May 23: Nicolaus Copernicus and Johannes Kepler, Astronomers, 1543

Welcome to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog! We invite you to read about this commemoration, use the collect and lessons in prayer, whether individually or in corporate worship, then tell us what you think. For more information about this project, click here.

Born in 1473, Nicolaus Copernicus first studied law and medicine before serving as a cleric under the direction of his uncle, the Bishop of Warmia (in northeastern Poland).  Copernicus first set forth his heliocentric theory of astronomy in a small work called the Commentariolus, which was not published until 1878.  His argument that the sun, rather than the earth, was the center of the universe around which the planets rotated was developed fully in his 1543 opus De Revolutionibus Orbium Caelestium.

The initial ecclesiastical reaction to his revolutionary theory was somewhat muted, but when his thought was further developed by Galileo, the religious debate was intensified, and De Revolutionibus was placed on the index of banned books. Copernicus had originally dedicated his work to the Pope, and he saw no conflict between his theory and the authority of Scripture.

Among those chiefly responsible for the solidifying of Copernicus’ theories was the German astronomer Johann Kepler. Born nearly a century after Copernicus, Kepler was first educated at Tübingen where he received instruction in Copernican theory. His first major work on Copernican astronomy was the Mysterium Cosmographicum, in which he believed he had demonstrated God’s geometric plan for the universe. Kepler saw in the relation between the sun and the rotating planets the image of God himself, and like Copernicus, he saw no conflict between his astronomical views and the account of God in the Scriptures. Kepler is chiefly known for his discovery of the laws of planetary motion, set forth variously in his later works. Though their works were each controversial in their own way, Copernicus and Kepler laid the groundwork for modern astronomy.

Kepler’s work was even influential on Isaac Newton’s theory of universal gravitation. Both men, through their life’s work, testified to the extraordinary presence of God in creation and maintained, in the face of both religious and scientific controversy, that science can lead us more deeply into an understanding of the workings of the Creator.


I.  As the heavens declare thy glory, O God, and the firmament showeth thy handiwork, we bless thy Name for the gifts of knowledge and insight thou didst bestow upon Nicolaus Copernicus and Johannes Kepler; and we pray that thou wouldst continue to advance our understanding of thy cosmos, for our good and for thy glory; through Jesus Christ, the firstborn of all creation, who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

II.  As the heavens declare your glory, O God, and the firmament shows your handiwork, we bless your Name for the gifts of knowledge and insight you bestowed upon Nicolaus Copernicus and Johannes Kepler; and we pray that you would continue to advance our understanding of your cosmos, for our good and for your glory; through Jesus Christ, the firstborn of all creation, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.


Psalm 8

Genesis 1:14–19

1 Corinthians 2:6–12

Matthew 2:1–11a

Preface of God the Father

From Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

* * *

We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

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22 thoughts on “May 23: Nicolaus Copernicus and Johannes Kepler, Astronomers, 1543

  1. This commemoration is for Trial Use. All elements (Title, Collect, Lections, and Proper Preface) are new.

  2. Title: Is 1543 the death date for both of them? Bio paragraph 3 says that Kepler was born ‘nearly a century after Copernicus.’ So probably not …

    Bio: They need ‘Who they are’ and ‘Why they are important statements.’ And they need statements regarding when they died.

    Is the inclusion of these Astronomers commensurate with the Principles of Inclusion (HWHM, page 742-744)? It seems quite a stretch to me.

  3. I think the inclusion of these two, who tried to reconcile science and religious belief, is appropriate, especially when so many of our contemporary fundamentalist brethren are so adamantly anti-science.

    Why not include Isaac Newton as well, or are his religious beliefs considered too heterodox?

    In the first line of paragraph three, “Johann” should be “Johannes.”

  4. I think the commemoration is wqorthwhile. The gospel (Matthew 2 – about the wise men ) is a satretch

  5. Like Mr. Hartney, I’d love it if someone could elucidate this inclusion a little further. If the best we can come up with is that they were scientists and we want to emphasize that, unlike a very small number of fundamentalist types, we like science too, the commemoration seems a little week. (And wouldn’t Darwin be the more relevant scientist for that anyways? I seem to remember he was also an incredibly devout Anglican man who worried that his theory would undermine people’s faith and sought his bishop’s council before publishing, but I might be wrong on that) I hope there aren’t any anti-RC overtones giving impetus to this one: “look how wrong the Catholics were during the Inquisition!” and all that….

