The hypotheses presented by the Scientific Revolution created quite a stir within organized religion. The Copernican universe challenged the accepted idea about the universe, the location of heaven and Earth, and the importance of Earth in the grand scheme of things. The Ptolemaic system with a stationary Earth at the center of the universe allowed clergy and laymen alike to know exactly where heaven lay and Earth’s location in the universe relative to heaven. It would be easy to chastise the dogmatic religious leaders of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for clinging to the ancient ideas of Aristotle and Ptolemy, but there was scriptural evidence that indicated the classical ideas were correct.
For Christians who did not emphasize the literal translation of the scripture, the scientific hypotheses posed no tremendous threat. For others who believed in a strict literal translation of the Bible, the Copernican theory seemed heretical. Several verses in particular gave credence to the belief that the Earth stood still while everything else moved around it. Joshua 10:13 and Habakuk 3:11 tell of how the “sun stood still, and the moon stopped” and how the “sun and moon stood still in the heavens.”
1 Chronicles 16:30 and Psalm 93:1 both say, “The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved.”
Luther and Calvin Sound Off
The Catholic Church didn’t respond nearly as quickly to the Copernican hypothesis as did the Protestant leaders. There are probably two main reasons for this. First, Copernicus dedicated his work to the pope, and his work was used as the basis for the reform of the Julian calendar into the current Gregorian calendar. Second, because the Catholic Church placed as much emphasis on Church tradition as on the scripture, the Church didn’t really want to be bound to a strict literal translation of the Bible. Protestants like Martin Luther and John Calvin, though, showed less restraint.
Martin Luther in 1539 said, “People gave an ear to an upstart astrologer who strove to show that the Earth revolves, not the heavens or the firmament, the sun and moon .... The fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but sacred scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the Earth.” John Calvin jumped into the fray, too, writing in reference to Psalm 93:1, “Who will venture to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit?” Though these two had scorned Copernicus, their chastising had no real effects. The same could not be said after the Church had its say on the matter.
The Church Chimes In
The Catholic Church didn’t weigh in on the Copernican hypothesis until 1616, when the Holy Office officially banned On the Revolutions of Heavenly Bodies more than 70 years after its publication. The Holy Office added Copernicus’s work to the Index of Prohibited Books because the doctrine of the “motion of the Earth and the immobility of the Sun” was “false and altogether opposed to the Holy Scripture.”
"It is surely harmful to souls to make it a heresy to believe what is proved."
Eight years after the Church officially took a stand on the Copernican theory, the Inquisition and the pope found themselves forced to deal with Galileo. The pope warned Galileo, allowing him to write about Copernicus only as long as he didn’t present the hypothesis as truth. Galileo didn’t heed the pope’s warning.
His Dialogue on the Two Chief Systems of the World literally made fun of the old worldview, and the Church didn’t appreciate it.
Galileo was brought before the Inquisition and tried for heresy. Galileo, an old man at the time of his trial, was imprisoned and threatened with torture and execution before he finally recanted. His recanting was recognized by most simply as a formality, so nobody believed he had really changed his mind. In reality, the harsh position of the Inquisition did more harm to the Church than to Galileo’s theories or his legacy. Galileo lived out his days under house arrest.
As a Matter of Fact
Although it probably did not happen, legend says that, as he left the courtroom, the arrogant and frustrated Galileo defiantly uttered, “E pur si muove," or “But it moves," referring to the earth. If Galileo had actually gone back on his recantation, he could have faced the death penalty. In 1737, nearly 100 years after his death, Galileo's remains were moved from their original resting place to a mausoleum at the Church of Santa Croce. At that time, the middle finger of Galileo's right hand was removed and placed in a bowl in which it is displayed today at the Institute and Museum of the History of Science in Italy. On the marble base that holds Galileo's finger is a Latin inscription by Tommaso Perelli that reads:
This is the finger, belonging to the illustrious hand that ran through the skies, pointing at the immense spaces, and singling out new stars, offering to the senses a marvelous apparatus of crafted glass, and with wise daring they could reach where neither Enceladus nor Tiphaeus ever reached.