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How the Church Has Changed the World: The Heavens Declare the Glory of God


The bishop of Heilsberg lay upon his bed as a man who had much business to do and not much time to do it.

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copernicusHis table was cluttered with letters, a glass of wine, herbs pounded into powder, his breviary, an account of diocesan finances, and Plato's Timaeus, in Greek.  He seemed as if at any moment he might lift his powerful frame from that bed and stride into the hall of an obstinate lord, or down the winding medieval streets to visit the poor.  But that was out of the question.  So said his physician, who stood before him with reports to make and a question to ask.

"Father Nicholas," said the old man, "have you finished your rounds?"

"Yes, Uncle Lucas.  The plague isn't so bad this year, and what with the fine harvest God has given us, I had all I could do to keep the poor from slipping a coin or two into my hand.  One thing I couldn't refuse, my lord," he said, "was this jar of honey for your table."

"It will sweeten my last days," said the bishop.  "Nicholas, the best money I ever spent was for your education.  You're a doctor, a priest, a chancellor, and — a Ptolemy!  Now it may take some time before the pope selects my successor.  I want you to administer the diocese in the meantime."

"I shall be honored to do a little in return for all you have done for me."

"You have something on your mind, Nicholas.  Say it."

"Uncle," he said, "I need your advice."

Can it be True?

Father Nicholas strode back and forth, hands behind his back.  "Uncle, you know the old theory of the Pythagoreans, that it's not the sun that moves around the earth, but the earth that moves around the sun.  The cardinal of Cusa proposed it again.  You also know that Ptolemy, who teaches that the sun moves around the earth, could not say that the movement was circular, because that wouldn't explain the planetary motions we observe.  So he had to devise those cursed cycles and epicycles we mathematicians suffer, as the planets move in a circle around a point on a second circle that revolves about a point on a third circle that revolves about the sun."

"These are matters that schoolboys are aware of," said the bishop.

"I know, Uncle.  I'm trying to reason it out.  The system seems clumsy.  I know that God can do what he will, but there's another way to think of the movements of the planets, one that I consider more beautiful.  Suppose," he said, warming to the topic, "we could rid ourselves of almost every epicycle, and explain in a few simple laws the motions of all those wanderers of the skies."

'You mean you could devise a model that would more easily and accurately predict where the planets are to be found?  That would be of great use to navigators."

"I'm far from that, Uncle.  I don't believe I will live to see it.  But I think I can conceive a model that is closer to the truth.  And all truth is of God."

"Let me see if I understand you right.  You're not saying you have a more practical model.  You are attempting to penetrate farther into the truth.  Against all we see and feel, you wish to say that the earth moves about the sun.  Such movement would have to be of astonishing speed."

"Yes, Uncle.  We cannot perceive it, because we are moving along also."

"Wouldn't that motion raise incredible gales?  We ride a horse and feel the wind in our hair, not because the air is moving, but because we are moving against it."

"Perhaps it does explain some of the world's winds, Uncle.  I don't know.  Perhaps the air is moving too, and so it will be as when you're riding with a wind, and don't feel it at all, because you're moving at its speed."

The bishop pondered a little longer, with contracted brow.  He was, after all, a bishop — a learned man, likely to be interested in everything.  "If your guess is correct," he said, "then, because sometimes Venus will lie between us and the sun, we should see phases in her, just as we see in the moon.  But we see no phases.  She always shines as a globe, brighter or dimmer according to her distance from the sun."

"Perhaps Venus is transparent, Uncle.  Perhaps we can't discern the phases.  I don't know.  I ask, can it be true?  I believe it can be, and is."

Columbus of the Stars

"I don't study the stars," said the bishop.  "What advice can I give?" The nephew shuffled his feet "Uncle, I'll be ridiculed for it.  Sometimes I too think it's ridiculous.  Should I continue in this study?  Should I publish my conclusions?  The ground beneath us seems perfectly stable, and the sun crosses the sky.  Will I make our name a laughingstock?"

The bishop pulled himself up with a look of indignation.  "I'd think that that monk Martin might have more to worry about from that quarter.  Nephew, didn't the pope himself ask you to help him reform the calendar?"