    Readings are funny: Psalm and OT are great. Gospel makes sense enough (though if it’s judged to be too Christ-iphany-ish, the rebuke about not making inferences from astronomical patterns might work as well), but I just don’t get the NT. It seems that its about knowing and discovering things, which is all good, but then it moves into not trying to know the thoughts of others and some vague rebukes about not overvaluing knowing things about the world. I know that astronomical references are few and far between in the epistles, but this seems odd. Maybe the “Christ as Master of all things in Heaven and Earth” (Colossians I think…) would work. Of course, I could be missing something in the I Cor if anyone could enlighten me…

  6. Lots of good observations made here. I have nothing against Copernicus and Kepler, but why not Galileo, who as far as I know was a good Catholic, despite Rome’s opposition (but then, that can be said of a lot of good Catholics…!) And although I don’t think Newton was an orthodox Anglican, neither were a lot of other people in HWHM. “Astronomers, 1543” — 1543 what?

    The basic idea behind this commemoration may be good, but the execution is very poorly thought out. It looks like a first draft of a piece that needs several more drafts. Back to square one on this one.

  7. There may be a case for these guys, but the current write-up doesn’t make it. Ironically, HWHM has added this while minimizing its coverage of one of the giants on whose shoulders all later scientists (whether they know it or not) stand — Robert Grosseteste — by having him share a date with Hugh of Lincoln. Doubling them up almost guarantees that neither gets the coverage he deserves, Hugh as a defender of the Jews, and Grosseteste as scientist, theologian, translator, and political theorist.
    And if you want a second example to prove that one can be both a cutting edge scientist and a loyal churchman, how about Gerbert d’Aurillac (Sylvester II)?

