Epitome of Copernican Astronomy (1618-21)

Original citation: Epitome Astronomiae Copernicanae, usitata forma quaestionum et responsionum conscripta. Linz [Austria]: Johann Planck, 1618-21 [published in three parts].  

Condemned: May 10, 1619. 

Removed from Index: 1822.  

§2: Books including any heresy or schism attempting to destroy religious orthodoxy;

§7: Books engaged in any kind of superstition, fortune-telling, magic, spirit-conjuring, or other similar occult topics.

…there are many wicked folk who despise the arts, and maliciously interpret everything their own dull minds cannot grasp. They fasten harmful laws onto the human race; and many, condemned by those laws, have been swallowed by the [abyss]…

In Greek, the word for planet (πλανήτης — transliterated as planítis or planetes) ultimately traces its meaning to “wanderer” or “wandering.” The planets in our solar system were at first (and understandably) misunderstood by the Greeks as one and the same as stars. The wandering nature of these glowing celestial bodies had also been conceived and explained over the millenia by ancient astronomers from a plethora of civilizations throughout the world; their positions in the night sky were established as both regular and cyclical. This work was, of course, done almost exclusively with the naked eye. This legacy of skygazers includes the second-century AD, Greco-Egyptian Claudius Ptolemy (and his predecessor Hipparchus); the Polish astronomer Copernicus (1473-1543); official mathematician, astronomer, and astrologer to the ruling Hapsburg family of the Holy Roman Empire, Tycho Brahe (1546-1601); and his German pupil and successor, one Johannes Kepler. 

Kepler was something of a wanderer himself. This was manifest in both his traumatic migrations throughout east-central Europe as well as in his massive contributions to an eclectic range of fields, including mathematics, physics, astrophysics, astronomy, philosophy, and even science fiction. “Kepler,” writes scholar Maria Papova, “knew what we habitually forget — that the locus of possibility expands when the unimaginable is imagined and then made real through systematic effort.” A contemporary and correspondent of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), Kepler was that rare combination of poetic dreamer and meticulous scientist. As a result, he succeeded in bridging the gap of cosmic understanding between his revolutionary (no pun intended) predecessor, Nicolaus Copernicus, and his prolific successor, Sir Isaac Newton. 

Though he published several other books, Kepler’s 1618-1621 three-volume text, Epitome Astronomiae Copernicanae — usually translated into English as Epitome of Copernicus’ or Copernican Astronomy — was the one singled out for inclusion on the Index. This sole citation was not by mere happenstance, but rather inherently linked to its association with the texts of Copernicus and Galileo. The first half — and especially the first quarter — of the seventeenth century constituted a period of particularly extreme reckoning for Church dogma vis-à-vis the rapidly changing scientific conception of the Earth, its nature and dynamics within the solar system, and furthermore those of the greater cosmos. Galileo’s saga of ecclesiastical persecution, censure, and house arrest was a result of his building upon Copernicus’s 1543 bombshell. But the latter was not condemned right away; Copernican heliocentrism was not deemed incompatible with Catholic dogma, at least in the immediate years after its publication. However, as an American Jesuit priest wrote as recently as 1940, “Had [Galileo] advocated [Copernicanism] as such with due respect for the time-honored interpretation of the Book of Books, had he not used bold, sometimes bitter and defying language, no steps would have been taken against him, who until then had been a favorite of the pope and of many dignitaries” (emphasis added). If only. As we have seen, Galileo’s Dialogo remained on the Index from its condemnation in 1634 until the almost mind-bogglingly late date of 1822. 

So too was Johannes Kepler included in the Vatican’s dragnet for thorough, published support of Copernicus. In addition to his previous and continued wranglings with representatives of his own denomination, Lutheranism, Kepler’s listing on the Index was decreed by the Vatican on May 10, 1619, before the second and third volumes of the condemned Epitome could be published. And along with those highly influential works of Galileo and Copernicus, so too was 1822 the year of the Epitome’s highly belated removal. 

