicated to "rationality" and "erudition" but always come up short on evidence for either. In my experience, it's unlikely that any of them are steeped in history and few have read a book on logic.

Instead, fundamentalist atheists spend their time sniping and trying to out-snark each other as they train their sights on Christians (i.e., Catholics) while managing to avoid offending Jews and Moslems.

Historically, atheists have exceled at propaganda — as evidenced by the murderous regimes of Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, Mao and the Kim Dynasty of North Korea, and communists throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. When one intentionally kills the truth, it isn't a great leap to then kill people and from there, to kill a great number of people. Even Christ reminds us:

You are the children of your father, the Devil, and you want to follow your father's desires. From the very beginning he was a murderer and has never been on the side of truth, because there is no truth in him. When he tells a lie, he is only doing what is natural to him, because he is a liar and the Father of all Lies. (John 8:44)

What can we make of a community of people who substitute hatred for reason? Gossip for learning? Scurrilous lies for truth? Subjective feelings for objective facts?

Such is the very nature of fundamentalist atheism.

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