What was the Church’s response to the scientific theories
What was the Church’s response to the scientific theories, especially those of Copernicus and Galileo, and why did it take the position it did?
Nicholas Copernicus’ heliocentric theory of the cosmos displaced the Earth from being the centre of the universe, from being the stationary anchor around which all else in the cosmos existed (for Christian theology was founded on the premise of humankind’s significance, the idea that the universe had been created by god for the humans). It also destabilized the hierarchy that Aristotle had built, from the earth itself, the farther you moved through the spheres, the purer it was, until ultimate ‘perfection’ was reached beyond the spheres. Or, in the Church’s language, the core of the earth housed hell, while the perfection of the heavens was situated beyond the last spheres in the traditional cosmic model.
That it had this decentering effect on the very premises that the Church had built itself on was what made this new ‘scientific’ theory hostile: the Church, had been the authority on knowledge and everything there was to be known about the universe, sanctioned by the divine authority of the scriptures. So, Copernicus’ book was defamed, declared as blasphemy, and banned, Copernicus coming to be viewed as an evil influence. Copernicus published his book, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies (1543), shortly before he died. This means that he didn’t have to suffer the repercussions of his scientific theories the way Galileo did. Moreover, Copernicus’ theories were not fully formed, and retained much of Aristotle’s theory in strangely anachronistic ways, like his endorsement of perfectly circular orbits, the spheres etc. So the church attacked this weakness in the theory as revealing it falsity, as stripping itself of its credibility.
When Galileo attempted to publish his Dialogues in 1624, his treatise, heavily influenced by the scientific theories of Ptolemy and Copernicus, was met with similar criticism. What is unmistakeable is the Church’s disproportionate hostility, almost desperate to re-build its shaken seat of authority. The new scientific theories were not taken just at the level of a heretic document that was not a serious treatise on the true nature of the universe (since the Church professed to investigate the matter as a commitment to truth and true knowledge). The Church reacted, on the contrast, by organising frenzied drives to find, try, and incarcerate these scientists who made ‘evil’ assertions.It is clear that the curch considered the new ideas a direct threat to its own existence and power.