This year marks the 550th anniversary of Nicolaus Copernicus’ birth and the 480th of his death. This provides an opportunity to debunk some of the myths regarding the relationship of the great scientist, thanks to whom we learned that the sun and not the earth is at the center of the universe, to the Catholic faith. However, as we’ll see, these myths have survived in part because of errors by various Churchmen during the Counter-Reformation.
A Renaissance man from the borderlands
Nicolaus Copernicus was born on February 19, 1473, in the Polish city of Torun in Pomerania, which had long been the subject of conflict between Poland and the Teutonic Knights, a military order of hospitallers that had been founded during the Crusades, initially with the express purpose of providing medical assistance to wounded German crusaders.
In 1226, Duke Konrad I of Mazovia invited the Teutonic Knights to Poland to defend the country’s borders. Quickly, however, many became disappointed with the order, which proved brutal towards Poles and used violence to purportedly Christianize the pagan tribes of the Baltics, even after they had officially adopted Christianity.
Copernicus’ own family background attests to the complex history of Pomerania. The future astronomer’s mother, Barbara née Watzenrode, came from a family of patricians of German origin that had likely immigrated to Torun from Hesse in the thirteenth century.
Meanwhile, Nicolaus’ father, Nicolaus (Mikołaj) Kopernik, was a merchant from Krakow and was probably of Polish descent. Many trace the elder Copernicus’ lineage to the Silesian village of Koperniki, while some claim the Koperniki clan had originally come from Bohemia. The Polish historian Krzysztof Mikulski, who has studied Copernicus’ genealogy in detail, argues that the suffix nik was indisputably Slavic and reflected on its bearer’s profession. Thus, a powroznik, for instance, was a rope maker, while a miecznik was a sword maker. According to Mikulski, the first part of Copernicus’ surname probably comes from the Latin word for copper, cuprum, which means that his ancestors were possibly copper miners or, more likely, copper merchants.
Copernicus’ complex ethnic background has led to numerous disputes between Poles and Germans on his nationality over the centuries. Considering his identity presented above, it would arguably be most accurate to describe him as a Polish subject of mixed Polish and German extraction, a reflection of the ethnic and religious diversity as well as changing borders of the Kingdom of Poland.
That Copernicus was a loyal Polish subject is attested by the fact that during Poland’s wars with the Teutonic Knights, he led the defense of Olsztyn and represented the Polish state in its peace negotiations with the German order.
Indeed, being a diplomat was one of Copernicus’ many professions. The young man from Torun studied astronomy and the liberal arts in Krakow, later travelling to Bologna to continue his studies in those subjects. Eventually, he also received a degree in medicine from the University of Padua and a doctorate in canon law in Ferrara.
Upon his return from Italy, Copernicus became the secretary and physician of his uncle, Lucas Watzenrode, The scholar published treatises on a variety of subjects from medicine to mathematics and economics. As a canon at Frombork, Copernicus would conduct astronomical observations from the cathedral tower in his free time.
Although in ancient Greece several thinkers, such Philolaus as and Aristarchus of Samos, had posited that the sun is at the center of the universe, that view was rejected in favor of the geocentric model of Claudius Ptolemy of Alexandria (100-170 AD), which remained paradigmatic for many centuries. Yet based on his many years of observations and calculations, Copernicus argued that Ptolemy was wrong. His findings were compiled in his treatise De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (“On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres”), published in Latin in Nuremburg in 1543, as Copernicus lay dying.
Apart from Copernicus’ nationality, the question of whether or not he was a priest is perhaps the most hotly contested aspect of his life. The fact that the Polish King Sigismund I the Old named Copernicus as one of the four candidates to be the Bishop of Warmia in 1537 is often presented as an argument in favor of this assertion. On the other hand, it has been countered that a non-ordained canon could have been a candidate and be ordained after the nomination.
Meanwhile, a recent Polish-language biography by Piotr Łopuszański, titled Mikołaj Kopernik. Nowe oblicze geniusza (“Nicolaus Copernicus: The New Face of a Genius”) claims that in 1532, when Copernicus was fifty-nine, the Bishop of Warmia, Maurycy Ferber, demanded that all the canons like Copernicus in his see receive the sacrament of Holy Orders.
By contrast, historian Edward Rosen wrote in his Copernicus and His Successors that Copernicus never referred to himself as a priest, nor do any documents from his lifetime mention him as such. Rosen claims that it was Galileo who invented this claim in his correspondence with the Inquisition, hoping that by presenting Copernicus as a priest he could be spared of its wrath.
Although we will likely never know with certainty about Copernicus’ status, he was certainly a faithful man of the Church. During the Fifth Lateran Council, he was consulted on calendar reform. Meanwhile, Copernicus’ correspondence was primarily in Latin, and the only known example of his writing in Polish was an inscription from his personal library: Bok pomagay (“God help me;” in modern Polish, this would be rendered as Bóg pomagaj or Boże pomagaj), evidence of his ardent faith.
The Copernicus Myth
In 2010, I toured the Jagiellonian University Museum in Krakow, which includes a room devoted to its famous alumnus. The guide, an elderly man who had lived under communism and could not have avoided communist regime’s anti-religious propaganda during the 500th anniversary of Copernicus’ birth in 1973, told us that Copernicus was a “clever priest” who did his calculations in secret and published his revolutionary findings right before dying to avoid the terrors of the Inquisition.
