The Scientific Revolution and Catholicism

New Thinking Challenged the Cosmological Order of the Church

The Scientific Revolution and the subsequent Enlightenment offered radically different answers to long established Church tradition and teaching.

In 1543 On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres by Nicolaus Copernicus was published. It came as an inauspicious threat to the Catholic Church which was already contending with the growing Protestant Reformation. As the so-called Scientific Revolution began in the early 17th Century, men like Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, and Galileo Galilei expanded on the Copernican theory, decisively demonstrating that the heliocentric view of the universe was correct. In the process, this new science threatened the cosmological order of the Catholic Church in much the same way as Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin had threatened the theological foundations of Catholicism.

New Thinking Cast Doubt on Established Church Tradition

The cosmology of the Middle Ages was based on Church teachings that accepted age-old superstitions and assigned supernatural explanations to both positive and negative forces affecting everyday life. When the Bubonic Plague first appeared in Europe in the mid-14th Century, scholars at the University of Paris blamed the calamity on unusual celestial conjunctions. Peasants, by far the largest population group in Europe, looked to the Church for daily guidance and this included availing themselves of sacramentals to ward off evil, like candles or blessed water.

The celebrated “witch craze” of the 16th Century represented the height of Church reaction to the supposed onslaught of evil. One theory, which is also used to explain the 1692 Salem witch trials, posits that the vehemence of the witch hunts corresponded to the fears that satanic activity was on the rise in tandem with heretical thinking. Eliminating the servants of evil, real or imaginary, was the first step in combating other, more subtle attacks on the established order.

The ideas that came out of the Scientific Revolution and the subsequent Enlightenment period not only challenged the old cosmology, but attempted to end Church actions and responses that were deemed fanatic and intolerant. Isaac Newton, a devout Christian who wrote many works on Christianity as it pertained to the individual, believed that mathematics and reason better explained the universe than superstition.

Why the Church Rejected the New Thinking

Accepting the theories of the men of science necessitated a rejection of the fundamental core beliefs of the Church. Although none of the leaders of the Scientific Revolution or the Enlightenment rejected belief in God, their view of creation, the role of man in the universe, and their objections to supernatural intervention threatened the long established traditions of the Catholic Church that, in part, formed the basis of everyday belief and practice.

The Protestants had already deprived the Church of millions of followers and, in the process, discarded traditional beliefs. For Catholics, the year was full of “feast days,” each devoted to a saint that had performed significant miracles. St. Denis carried his severed head from the Mount of Martyrs in Paris. St. Agnes had argued with the Virgin Mary to retain possession of the baby Jesus. Charlemagne had received the foreskin of the baby Jesus from an Angel. All of these stories were at odds with both Protestant and Scientific thinkers of the 16th and 17th Centuries.

If Protestantism destroyed the spiritual safety net of Catholic tradition, the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment replaced that safety net with reason and rational explanations based on provable outcomes. For this reason Galileo was convicted by the Inquisition and silenced.

Science and Religion Still in Conflict

Even in the 21st Century, religious beliefs and science frequently clash. This is most evident in the debate over creationism and evolution. Today, however, it is the Protestant church that leads the charge against science, holding to a literal interpretation of the Bible. The challenge for future generations is reconciliation between these opposing views so that the innermost feelings of people can be wedded to both observable truth and spiritual fulfillment.

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