In the 16th century, the geocentric, or earth-centered, view of earth’s relationship to the sun, planets and stars contributed to the ever-widening margin of error in navigational star charts. Nicholaus Copernicus, a Polish astronomer, began observing the stars and recording his observations. His observations would influence other astronomers like Galileo, but were not well received by Church officials.
Tacit Church Acceptance
Contrary to popular belief, the Roman Catholic Church was initially silent on the subject of Copernicus’ conclusion that the earth moved but the sun and stars did not. Copernicus, after all, was a respected physician, church administrator and lawyer of canon law. He pursued astronomy quietly as a secondary pastime and published quietly.
Acceptance of Early Texts
Copernicus wrote his first short manuscript, “Commentariolus,” 1514. It was well-received by fellow astronomers, but was not widely published. In 1533, as he prepared his more ambitious work “De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium” ("On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres,") he presented a lecture on some of the concepts from “Commentariolus” to Pope Clement VII, who approved.
Nicholas Schonberg, Cardinal of Capua, sent a formal request to Rome asking permission to publish “De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium.” He sent a message to Copernicus in 1536, urging him to publish. Copernicus, suspecting that the heliocentric view might be too radical for Church tastes, declined to publish. He finally acceded to the continuing requests to publish “De Revolutionibus” in 1543, only two years before he died at 69 years old.
Problems with Theologians
The first two editions of “De Revolutionibus” were popular with scientists and learned members of the public, but not with theologians. Protestant theologians were especially vehement in their condemnation. Martin Luther said, “There is talk of a new astrologer (sic) who wants to prove that the earth moves and goes around instead of the sky, the sun, the moon, just as if somebody were moving in a carriage or ship might hold that he was sitting still and at rest while the earth and the trees walked and moved…” and called Copernicus “the fool who went against holy writ.” By 1600, the rising anti-Copernican feelings caused fundamentalist clergymen of many denominations to scour their Bibles, searching for passages to dispute heliocentricity and condemn its “heretical” adherents. In 1610, 67 years after the publication of the first edition, the Catholic Church formally declared that Copernicanism was heresy. It placed “De Revolutionibus” on the “Index Librorum Prohibitorum,” -- the list of forbidden books. It was not removed from that index until 1835.
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