The massive threat of works by brilliant thinkers such as Kepler, Galileo, and Copernicus lay, of course, in that they were more rigorously scientific and well documented than most others that had preceded them. That meant that their methods and findings could much more reliably be reproduced by any other person so inclined to make the attempt, per the dictum of the modern scientific method. Kepler and Galileo — contemporaries, recall — also each had at his disposal a powerful tool with which to bolster the discoveries of Copernicus. For Galileo, this tool was his re-designed and enhanced telescope, many times stronger than any other yet invented. Kepler’s secret weapon was the massive trove of astronomical data bestowed upon him by his teacher and mentor, Tycho Brahe, and then later published as the Rudolphine Tables.  

Originally from Denmark, Tycho Brahe (born Tyge Ottesen Brahe in 1546, three years after the publication of Copernicus’ magnum opus) was both a giant of tireless astronomical computational analysis while simultaneously rather cautious in his support for the new and still wildly controversial Copernican model. As such, he proposed his own system, now known as Tychonic, which hedged between the Copernican and the Ptolemaic. 

As both a nobleman and the imperial mathematician to the Hapsburg Emperor Rudolph II at the observatory in Prague, Brahe’s compromise, in a Europe riven by politico-religious strife, is understandable. But upon his death in 1601, Brahe’s assistant and student since the previous year, Johannes Kepler, would go on to stand on his master’s and Copernicus’ shoulders, as it were, to advance human understanding of planetary sizes and distances, orbital mechanics, and beyond. 

The Epitome, far from provocative or scurrilous in its style, is presented as a thoughtful dialogue. A stand-in for the reader asks Kepler straightforward questions and follow-up requests for clarification about his observations and propositions in a gradual, logical sequence: E.g., “What do you judge to be the lay-out of the principal parts of the world?” Charles Glenn Wallis, a twentieth-century translator of Kepler’s Latin into English, notes that the book is “remarkable for the prominence given to ‘physical astronomy’ and for the extension to the Jovian system of the laws recently discovered to regulate planetary motion.” Book I introduces general principles of astronomy; Book II the concept and properties of a sphere; III “the Doctrine of the First Movement — called the Doctrine on the Sphere.” These first three books were all published as one volume in 1618 and, as noted, triggered the full, three-volume text’s blacklisting the following year, despite the final two volumes’ pending publications. Books IV (Volume Two; 1619) and V (Volume Three; 1620) comprise the modern English translation referenced herein and deal with, respectively, the more nuanced principles of the solar system and elliptical (i.e., not circular as previously surmised) orbits of the planets and their moons. This principle of elliptical orbits (Kepler’s First Law) comprises one of the astronomer’s monumental contributions to astrophysics. All three of his laws of planetary motion were essential to Sir Isaac Newton’s (b. 1642) later development of the theory of universal gravitation, the one so popularly — if apocryphally — memorialized by a falling apple hitting him on the head. 

Thanks to Kepler’s copious correspondence and other documentation, we have a good sense as to what he thought of challenging the shared Ptolemaic conservatism of both the Catholic and Protestant authorities in Germany. As Lear notes, “Though not easily intimidated, Kepler did have a deep fear of censorship, which was to come to the surface when the first part of his Epitome of Copernican Astronomy was placed on the Roman Catholic Index…in 1619. His reaction then was to…imagine pending demands that he renounce astronomy as a career in spite of his eminent position.” Though he was to spend the final decade of his life (1620-30) both actively experimenting and writing, much time and attention was also focused on exonerating his mother Katharina from accusations of witchcraft (a dramatic saga in its own right) as well as resolving various debts the imperial treasury owed him since his benefactor Rudolph II was deposed by his brother Matthias in 1611. In addition to these more legal misfortunes, Kepler suffered from several chronic illnesses likely originating from childhood smallpox; witnessed the death of his son, followed quickly by that of his first wife; and in general had the general misfortune of many thoughtful intellectuals: he was often misunderstood and taken advantage of and by others. In late 1630, Johannes Kepler fell sick while traveling and died at the age of fifty-eight; he had been en route to the city of Ravensburg to resolve his outstanding fiscal predicaments with the Imperial Diet. Kepler’s work would live on to this day, however, and his place among the giants in the firmament of scientific discovery is eternally secured. Aptly, a NASA space-telescope project, the Kepler Mission, has discovered more than 2,600 planets outside of our solar system between 2009 and 2018.

