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Copernicus and the Church: What the history books don't say

Many believe the heliocentric theory was immediately rejected by the Catholic Church. However, the relationship between the Church and Copernicus is much more complex than popular historical narratives suggest.

By Steph Solis / February 19, 2013

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Legend has it that Nicolaus Copernicus and the church were at odds over his development of the heliocentric theory, a principle that disputed the widely held belief that Earth was the center of the universe.

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Unlike Galileo and other controversial astronomers, however, Copernicus had a good relationship with the Catholic Church. It may come as a surprise, considering the Church banned Copernicus' "Des revolutionibus" for more than 200 years. Copernicus was actually respected as a canon and regarded as a renowned astronomer. Contrary to popular belief, the Church accepted Copernicus' heliocentric theory before a wave of Protestant opposition led the Church to ban Copernican views in the 17th century.

Throughout his lifetime, Copernicus was active in the religious community. Copernicus was born in 1473 in Torun, Poland, the youngest of four children. At age 10, his father died and he were sent to live with his uncle Lucas Watzenrode, who would later become the bishop of Warmia (Ermland).

Copernicus studied at St. John’s Church in Torun's parochial school before going to Krakow Academy in 1491 to pursue astronomy and astrology. He became known as a skilled mathematical and astronomer, but he also maintained his ties to the church. He became a canon of the cathedral chapter of Frombork through his uncle, and he served the church of Warmia as a medical advisor.

Copernicus first outlined his ideas about the heliocentric theory in a manuscript titled “Commentariolus.” There he suggested a heliostatic system, where the sun was at the center of the universe and the earth made rotations.

The astronomer published “De revolutionibus” in March 1543, after more than a decade of revisions. The book included a letter to Pope Paul III arguing the legitimacy of the heliocentric theory. He died two months later.

“De revolutionibus” initially met no resistance from the Catholic Church. It was not until 1616 that the church banned the book. The ban continued until 1835.

Mano Singham, an associate professor of physics at Case Western University in Cleveland, Ohio, points out discrepancies between popular narratives about Copernicus and the full story.

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