Hostile Intellectual Movements

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The dedication page of Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus' De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, published in 1543

Copernicus' Heliocentric Model

This is the dedication page of Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus’ seminal work, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, “On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres,” which he published in 1543 just months before he died. In it he presents observations which challenge the geocentric model of the universe widely accepted since the time of Ptolemy. He instead argues that Earth and the other planets orbit the Sun.

On this page Copernicus dedicates his work to Pope Paul III. The book’s dedication did little to prevent the ensuing criticism from religious leaders (Catholic and Protestant), and some seventy years later with the Galilean controversy beginning to pick up, the text was placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, the Catholic Church forbidding its production, purchase, or reading (Wiesner-Hanks, 376-378).

Galileo himself references the dedication Copernicus made to Pope Paul III in his own letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, in which Galileo attempts to present himself and his theories as in line with the true interpretation of Scripture and Christian doctrine (Galileo, np). Copernicus’ papal dedication is a piece of evidence marshaled to show that the observations of astronomers like Copernicus and Galileo were not meant to subvert religion or the Catholic Church. 

Nonetheless, the hostile reaction to Copernicus’ work, despite its dedication, reveals that the papacy during the Scientific Revolution both supported scientific advancement by scholars affiliated with the Church (particularly Jesuits) and pushed back on certain theories that attacked the underpinnings of philosophy and all thought commonly accepted at the time. Thus the papacy was an institution which both supported and was deeply skeptical of the conclusions of the Scientific Revolution.

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A French engraving of leading Jansenist Marie Angélique Arnauld (1591-1661), a Cistercian nun

French Jansenism

Pictured in this engraving is Marie Angélique Arnauld, who served as abbess of the Abbey of Port-Royal near Paris. She was a leading proponent of Jansenism, a theological movement in seventeenth century France. It emphasized the reading of Scripture by the laity, personal virtue, and Calvinist ideas on predestination and free will. In this engraving, the Latin text on the book appears to be a translation of Matthew 6:33: “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” The Jansenists disputed fiercely with the French Jesuits, who enjoyed royal patronage.

Pope Innocent X condemned several specific teachings in 1653 in his bull Cum occasione, and later popes renewed their attacks on Jansenist teachings, ending in 1713 with Clement XI’s Unigenitus, which issued a comprehensive repudiation of Jansenist principles (Wiesner-Hanks, 416-417).

Jansenism offers an example of dissenting movements within the Catholic Church, and the authority the papacy brought to bear in condemning the movement reinforces the heft popes possessed in spiritual matters.

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The title page of an early edition of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, published in 1564

Index Librorum Prohibitorum

In the face of a proliferation of Protestant books and other writings across the European continent, the papacy created the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, “the Index of Banned Books.” By outlawing the ownership and reading of works that expressed opinions counter to the teachings of the Catholic Church, sixteenth century popes like Paul IV and Pius IV, who authorized this particular version, hoped to stem the spread of Protestantism (Wiesner-Hanks, 187). 

Although the Index began in the sixteenth century as an anti-Protestant measure, the burgeoning “Enlightenment” of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries produced another glut of works running afoul of Catholicism’s intellectual and spiritual guideposts. So during the Enlightenment the Index was printed again and again, each time updated with new works, like Voltaire’s Candide, which features promiscuous friars and perhaps most notably an old woman who is the illegitimate daughter of Pope Urban X (Voltaire, Candide, 42). There has never been an Urban X, and creating a fake pope served as an attempt to escape serious punishment for impugning the dignity of the papacy. Candide nevertheless made it onto the Index.

The Index highlights the hostile response of papacy and Catholicism more generally to the intellectual developments of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, when individualism, personal liberties, and a belief in the primacy of scientific reasoning were on the rise thanks to John Locke, Denis Diderot, and other giants of the Enlightenment. If the Council of Trent illustrates the Church’s openness to moderate change, the Index demonstrates the papacy’s reactionary instincts.

Hostile Intellectual Movements