When Brazil Censored the Church

As you have probably heard by now, Brazil elected a new president on Sunday, Jair Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro is a far-right populist, often compared to Donald Trump but in reality probably closer in his platform to the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte.

You might be shocked to learn that Brazil even has such borderline fascistic elements given the prominent Brazilian stereotypes among non-Brazilians. These might include things like futebol, tropical sun, caipirinhas, Carnaval, samba, and a general sense of multi-racial diversity and harmony. While all of these may certainly be parts of what makes Brazil Brazil, they are also stereotypes that only scratch the surface of a vast nation-state of almost 210 million people.

What’s less understood among foreigners or non-experts is how complex the politics and demographic make-up of Brazil are. One case in point is that up until quite recently, Brazil was ruled by a military dictatorship. This took place from 1964 until 1985, after which a transitional period followed for three years until 1988, when a new, fully democratic federal constitution was ratified. The twenty-one-year era of dictatorship was defined by a high level of suppression of free speech; harassment of intellectuals, artists, and dissidents; and torture. Even the Catholic Church, and especially its more progressive, pro-poor and -labor wing, was not immune to the regime.

Notably, this was also one of the few times in history when the Catholic Church deferred to a government in a predominantly Catholic nation, its role reversed from censor to censored. In the case of the military dictatorship in Brazil, a government official was tasked with reviewing O São Paulo, the most influential Catholic newspaper in the country at that time. In 1975, in the mainline Protestant magazine Christian Century, James Bruce reported,

Every Thursday afternoon, before presses can roll to produce the archdiocesan newspaper of Latin America’s largest city, a delegate from federal police headquarters in São Paulo arrives at the printer’s office and begins reading proofs. Using a felt tip pen and rubber stamp, “VETADO,” [vetoed] he gleans the grayish columns for offensive items before returning the proofs to an editor, who fills the censored gaps with overset and sends the sterilized weekly to the presses. (940)

Although O São Paulo was, at the time, the Catholic Church’s only externally censored publication, it speaks to the shifting dynamics between church and state that occurred during the twentieth century. Even in a predominantly devout Catholic nation such as Brazil, the status quo lay with the generals at the top.

Whether any similar practices of censorship will re-emerge under President-elect Jair Bolsonaro’s administration are yet to be seen. But due to the incendiary rhetoric and hardline “law-and-order” policies espoused during his campaign, rights-watch organizations in Brazil and around the world are undoubtedly on high alert.

Bruce, J. (1975). “Brazil: Muzzling the Outspoken Church.” Christian Century, 92 (34), 940-942.


That Damned Priest: Joseph McCabe and the Index

Joseph McCabe in 1910

Meet Joseph Martin McCabe (1867-1955), a mostly forgotten giant of Rationalism and scholarly criticism of the Catholic Church and its policies (among many other topics). The majority of his copious output was published during the 1920s and ’30s by the Haldeman-Julius Company of Girard, Kansas.

In a previous life, McCabe had been a Catholic monk. At the age of 29, however, the once pious and obedient man of God started on the path to becoming a crusader for reason and humanism. He dedicated the remainder of his life to understanding why humans are the way we are through the prism of our recorded history.

Fighter for Freethought

The arc of Joseph McCabe’s life was remarkable. In the biography Joseph McCabe: Fighter for Freethought, author and fellow Rationalist Isaac Goldberg introduces the man thus:

The life-story of McCabe begins with a fight for freedom; it continues as a campaign to keep life free. Ever since that fateful Ash Wednesday of 1896, when he tore off the brown robe and flung aside the sandals that he had worn for 12 years, abandoning the life of a monk and his title as ‘The Very Reverend Father Antony,’ he has dedicated himself to the service of human liberation. (1936: Ch. II)

McCabe’s life, then, is one of two diametrically opposed eras: before and after his departure from the Church. Once he renounced the priesthood and Christianity/theism in general, he dedicated the entirety of the rest of his life to revealing hypocrisy not only in the Catholic Church, but in any and all entrenched or otherwise sacrosanct institutions. But even more than that, his liberation and affiliation with Haldeman-Julius allowed him to study and explicate scores of subjects, from the history of the popes to the theory of evolution.