One did not need to grow up under a Marxist-Leninist dictatorship to believe a variant of this myth. My own copy of On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres was edited and annotated by Stephen Hawking. In his introduction, the late physicist and militant atheist writes that the Church had adopted the Ptolemaic model because it was consistent with its view that man was at the center of the universe.
Hawking proceeds to repeat the myth that Copernicus delayed the publication of his work in order to not “provoke church authorities to any angry response.” As evidence of the Church’s hostility to heliocentrism, Hawking notes that the heretical Italian scholar and former Dominican Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600 for supporting Copernicus’ ideas.
This myth has even been perpetrated by orthodox Catholic writers: in the second volume of his (overall engrossing, commendable, and expertly researched) biography of Pope Benedict XVI, Peter Seewald writes that St. John Paul II “had rehabilitated Hus, Copernicus, and Galileo and acknowledged the church’s historical guilt.”
The Lens of the Galileo Affair
Indeed, in 1999 John Paul II apologized for the “cruel death” of the Czech proto-Protestant Reformer Jan Hus, sentenced to burning at the stake at Council of Constance, while in 1992 he rehabilitated Galileo. Copernicus, however, was never rehabilitated by the pope because there was no reason to do so.
While De revolutionibus orbium coelestium was published the same year Copernicus died, its publication was not timed to avoid the unpleasant fate of Jan Hus or Giordano Bruno. Copernicus, known to be a perfectionist, needed many years to make the observations and calculations to support his radical findings without much of the astronomical equipment we take for granted (the telescope was invented decades after Copernicus’ death and perfected by Galileo to observe the cosmos). Additionally, given his many roles, his astronomic work was always moonlighting.
A careful study of the timeline debunks the notion that Copernicus was trying to hide his findings from the Inquisition. Copernicus dedicated his famous work to Pope Paul III. It would not be placed on the Vatican’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum (“List of Prohibited Books”) until 1616, more than forty years after the astronomer’s death. It was then, when dealing with Galileo, that the Roman Inquisition officially condemned heliocentrism. Furthermore, the Polish Inquisition had ceased operations in 1519, so Copernicus had no reason to fear local inquisitors, either.
Contrary to what Stephen Hawking writes, Giordano Bruno was not condemned for supporting the Copernican model. Since the Enlightenment, Bruno has become a martyr of science against religion and superstition; in 1889, Rome’s anti-clerical, masonic rulers unveiled a statue of him at the site of his immolation.
Indeed, Giordano Bruno had embraced heliocentrism. However, his trial by the Roman Inquisition had nothing to do with that. Rather, he was tried for his heretical theological views, which included denial of Christ’s divinity, Mary’s virginity, and the Final Judgment, as well as the belief that the world has no beginning or end.
Stephen Hawking is also wrong in asserting that the Church’s opposition to heliocentrism stemmed from its challenge to the view of man at the center of the universe. In fact, during the Galileo trial the Roman Inquisition declared heliocentrism as incompatible with Sacred Scripture due to Joshua 10:12-13, interpreted to imply that the sun was in perpetual motion:
It was then, when the Lord delivered up the Amorites to the Israelites, that Joshua prayed to the Lord, and said in the presence of Israel:
Sun, stand still at Gibeon,
Moon, in the valley of Aijalon!
The sun stood still,
the moon stayed,
while the nation took vengeance on its foes.
This is recorded in the Book of Jashar. The sun halted halfway across the heavens; not for an entire day did it press on.
Problematic “scientific” readings of Scripture
Martin Luther and John Calvin, the leading Protestant reformers, had opposed heliocentrism as incompatible with Scripture. The Galileo affair unfolded during the Counter-Reformation, and undoubtedly the Church was influenced by such recent tendencies.
The brilliant observation that the Bible was written to help us get to heaven and not to explain how the heavens move is ascribed to the fifteenth-century German Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa. In a similar way, Galileo, during his trial, quoted St. Augustine:
One does not read in the Gospel that the Lord said: I will send you the Paraclete who will teach you about the course of the sun and moon. For He willed to make them Christians, not mathematicians.
The late Harvard paleontologist and popularizer of science, Stephen Jay Gould, was a Jewish agnostic. Yet, unlike Stephen Hawking or Richard Dawkins, he was not hostile to religion and wrote his classic 1999 book Rocks of Ages to seek reconciliation between science and religion. Gould famously argued that faith and science were “non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA).
This notion has frequently been criticized. After all, there are certain areas, such as bioethics, where they inevitably overlap. Yet Gould was overall correct – and consistent with St. Augustine and Nicholas of Cusa – that the natural sciences and theology study completely different spheres of existence.
The first universities in the world – Padua, Bologna, Paris, Oxford – were founded by the Catholic Church. Meanwhile, the scientific method was born in Christian Europe, although there were many other advanced civilizations at the time. Although a literalist reading of Scripture undoubtedly contributed to the myths surrounding Copernicus, he was a product of the great age of Church-sponsored learning, and he cannot be considered anything other than a man of the Church who revolutionized our perception of reality.
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