FACT CHECK: Did The Vatican Burn ‘Catholic Stargazers’ For Questioning Earth’s Position In The Universe?

Elias Atienza | Senior Reporter

The New York Times claimed on Twitter and Facebook that the Holy See ostracized and burned “Catholic stargazers” for questioning Earth’s position in the universe.

Verdict: Misleading

There is no evidence multiple Catholic stargazers were burned for questioning Earth’s centrality in the universe. There is debate about whether one known cosmologist, Giordano Bruno, was burned for his views.

Fact Check:

The New York Times made the claim that the Catholic Church “muzzled and burned Roman Catholic stargazers for questioning the centrality of the Earth in the cosmos” in an article about Jesuit astronomers. Heliocentrism was developed by the Polish astronomer Nicholas Copernicus, according to Britannica.

However, this claim is misleading. It is true that the Catholic Church condemned the doctrine known as heliocentrism as “formally heretical” in 1616 after the trial of Galileo Galilei, according to Fordham University. Check Your Fact could not find any evidence that multiple Catholic astronomers were burned.

Experts contacted by Check Your Fact disagreed with the New York Times assessment that the Holy See “burned Roman Catholic stargazers for questioning the centrality of the Earth in the cosmos.”

Henry Kelly, Distinguished Research Professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles, told Check Your Fact in an email that “no one was ever burned for [believing in heliocentrism.]

“It’s accurate to say that astronomers were muzzled from 1616 onwards, when heliocentrism was declared heretical. After which it could lead to death by burning to hold that the earth moved. But it never did: no one was ever burned for it,” Kelly said.

“I know of no one burned at the stake for denying that the earth is the center of the universe,” Nelson Minnich, a professor of history at the Catholic University of America, told Check Your Fact in an email.

Wesley Viner, an associate curator at the Museum of the Bible and a PHD History of Science candidate at Princeton University, said to Check Your Fact that the claim reflects an “unfortunately common misconception about the history of Christianity and science.”

“The Catholic Church has never ‘burned’ any astronomers, nor was it broadly antagonistic toward the development of science. To the contrary, the church provided much of the financial support for the study of astronomy in medieval and early modern Europe,” Viner said.

There is debate about whether the heliocentric views of one individual, Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno, led to his death. Bruno was convicted of heresy and burned at the stake in 1600, according to Stanford University. (RELATED: Viral Post Misstates Facts About Catholic Rites For Stillborn Babies)

Most historians agree that Bruno was not burned for his views on cosmology, according to a 2018 article by University of Texas history professor Alberto Martinez. Martinez disagrees with this assessment, writing, “By analyzing all accusations, I found that the Inquisition’s strongest case against Bruno was, in fact, and contrary to the conventional wisdom, his belief in many worlds.”

“Bruno was condemned for several heresies, but the one about multiple worlds was the strongest case against him. He didn’t defend an esoteric belief in immaterial worlds. Instead, he asserted parts of our cosmology: our acentric universe has innumerable suns, surrounded by planets, even some that may resemble our inhabited Earth,” Martinez wrote.

Minnich disagreed with casting Bruno as a “martyr for science.” (RELATED: Was Pope Francis Arrested On Charges Including Human Trafficking And Fraud)

“Certainly not the case of Giordano Bruno who was executed for a variety of charges: pantheism, earth is animated by a rational soul, stars are angels, Moses did miracles by magic, Christ was a magician… Bruno is often the case cited for burning stargazers for questioning the centrality of the Earth. His statue is in Campo dei Fiori in Rome with an inscription declaring him a martyr for science [nineteenth-century anti-clerical propaganda] [sic],” Minnich said.

The New York Times article was edited to remove “burned” in the lead paragraph. The original article, published March 22, did make the claim. The Facebook and Twitter posts still have the language as of publishing time.

Check Your Fact reached out to The New York Times for comment and will update this article if a response is provided.

Elias Atienza

Senior Reporter
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