Nicolaus Copernicus: Man of mystery, science, and God

The 550th anniversary of Nicolaus Copernicus’ birth and the 480th of his death provide an opportunity to debunk some myths surrounding this great scientist and man of the Church.

Detail of Thorvaldsen's Copernicus Monument in front the Polish Academy of Sciences on Warsaw's Krakowskie Przedmieście. (Image: Tilman2007/Wikipedia)

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.

Father Copernicus?

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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About Filip Mazurczak 79 Articles
Filip Mazurczak is a historian, translator, and journalist. His writing has appeared in First Things, the St. Austin Review, the European Conservative, the National Catholic Register, and many others. He teaches at the Jesuit University Ignatianum in Krakow.


  1. Thank you for another informative article. Three more tidbits for thought:

    FIRST, this from THOMAS AQUINAS, in the 13th century:

    “Reasoning is employed not as furnishing sufficient proof of a principle but as showing how the remaining effects are in harmony with an already posited principle; as in astronomy the theory of eccentrics and epicycles [the Ptolemaic universe with the sun and planets rotating around a stationary earth] is considered as established because thereby the sensible appearances of the heavenly movements can be explained; NOT however as if this proof were sufficient, since some other theory [Galileo’s findings] might explain them” (Summa Theologica, I, 32, I, ad 2; cited in L.M. Regis, Epistemology, 1959, p. 455).

    SECOND, “eppur si muove” (nevertheless, it moves), attributed to GALILEO:

    And today with regard to each new world within, this remark again is punished now by radical secularists in high places, who avert their eyes from science’s ultrasound and fiber optics, rather than Galileo’s telescope.

    THIRD, from an inquisitive JESUIT astronomer of Galileo’s day, Fr. Grienberger:

    “If Galileo had only known how to retain the favor of the Jesuits, he would have stood in renown before the world, he would have been spared all his misfortunes, and he could have written what he pleased about everything, even about the motion of the earth” (in Giorgio de Santillana, “The Crime of Galileo,” [1955], “The Problem of the False Injunction”; p. 290 with footnote: a confidential admission documented in one of Galileo’s letters).

    Interesting…The proposition is even offered that with Galileo the controversy actually was less between theology and science than it was between two different kinds of reasoning: Aristotelianism as opposed to Copernicanism, or “a priori reasoning against observation and experiment; the syllogism against the telescope” (John Zahm, Evolution and Dogma, 1975/1896, p. 395).

  2. Wonderful reminder of the significance of this Polish man and priest, particularly when one is confronted with the canards about the Church being “anti-science,” the “Galileo affair,” etc.

  3. Recent advances in Quantum Physics now places mankind, ‘Conscious Observers’, not only at the center of the universe, but the trigger cause of their own, personal ‘Reality’ of their own personal physical universe. The ‘Multiverse’ is accomplished at the subatomic particle Quantum level, by the same subatomic particles creating different physical objects, in different ‘conscious observers’ individual personal physical universes. As of 2019, scientists in the lab have accomplished multiple, differing ‘Realities’ of the universe, from multiple ‘Conscious Observers’ of the universe. The differences in varying physical universes of different conscious observers only collapses into one common, shared physical universe, when the different conscious observers interact with one another, or in other words, tell each other what their personal physical universes look like. Wow! Right! Proven science, at the Quantum, subatomic particle level, is so non-intuitive (Miraculous), it blows scientists minds.

    Neils Bohr, “It is meaningless to assign Reality to the universe in the absence of observation; in the intervals between measurement, quantum systems truly exist as a fuzzy mixture of all possible properties.”

    There are no physical universes when conscious observer mankind is not looking at anything. When you are no longer looking at a star 13.8 billion light years away, the star no longer physically exists. Nor do any dinosaur bone fossils exist when you are not looking at them. A conscious observer would have had to have been observing dinosaurs for them to ever have ‘wave collapse’ where a physically universe existed. Dinosaurs are only a part of our present reality, out of all possible ‘Multiverse’ realities God could grant us in our present.

    Thus, there were no Multiverse physical universes before Adam opened his eyes to consciously observe his universe. Proven science sees the biblical event of a partially built physical universe 5 days before conscious observer Adam opened his eyes as impossible, unless God performed a five day miracle before conscious observer Adam opened his eyes. No physical era of ‘evolution ever physically existed.