That was a while ago, and Nicholas had declined, because he felt he needed more time to study it.  He was temperamentally cautious, for a man who excelled in everything to which he set his hand.

"Nicholas, my son," said the bishop, "go where God leads you.  He gave you your mind; use it.  That is why I sent you to your five universities.  You've studied law and medicine, Greek and Latin letters, art and mathematics, natural philosophy and theology.  You have a heart for the poor, and that alone shows me that you're not a proud man seeking glory.  Go in confidence.  Who knew there was another world between ours and China?  The Genovese sailor himself didn't know it.  And now, if you'll pardon me," he said, "I must get to these letters."

And the priest we know as Copernicus received his uncle's blessing and went forth, not to change the world, but to set its right place in the heavens.

Friends in High Places

Father Nicholas did not work alone.  He'd won a reputation as the greatest astronomer in Europe, and that meant his admirers were mainly monks and priests of the Church — astronomers, physicians, and scientists attendant upon the papal court and episcopal courts, and teaching in the universities, also run by the Church.  He had lectured on astronomy in Rome when he was young, and Pope Leo X — the man who would excommunicate Martin Luther — had asked him, at the First Lateran Council, how to adjust a calendar then out of square, to set the year to be a true year and not five minutes more.

Copemicus continued to toil at his project.  The telescope had not yet been invented; he had to amass painstaking observations, and perform excruciatingly difficult calculations without the aid of calculus, which also had not yet been invented.  He was careful.  But after a while his friends and collaborators began to urge him to put his work in writing — at least a summary of the principles.  He did so, withholding the calculations, which he perhaps had not completed to his satisfaction.

Copies of that summary, in Copernicus' hand, were found centuries later.  He did not win ridicule, because his readers were not flatfooted peasants staring at the ground to watch it move.  Nor were they Lutherans who disparaged philosophy and said that Scripture alone, in its most obvious sense, teaches men all they need to know about God and, presumably, the earth and skies too.  One of his readers went to Rome to lecture upon heliocentrism before Pope Clement VII — the same pope who had unfortunate dealings with a corpulent Englishman.  Clement gave him a rare Greek manuscript in return.

Then the archbishop of Capua, Cardinal Schonberg, took up the cause and begged Copernicus to publish the whole of his discovery.  Copernicus hesitated.  Finally, years later, a young mathematician named Rheticus traveled from Wittenberg to Prussia to drink in the master's wisdom.  Rheticus could not be gainsaid.  He sent long letters to his friends in Germany describing the system.  He teamed up with Schonberg and the bishop of CuIm to prevail upon Copernicus, who at last gave in, bowing to the wishes of so many powerful friends, as he himself said in a letter to his most important patron, Pope Paul III.  The Six Books on the Revolutions of the Celestial Orbits was published in 1543, as Father Nicholas lay dying.

Who has Done More?

Copernicus understood that God is the source and aim of all truth.  That was the common view.  His fellows in the Church welcomed his work.  Ridicule?  What deserves ridicule is the idea that the Church was ever afraid of learning.  She invented the universities, preserved the works of the great pagans, and built schools in every diocese, many providing instruction gratis for the poor.  She inspired and commissioned the greatest artists the world has known — Michelangelo was one among thousands.  Her monks turned northern Europe into a garden of grain and fruit, making agricultural, medical, architectural, and mechanical innovations for more than a millennium.  Her main purpose was to lead men to God, not to teach them farming, arts and letters, statesmanship, and astronomy, but she could hardly have done more if she had been established solely for those purposes; and no institution in history has done more.

The Church, here to bring us to Christ, brings us blessings for this world, too.  All nations are in her debt.



Magnificat Anthony Esolen. "How the Church Has Changed the World: The Heavens Declare the Glory of God." Magnificat (May, 2015).

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The Author


Anthony Esolen is writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts and serves on the Catholic Resource Education Center's advisory board. His newest book is "No Apologies: Why Civilization Depends on the Strength of Men." You can read his new Substack magazine at Word and Song.

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