The Stupidity of the Index

When first researching the Index as a graduate student at the University of Illinois, I sought out materials on my topic wherever I could find them. One search led me directly to the Rare Book and Manuscript Library (RBML), where a particularly rare text was to be found: Joseph McCabe’s The History and Meaning of the Catholic Index of Forbidden Books (1931).

I ended up quoting the following passage in the resulting research paper (also cited elsewhere on this site):

I do not mean that the Index has made no progress since the days when the Popes and cardinals and monks were so rudely disturbed in their prayers and amours by the Lutheran earthquake…The legendary wizard Merlin is no longer represented as an author from whose books we need to be protected by a sage authority. (1931: 5, “Introduction: The Stupidity of the Index”)

This short book achieves the impressive feat of being both academically scathing and, at regular intervals, pretty funny. It was also the first text I found from before 1966 (the year the Index was abolished) that seemed wholly free from fear or bias.

McCabe employs the dry wit of a northern Englishman (he was of half Irish descent and grew up in Manchester) to eviscerate any apologists’ claims that the Vatican was justified in its fervent suppression of intellectual freedom. “[A]ny attempt to defend the Index in our time on the pretext that the Church is still protecting souls from eternal damnation,” he writes, “…ought at once…be denounced as a moral and intellectual outrage” (11). He argues that the ultimate reasons behind the Index, its legislation, and Congregation were plain and simple: to stanch the flow of any literate or semi-literate Catholic faithful into apostasy, or worse: Protestantism. In this sense, the Index as a subset of the Inquisition is made clear.

What’s most powerful herein is McCabe’s detailing of the effects that the Index/Inquisition had on literature and the culture in general in the Catholic countries of Europe, and in Spain (and Portugal) in particular. “There is no need to speak of literature in Spain,” he explains. “After the seventeenth century there were ‘two centuries of comparative silence’…” (40). Publishing houses and booksellers in other countries, such as Belgium, he relates, were subject to constant raids and searches by agents of their local dioceses.

The End of an Era

On the last page of his short yet dense treatise, McCabe made a prediction, perhaps uncanny, but to him self-evident:

The only real interest of the Index is that it reminds the world of the heavy and paralyzing tyranny which Rome laid upon thought in half of Europe for three centuries, in the sole interest of the Church, over the mind of their followers today… It will be abolished in the course of the present century, as the Inquisition was abolished in the last century. (107)


It would only take another thirty-five years for this to come true. In the meantime, none of McCabe’s many works ever found its way onto the Index. I am fairly certain that, at least on some level, this came as somewhat of a disappointment to the man.

Scarlet and Black (1831)

Source: Gallica (Bibliothèque nationale de France).

STENDHAL (Henri Beyle), Scarlet and Black: A Chronicle of the Nineteenth century. Translated by Margaret R.B. Shaw. Middlesex, UK: Penguin Books, 1983; 1953.  

Original citation: Le Rouge et le noir. Paris:  A. Levasseur, 1831.

Condemned: June 20, 1864 to 1900.

§3: Books that attempt to attack religion or good morals.

§9: Books which professedly discuss, describe, or teach impure and obscene topics.

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The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831)

Source: Gallica (Bibliothèque nationale de France).

HUGO, Victor, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Translated by Walter Cobb. New York: Signet Classics/Chamberlain Bros., 2005.

Original citation: Notre-Dame de Paris. Paris: Charles Gosselin, 1831.

Condemned: July 28, 1834.

