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Reception of the discovery in Europe – the views of the Church and of other scholars on the heliocentric theory

Protestant churches (especially the Lutheran and Calvinist) strongly rejected Copernicus’ theory in the cosmological sphere as contrary to both Holy Scripture and Aristotelian thought. It was in this way that already in the first half of the 16th century the most outstanding representatives of the Reformation commented on the discovery of the astronomer from Frombork, namely Martin Luther, Philipp Melanchthon, Andrzej Osjander, and John Calvin. However, due to the lack of centralised power, Protestant churches had never developed the mechanism for the persecution of scholars who supported the heliocentric theory. What is more, the members of the Wittenberg Lutheran School founded by Melanchthon (including Caspar Peucer (1525-1602), Erasmus Reinhold (1511-1553) and Johannes Praetorius (1537-1616)) and its supporters, including Tycho Brache (1546-1601), actively promoted interest in the research on the Copernican theory in its empirical and mathematical sphere.

As far as the Roman Catholic church was concerned, initially, that is from 1530 to 1543, it was generally favourably disposed towards the whole of Copernicus’ theory, including its cosmological sphere. It was valued by such dignitaries as Cardinal Nicholas Schonberg (1472-1537), Pope Clement VII (1478-1534; pontificate 1523-1534) and his immediate circle, Pope Paul III (1468-1549; pontificate 1534-1549), to whom Copernicus dedicated De Revolutionibus; and the astronomer’s friend, Bishop Tiedemann Giese (1480-1550).

However, this approach changed radically in the Roman Catholic Church from 1543-1546. It was then that the Dominican Bartolomeo Spina (c. 1475-1546), who from June 1542 until his death performed the duties of Master of the Sacred Palace of Paul III and the censor of books, demanded the condemnation of De Revolutionibus for the same reasons that were already given by Protestants: for propagation of cosmological thesis that were at variance with the Holy Scripture and Aristotelian thought. Spina’s death prevented immediate fulfilment of this goal. This idea began to gain increasing support from the time of the Council of Trent (1545-1563). An important role in this matter was played by the Congregation of the Holy Office of the Inquisition established on 21st of July 1542 as a protector of the deposit of faith.

Nevertheless, at the end of the 16th and at the beginning of the 17th century supporters of Copernicus, both protestants (Kepler) and catholics (Diego de Zuñiga, Paulo A. Foscarini and Galileo) with Copernicus’s full consent became advocates of the heliocentric cosmology and openly approved of his view of the non-literal interpretation of the Bible in the matters of nature, in the spirit of Augustine’s thought and that of similar theologians (Buridanists, including Bishop Nicolas Oresme and Cardinal Nicolaus of Kuza).

Such views, which were propagated in the times of unrestrained development of the Reformation, provoked strong opposition and radical actions from the Roman Curia and the Inquisition, which especially could be observed in the years from 1615 to 1633 during the so-called Galileo Affair.

In the first part of this sequence of events that took place in 1615 the absolute authenticity of the geocentric cosmology was acknowledged, in accordance with the literal interpretation of the Bible and orthodox interpretation of Aristotelian thought, and the theses of the heliocentric cosmology were considered as “absurd and foolish with regards to philosophy and at same time as heretical (formaliter), for they openly contradicted the words of the Holy Scripture”. As a consequence of the position taken, on the 5th of March 1616 through the decision of the Holy Office, De Revolutionibus and all the treatises on the motion of the Earth (as real phenomena, and not as a hypothesis treated instrumentally), including works by Kepler, were placed in the List of Prohibited Books (Index librorum prohibitorum).

The case was continued in 1633 after the publication of Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Systems of the World - Ptolemaic and Copernican (1632). On the 22nd of June 1633 the Italian scholar was publicly condemned for propagation of heretical views and forced to acknowledge his guilt. The completion of this trial was the decision from the 23rd April 1634 concerning placing the Dialogue in the List of Forbidden Books. The works by Copernicus remained formally in the List until the 11th September 1822 when the prohibition of publishing of these books was cancelled, and for practical purposes they were proscribed until 1835, when the new edition of the List was published, in which these works were no longer listed.

The negative attitude of the Catholic and the Protestant Churches towards Copernican theories was crucial for the future of European culture, for it determined the attitude of the Christian world towards the autonomy of scientific researches in relation to religion and theology for the next 300 years and, according to historians, from the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries had a destructive influence on the development of the sciences and natural sciences in Christian Churches. However this view was reevaluated as a result of thorough researches conducted by historians of science in the second half of the 20th century.

Michał Kokowski
Copernicus Center for Interdisciplinary Studies
Institute for the History of Science, Polish Academy of Sciences
A general introduction   Tycho Brahe’s model
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