  8. Copernicus and Kepler, Astronomers, 1543
    GENERAL: These men were tremendously important in the course of natural science and related understandings, methods, and scientific thinking that molded the modern mind, so I would hate to be premature or dismissive of their worthiness. Certainly, there are hints in the narrative that Christian faith was part of their respective characters, and possibly even in the view each held about their scientific contributions. Copernicus, we are told, served as a “cleric” and dedicated his work to the pope. Kepler, for his part, “believed he had demonstrated God’s geometric plan for the universe” and “saw no conflict between his astronomical views and the account of God in the Scriptures.” The narrative writer’s suggestion is, “Both men, through their life’s work, testified to the extraordinary presence of God in creation and maintained, in the face of both religious and scientific controversy, that science can lead us more deeply into an understanding of the workings of the Creator.”
    Accepting all that, uncritically at face value, do those statements demonstrate “holiness”? Lay persons are not to be expected to spend their life’s work directly engaged with church sponsored ministries (in my understanding of the Baptismal Covenant), but I do expect some indication of a lived participation within a community of faith in some way, both as “church gathered” AND “church scattered.” Their writings can be taken to justify the latter, but I don’t see the evidence of the former. Being a “cleric” is not a demonstration of holiness in and of itself (unfortunately) and having theological views about your theories is more about your epistemology, cosmology, philosophy, etc., than evidence for holiness. If there is evidence about that, it should be added to the narrative to give them credence not just as scientific personages but as practicing, believing Christians and active participants in the life of the church. (“HOLY men.”)
    Editorial trivial pursuit: (Why are we putting “in northeastern Poland” in parentheses; is it a secret?) Is there a reason for saying “cleric,” avoiding more common terms like “priest” or “deacon”? Also, the foreign words should be italicized: “Commentariolus,” “De Revolutionibus Orbium Caelestium,” and “Mysterium Cosmographicum.”
    Other nitpicking annoying points: are there no overtly descriptive words to use instead of evasive terms such as “somewhat muted” (compared to what?), “solidifying” (I don’t know how that applies to a non-liquid non-gas), and shouldn’t the preposition be “influential for (Newton’s theory), rather than “influential on” (Newton’s theory)? Too, I have a hard time comprehending that there was “scientific controversy” about whether “science can lead us more deeply into an understanding of the workings of the Creator.” (Religious controversy I can see, but did SCIENTIFIC controversy literally take place, con AND pro, on this point?)
    This sentence seems potentially tricky: “His argument that the sun, rather than the earth, was the center of the universe around which the planets rotated was developed fully in his 1543 opus De Revolutionibus Orbium Caelestium.” It would be easy to make it simpler, e.g.,: “His argument, that the planets revolved around the sun, which was the center of the universe, was developed in his 1543 opus, De Revolutionibus Orbium Caelium.” (PS – did he specify the center of the UNIVERSE, or was there yet any thought of a solar system?) (Also, a couple of the young people in my youth group don’t speak fluent Latin — could you help?)
    The following sentence throws me in two ways: “Though their works were each controversial in their own way, Copernicus and Kepler laid the groundwork for modern astronomy.” Point 1 is about the internal logic of the assertion: “though” controversial, (they) laid the groundwork. It sounds like their being controversial (or not controversial) has some bearing on being foundational (or not). Controversy is irrelevant here, or even to be expected: hardly anyone stages an intellectual revolution to keep things the same. (Fiery political speeches may be an exception.) Point 2 is less about logic, and maybe not even about grammar – it’s just my idiosyncrasy regarding agreement versus style: (i.e., “their works,” “each controversial,” “their own way.”) I’d avoid the balancing act between singular and plural by disconnecting it from the “controversy” reference, just saying: “The work of C and K laid the groundwork for modern astronomy.” (Other comments have noted that K’s year of DEATH is omitted. Besides the vague reference of “nearly a century,” so is his BIRTH.)
    READINGS: You have to be a curmudgeon to object to these sweet, sweet readings. Each one carries “special” overtones that makes each one, well, “special.” I’m not sure any can be objected to as individual selections, but as a group I hear a kiddie xylophone playing “twinkle twinkle little star” in the background. Not to be tediously analytical (was that me? did I just say that?) the Psalm is yanked out of context (which isn’t about astronomy, but election of “someone” in Israel – I suspect the king, wondering “what’s so special about ME that YHWH chose ME for this exalted distinction?”). Genesis seems to run contrary to the heliocentric core conviction, i.e., that the universe indeed DOESN’T (literally) revolve around me (“me” both as an ego and as a planet). Corinthians is the best one of the lot – at least it has something to do with the PERSONS commemorated, and their gift of wisdom (albeit a different sort of wisdom), not just more “starry starry night.” And, Matthew (beloved and familiar as the wise men unquestionably are) just brings us back to the Genesis idea that stars cater to earth. (Which has a cosmic religious dimension that shouldn’t be dismissed, but these two astronomer guys took their star stuff LITERALLY.) Any one or two of these readings might be justifiable. (Even Corinthians bends the correlation of the passage and the commemoration with the comment that “the rulers of this age” wouldn’t have crucified the Lord of glory if they’d known God’s wisdom. What wisdom is that? Probably not the heliocentric theory of the solar system!)
    As critical as I often am about wisdom passages, this seems like a time for one or two acknowledgements of the importance of learning, of study, of observing God’s world, etc. The “Star Gazer’s Almanac” approach abandons those commemorated and goes off on a tangent. That’s all I’ll overstate myself on this. But here are some excerpts from the HWHM selections (do they really mesh with Copernicus and Kepler?):
    Psalm 8: 4 When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, * the moon and the stars you have set in their courses, 5 What is man that you should be mindful of him? *the son of man that you should seek him out?
    Genesis 1: 16 God made the two great lights–the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night–and the stars. 17 God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth,
    1 Corinthians 2: 6 Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. 7 But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.
    Matthew 2:9b and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.
    PROPER PREFACE: As usual, you can hardly go wrong with a proper preface. This one works, as does my preferred choice, Epiphany:
    Preface of God the Father
    1. Of God the Father
    For you are the source of light and life, you made is in your
    image, and called us to new life in Jesus Christ our Lord.

    Because in the mystery of the Word made flesh, you have
    caused a new light to shine in our hearts, to give the
    knowledge of your glory in the face of your son Jesus Christ
    our Lord.
    The invocation and thanksgiving are great! The petition is fine, and stays focused on the two commemorated—also great! There’s no “so that” clause explicitly stated, and the implicit one
    (“for our good and for your glory”) has no specific, external, or corporate manifestation. I realize it could be defended as NOT gnostic (gnostic in the sense of merely about salvation through knowledge), but it sure looks, walks and quacks like a very limited and circumscribed gnostic ideal to me. I would be happier if knowing more about the cosmos resulted in works that reflected the richer understandings AND carried the church’s and the baptized person’s (and the local Christian community’s) mission forward. Otherwise, we can just sit in the local Reading Room beaming the glow of our spiritual knowledge at passers by.
    CONCLUDING UNSCIENTIFIC POSTSCRIPT: Far from feeling inspired by this commemoration, I felt anger. I’m not even sure why. Part of it was the way the narrative side-stepped things like HOW the “controversy” and “banning” played out in their lives and fate at the hands of the church. It (our write-up) smelled like it was an attempted soft peddling or cover-up. Another part of it had to do with the hubris and intractability of the church in matters beyond its ken (i.e., science). No sense of remorse, nor admission to any degree of shame or wrongdoing, or even hierarchical arrogance is acknowledged. Third, any time we have people commemorated in a volume entitled HOLY men, HOLY women, whose holiness is ignored it irritates me to think that perhaps we don’t know how to identify or recognize holiness – with the exception, perhaps, of stereotyped roles such as ordained positions, martyrdom, religious community life, production of things used in or by churches (hymns, books, etc.), or those voicing a moral imperative we feel is extremely important – all of which can indeed be (but are not automatically) excellent and genuinely holy. What we have trouble with is holding together the church-gathered/church-scattered holiness of the non-churchy baptized Christian who does, actually, live out the vows, and abide by the Christian faith, in circumstances not seen only in the glow of stained glass and with the strains of organ fugues in the background. How do I sense the holiness in the life of these two men? I still don’t know. That leaves me feeling angry and grumpy. Bah humbug.