    Neils bohr VS Albert Einstein.
    Neils Bohr says that there is no universe when a conscious man is not looking at it. Albert Einstein says, “I’d like to think the moon was there even when I wasn’t looking at it.” After over a century of fierce debate and mountains of scientific research to settle this debate, Neils Bohr’s ‘ ‘Peek A Boo’ universe, a universe which does not exist when man is not looking at it, is winning the debate, over Albert Einstein’s “I’d like to think the moon was there even when I wasn’t looking at it.” By the end of the PBS video, the narrator indicates that there is only a slim chance that Albert Einstein’s ‘Realism’ can be salvaged.

    PBS Space Time, The Great Bohr – Einstein Debate

    Proven science says there is no universe when Adamkind is not looking at it and experiencing it. Please watch DR. Quantum to understand how God creates the physical universe into existence, only during the time man is looking at it. When man is not looking at something physical, it no longer exists. Scientist are up to sending 800 atom molecules through the double slit experiment. If scientists are not looking at the 800 atom molecule as it goes through the double slit, all that goes through the double slit is a wave of all possible properties, in all possible positions, taking all possible paths of travel, obeying all possible laws of nature.

    Dr. Quantum Explains Double Slit Experiment

    Physicists have long suspected that quantum mechanics allows two observers to experience different, conflicting realities. Now they’ve performed the first experiment that proves it.

  4. The main reason for the Church getting involved with the Galileo matter was that both he and his opponents played the scripture card. During Galileo’s era astronomy was a branch of mathematics. During this era some churchmen were astronomers. Christoper Clavius was one such churchman. The physics of Galileo’s era couldn’t handle the planetary motions of the heliocentric model. This needed the physics that was developed by Newton. Newton was born in the same year that Galileo died. There is a long series of articles that covers the Galileo controversy in some detail. They are the TOF Spot Great Ptolemaic Smackdown. The link for the table of contents is:

  5. Whilst making some good points, this article does not appear to account for the errors in “On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres”. Look at Book 3 – Section 15. It contradicts the opening Introduction Foreword which was written by a Lutheran after Copernicus died. Bk3-S15 says there is a point between the Sun and the Moon around which they both revolve. It was not completely heliocentric, and still used Ptolemaic epicycles. Copernicus did not have a completely proven Heliocentric theory, which Galileo claimed. We use Kepler’s elliptical understanding of the Solar System today by the way. I think it is clear Copernicus opened the door to Heliocentric understanding, but was probably hesitant in publishing due to it being a theory. The Church never completely condemned heliocentrism, but the heliocentric errors in the Copernicus System which was clearly an incomplete theory only. Cardinal St Robert Bellarmine was even was going to allow Galileo to teach the Copernicus System as a theory, but not a fact. However, he doubled down on trying to force reinterpretation of scripture without a proven system. That’s the trouble with all of it. It’s all just misunderstanding….Check Bk3 – Section 15. Frits Albers explains all this well.

    • AMDG. What a gigantic tempest in a tiny kettle! Copernicus and later Newton sought to change a terrestrial viewpoint to a solar one.
      The terrestrial one has the advantage of direct observation; the solar one must be calculated. What might it have been if the the center of the earth was chosen vs. the surface of sun? In Theoretical Physics: The First Problem 978-0-9844299-1-2 published over a decade ago, any researcher will find a proof that the chosen location for observation is completely arbitrary, any location can be validly chosen. It is only a matter of perspective. To give a somewhat ponderous example. You may choose to view an elephant from the front or from the rear. The viewpoints will be different, but equally valid of the identical object.
      Putting the tempest aside as signifying nothing, there is, however, an important social and historical issue at stake. Copernicus died knowing that his solar model was false. However he tried he could not make it predict what was actually observed. He has posited circular orbits of planetary motion. As such he introduced a model which could adjust only distance from the sun and a fixed velocity of the planet. A century later, Kepler introduced elliptical orbits which allowed both the distance and the velocity to vary. These extra degrees of freedom, enabled a much better model, but still one that was erroneous to some degree. Newton built his classical Physics on this model.
      The turn, important for both science and society is this: This trajectory abandoned the medieval insistence on science for a pouring of resource into engineering. In effect both science and society turned from truth to utility. The turn was manifested by a maniford corruption of language. Much of contemporary issues can be so understood.

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