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Sunday, May 22, 2011
Pope's astronomical blessing: Shades of Copernicus
Although Pope Benedict XVI’s recent space-shuttle blessing was a first in terms of its technological aspects, it was far from the first time that a pope has given his “blessing” to astronomical endeavors.
Back in 1533, Johann Albrecht Widmannstetter (a theologican, as well as a secretary to two consecutive popes and a cardinal) presented a series of lectures in Rome concerning the ideas of Nicolaus Copernicus.Pope Clement VII and some Catholic cardinals were in the audience, and very much liked what they heard.Cardinal Nikolaus von Schonberg, Archbishop of Capua, was so impressed with these heliocentric ideas that he wrote this in a 1536 letter to Copernicus:… withthe utmost earnestness, I entreat you, most learned sir… to communicate this discovery of yours to scholars, and at the earliest possible moment to send me your writings on the sphere of the universe together with the tables and whatever else you have that is relevant to this subject…
Pope Clement VII was so pleased with learning about the ideas of Copernicus that he gave Widmannstetter a gift for teaching them to him.(Clement VII also excommunicated King Henry VIII and Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer from the Roman Catholic Church, which set into motion the establishment of an independent Church of England.)Clement VII is also the one who commissioned Michaelangelo’s TheLast Judgment Sistine Chapel fresco.This fresco is particularly noted for its depiction of Christ as a central sun-god type figure.Some wonder whether this portrayal was influenced by the ideas of Copernicus.
His successor, Pope Paul III, reigned from 1534 until 1549, during a time when the Protestant Reformation was becoming stronger and stronger.Being unable to stop this, Paul III instead took steps to launch the Counter Reformation. He was a great patron of the arts, and The Last Judgment was completed under his leadership.Copernicus dedicated his opus, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, to this pope.
How sad that - within only decades of this “holy marriage” between science and religion – Galileo Galilei was then being persecuted by the Inquisition for upholding Copernicus’ views.It is especially heartening that today’s pope is once again affirming the bond between astronomy and theology.