    • Characteristically insightful and detailed analysis from Mr. LaVoe to which I add a quick speculative note.

      At this point in history, the term “cleric” did not mean deacon/priest/bishop but rather extended to a whole broader range of ministries known as the minor orders, including among them most famously the sub-deacon, but also the acolyte, exorcist, lector, doorkeep (or porter), etc. To be a cleric, at this point in history, was to have status as an official representative of the church — more accurately, to exercise some authority in the name of the local ordinary — even while not necessitating holy orders. I believe such clerics (at least the “higher up” ones) could, e.g., witness Christian marriages, not by virtue of any sacerdotal state, but as something more akin to being the Church’s “public notary.”

      The Anglican church did away with these minor orders at the time of the Reformation but the RC’s kept them until fairly recently (1940’s-1950’s I believe) and some traditionalist groups continue to send their seminarians through these orders as they progress to the priesthood. Some remnants of this history remain in Anglican and RC canon law to this day: e.g., one can be dismissed from the clerical state even though we believe one can never stop being an ordained priest, rather one looses authority as a representative of the bishop (qua the Church). The Orthodox, as may be expected, keep this system alive and well.

      So, though I don’t know the history, it certainly is possible (probable even) that these two astronomers were in some clerical state without being in Holy Orders.

      • To clarify a point,

        All men (and they of course were men) in Orders were in the clerical state (unless under disciplinary penalty) but not all in the clerical state were in orders.

        As history passed, the lesser clerical states became less important in the west but the sub-deacon went strong. Up until very recent times, the sign of admittance to the clerical state was first tonsure, which was (I believe) restricted to the sub-diaconate so sub-deacons were clerics but not in Orders. A particular consequence of this was that sub-deacons were expected to refrain from (re-)marriage and so tonsure was usually only given to those intending to be priested.

    • And a personal comment:

      “the stars cater to [the] earth” — what a wonderful turn of phrase. Appropriately unpacked, there’s quite an Epiphany sermon in that; I’ll have to pass it along to the preacher.

  9. I think that to be consistent, Johannes should be Johannes throughout rather than Johann when mentioned a second time. But, alas I too, am puzzled as to why these are worthy to be commemorated. I do know that Galileo was declared as a heretic by the Roman Catholic Church, but what was the faith of these two apart from the scientific proposals.

  10. In the first line of the bio, for cleric read canon: Copernicus was a canon at Frombok Cathedral from 1510. There is no evidence that he was ordained.

    1st Line, 2nd para: response to De Revolutionibus was muted because the publisher, the Lutheran Andreas Osiander had written and included an anonymous preface which said that the heliocentric theory was just a mathematical hypothesis. Kepler later fingered Osiander.

    Kepler, not Galileo “further developed” Copernicus’ theory.

    The last sentence is unsupported drivel that does not make the case for their inclusion in the calendar.

  11. Much though I admire the lives of Copernicus and Kepler, it seems a stretch to include them in HW,HM.

    If this commemoration is retained, there seems no good reason not to transfer it to May 24, the date of death of Copernicus, sharing that date with Jackson Kemper.

    The subtitle is defective, since only Copernicus died in 1543. Add “,1630” after “1543”.

    Line 1, first paragraph: add “Torun, Poland, on February 19,” after “in”.

    Add a separate paragraph after the second paragraph: “Copernicus died in Frauenburg, East Prussia (now Frombork, Poland) on May 24, 1543”

  12. Not only is there nothing about the faith of either men in the bio, as has been pointed out by more than one commenter above, but the collect does not contain a petition about the faith of the one praying or of the church as a whole, just that we would grow in our knowledge of the cosmos. This needs to be thought about a whole lot more carefully.

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