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Church paid for Copernicus’ tower

Updated: March 23, 2013 6:13AM

The Google search engine, as you know, occasionally replaces its iconic blue, red, yellow and green logo with what it calls “Doodles” — clever graphic homages to holidays, birthdays and anniversaries.

On Wednesday, Google offered up a lovely Renaissance-style rendition of our solar system, its planets revolving around the sun, to mark Nicolaus Copernicus’ 540th birthday.

I bet, among the hundreds of millions of people using Google Wednesday, I was alone in my reaction: “Damn! It snuck up on me!”

That very morning I had been reading about Copernicus on the train — for several mornings, actually — unaware his big day was approaching. While journalists love anniversaries — easy hooks to hang a story — my interest was based on a more current angle.

A number of Catholic organizations — and other religious groups, aided by officials in seven conservative states — are suing the federal government over its new health care program, which requires them to offer insurance to their employees, insurance that must cover contraception, which the religious groups say violates their moral values.

Why, they ask, should a church support something against its teachings? The government has tried to accommodate, but no go.

“The mandate still requires religious organizations to subsidize and authorize conduct that conflicts with their religious principles,” said the Texas Attorney General.

Which made me think of Copernicus, because Copernicus was a priest. That part gets overlooked — Google never mentions it in the little bio accompanying his Doodle.

Not only was Copernicus a priest (or close to a priest; it is unclear whether he was ordained), but his uncle was Bishop of Frauenburg, who clouted Copernicus into a well-paid job at the cathedral, one that gave him an income to study in Italy, build his astronomy tower and buy his instruments.

Which means the Catholic church once subsidized conduct that not only conflicted with its religious principles, but kicked at the very foundations of the faith.

We might be so removed from the old dogmas that we forget what a challenge to authority the idea of the sun being the center of the solar system was — it directly contradicts the Bible, for starters, such as in Joshua 10:12, where Joshua asks God to make the sun stand still, which doesn’t mean as much if it isn’t moving in the first place. More so, Copernicus challenged the framework of thought, which for 1900 years — since Aristotle — had placed mankind as the focal point of everything, the center of the universe.

Copernicus didn’t get the grief Galileo later did, for several reasons. He didn’t publish his great work, “De revolutionibus orbium coelestium,” until just before his death. Plus a fellow priest inserted a hedging introduction that softened the impact of his observations.

You’ll notice that few religious institutions fight against heliocentrism anymore — it’s just too shaky a position to defend. They’ve moved the battle line to positions slightly less laughable — at the moment, Creationism, the latest losing battle in a 500-year losing war.

A war the church still fights. It’s a shame it can’t just be proud of times the church advanced human thought — Copernicus wasn’t the only giant of science to belong to the clergy; Gregor Mendel was a friar when he founded genetics while tending his peas. The church has much to be proud of — it saved classical knowledge in the Middle Ages.

But what has it done lately? Just as the Republican Party is led to ruin by zealots, the church is too much controlled by those who prefer more rigid piety and fewer parishioners than the other way around. A strategy that forces it into untenable positions.

“We maintain that no citizen should be forced to pay for or provide products or services they find morally objectionable,” said the St. Louis Archdiocese, a statement of staggering myopia, blind to the fact that numerous belief systems exist, thus a recipe for unraveling government as each of us opt out of whatever we morally disapprove. Me, I’d start by ending tax breaks for churches.

You’d think supporting health care would be a no-brainer for the pious. They’d say: Look, we believe you should act this way, but we’re not going to mess up your health insurance over it. Imagine if the church had said that. If contraception is a sin, people should voluntarily choose not to use it, not be denied the option because their employer has blocked their access to health insurance.

There is a bedrock of fact underlying these debates: The earth really is 5 billion years old. It does revolve around the sun. Animals evolve. Gays form relationships that are not inferior to straight bonds. Women control their own bodies. You can set the full power of your faith against those facts, but the facts will remain unchanged. Like it or not, it is the church that changes, eventually. It even revoked its condemnation of Copernicus’ discovery — in 1822, two centuries after the fact.

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