§3: Books that attempt to attack religion or good morals;

§6: Books that scorn or ridicule the Church or Catholic dogma in any way;

§7: Books engaged in any kind of superstition, fortune-telling, magic, spirit-conjuring, or other similar occult topics;

§9: Books which professedly discuss, describe, or teach impure and obscene topics.

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Madame Bovary (1857)

Source: HathiTrust (digitized by Internet Archive; original from Duke University)

FLAUBERT, Gustave, Madame Bovary. Translated by Francis Steegmuller. New York: Random House, 1957; 1950.

Original citation: Madame Bovary, moeurs de province. Paris: Michel Lévy, 1857.

Condemned: June 20, 1864.

§3: Books that attempt to attack religion or good morals;

§6: Books that scorn or ridicule the Church or Catholic dogma in any way;

§8: Books which declare duels, suicide, or divorce as licit, or that deal with Freemasonry;

§9: Books which professedly discuss, describe, or teach impure and obscene topics.

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OPERA OMNIA (All Works, 1600)

Source: HathiTrust (digitized by and original from the Getty Research Institute; see link below).

BRUNO, Giordano (1548-1600), Iordanvs Brvnvs nolanvs De vmbris idearvm : implicantibus artem quaerendi, inueniendi, iudicandi, ordinandi, & applicandi : ad internam scripturam, & non vulgares per memoriam operationes explicatis. Parisiis [Paris]: Apud Aegidium Gorbinum, sub insigne Spei, è regione gymnasij Cameracensis, 1582.

Original citation: Opera omnia (all works).

Condemned: February 8, 1600.

§2: Books including any heresy or schism attempting to destroy religious orthodoxy;

§3: Books that attempt to attack religion or good morals;

§6: Books that scorn or ridicule the Church or Catholic dogma in any way;

§7: Books engaged in any kind of superstition, fortune-telling, magic, spirit-conjuring, or other similar occult topics;

§9: Books which professedly discuss, describe, or teach impure and obscene topics.

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Dellon’s Account of the Inquisition at Goa (1687)

Source: Gallica (Bibliothèque nationale de France).
DELLON, Charles (Gabriel), Dellon’s Account of the Inquisition at Goa. Hull: Printed by Joseph Simmons for I. Wilson, 1812.

Original citation: Relation de l’Inquisition de Goa. Leiden: Daniel Van Gaasbeeck, 1687. (Also available for print-on-demand purchase via the Bavarian State Library.)

Condemned: April 24, 1690.

§6: Books that scorn or ridicule the Church or Catholic dogma in any way;

§8: Books which declare duels, suicide, or divorce as licit, or that deal with Freemasonry.

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Candide, Or Optimism (1759)

Source: Gallica (Bibliothèque nationale de France).

VOLTAIRE (François-Marie Arouet), Candide and Other Stories. Translated by Roger Pearson. Oxford and New York: The World’s Classics (Oxford University Press), 1990.

Original citation: Candide, ou l’Optimisme. Traduit de l’allemand de Mr le docteur Ralph. [Cramer: Geneva, Switzerland], 1759; first condemned in Italian: Candido, o l’Ottimismo del signor Dottor Ralph tradotto in italiano. [Geneva], 1759.

Condemned: May 24, 1762.

§2: Books including any heresy or schism attempting to destroy religious orthodoxy;

§3: Books that attempt to attack religion or good morals;

§6: Books that scorn or ridicule the Church or Catholic dogma in any way;

§9: Books which professedly discuss, describe, or teach impure and obscene topics.

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A Narrative of Iniquities and Barbarities Practiced at Rome in the Nineteenth Century (1844)

CIOCCI, Raffaele, A Narrative of Iniquities and Barbarities Practiced at Rome in the Nineteenth Century. London: J. Nisbet, 1844.

Original citation: L’Inquisition à Rome en 1841, ou iniquités et cruautés exercées à Rome sur la personne de Raphael Ciocci. Paris: Paulin, 1844.

Condemned: August 8, 1845.

§2: Books including any heresy or schism attempting to destroy religious orthodoxy;

§6: Books that scorn or ridicule the Church or Catholic dogma in any way.

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