Question: I read a history that says the Church “almost executed Galileo” and did execute Copernicus for his scientific point of view. Is this true?
Answer: What you read was not history, but very likely the novel by Dan Brown, called Angels & Demons, claiming to be history. Brown is an engaging writer, but he seems to be motivated more by anti-Catholicism than by the desire to entertain, let alone inform, his readers. (See The Da Vinci Code, in the March and April AD 2004 editions of this Bulletin, and the brief review of Angels & Demons on the Net at www.lewrockwell.com/callahan/callahan130.html.)
While there might be room for differences of opinion about the way in which the Church handled the Galileo case or dealt with Copernicus’ writings, there are a goodly number of facts about which even the most antagonistic historians do not disagree. The dates, places, and circumstances of the deaths of both men are well agreed upon by everyone who has bothered to look into them. Neither Copernicus nor Galileo was executed by anyone—both men died natural deaths after living lives that were productive by any earthly standard. Both lived, as faithful Catholics, lives that were quite probably productive by heavenly standards.
While the facts about Galileo and Copernicus are relatively well known, or available to anyone interested in knowing them, novels like Brown’s are dangerous in that many adults have no memory of whatever they may have learned back in high school, regularly read very little or nothing that is factual, and, thus, will base their perception of reality around Brown’s anti-Catholicism. Brown is a very talented writer, and many will be tempted to form their historical understanding on the basis of his celebrity—much as they derive their moral values from the afternoon confrontation shows on TV, and their political values from their favorite singer and Hollywood actress.