On a Heresy

The issue with using religion as a base to write and enforce laws is that religion is man-made and subjective. Your religious beliefs, even if they are different from mine, are no more or less right or good. And the same is true for my religious beliefs. Two people can look at the same thing or idea or work of “scripture,” express our individual interpretations about it, and suddenly my orthodoxy becomes your heresy. And so laws based on these opinions–and that’s all that they are–are not only wrong on their faces, but they also go against basic human freedoms of liberty, justice, and equality (none of which are so-called Biblical principles, by the way).

And all of that that takes us to a case of heresy that was brought against a man in the 17th Century. At this time in what is now Italy, the Catholic Church held political as well as religious power. They prosecuted and persecuted people who did not follow the letter of the Catholic ordinances and beliefs to their interpretation of religious perfection. In this particular situation, a man simply did not agree with the church that the earth was the center of the universe, that all objects circled around our globe.

Nicolaus Copernicus, the Polish astronomer and thinker, had posited a different idea, that the earth revolved around the sun instead of the Catholic model of the opposite. Now, Copernicus wasn’t the first to hold this belief; Greek astronomers and others had made the same claims centuries earlier including the concept that the earth rotated on its axis. Islamic astronomers confirmed these Greek ideas. However, it was the Copernicus proposal that this man had espoused, and it’s what the Catholic church prosecuted him for. One major reason for their prosecution at this time was because Copernicus had published his findings a century before; he drew the known planets in correct order radiating out from the heliocentric system. Many people began listening to the theory, and the Catholic Church saw this as a threat to their ways of belief and their control over what people believed.

So, they put this poor man on trial for agreeing with Copernicus. During his cross examination by the Church’s prosecutor, the man walked back his belief out of a sense that he knew the punishment for his “crime” could be severe. He said that, after careful consideration, that rather than a “belief” in the heliocentric idea, he wanted merely to use that concept as merely a starting point for scientific discussion.

We must remember that this period saw the Catholic Church under attack from the surging Protestant movement. Printing presses published ideas that countered the Church. The Renaissance and the early beginnings of the Age of Enlightenment further challenged the orthodox and monolithic Catholic faith and power. That is why trials such as this one, while seemingly over a trivial matter, were so important to the Catholic hierarchy. While this doesn’t excuse the severe abuses the Catholic Church committed during this period of the rise of heterodoxy in Europe, it does help to explain it. Sadly, similar behavior is occurring across the globe as extremists in all nations are demanding that laws be passed that match their beliefs and not that protect basic freedom of thought and belief.

The argument of the man that he didn’t actually believe Copernicus but only wanted to use his ideas as discussion points did not sway the Catholic court. They found him guilty of crimes against the Church and against God. His sentence was to be under house arrest for the remainder of his life. And that’s what happened to him.

It would take the Catholic Church 300 years before it admitted it was wrong and exonerated Galileo for his “crime.”


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