"Copernicus was surely one of the greatest lights of his time, but was he not censured and excommunicated for his admirable scientific discoveries?" So wrote nineteenth-century anti-Catholic polemicist Charles Chiniquy in his influential 1886 diatribe Fifty Years in the Church of Rome.
He wasn't—but it's a typical misconception. Nor did Pascal or even Galileo suffer the sanctions Chiniquy describes. (Galileo, whose almost unique case is certainly a black mark in church history, was not subjected to flogging and dungeon imprisonment—only house arrest.)
Cumulatively, such historical misconceptions and distortions form patterns out of almost nothing, creating an anti-Catholic canard pitting the Church against scientific inquiry and scholarship. "That's insidious. That's one of the great black legends about the Catholic Church," said Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, in a phone interview. "You wouldn't even have the universities today if it weren't for the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages."
This urban legend gets an upgrade in Dan Brown's book, Angels & Demons, the predecessor to The Da Vinci Code. "Outspoken scientists like Copernicus" were not just excommunicated, but "murdered by the church for revealing scientific truths," according to the book.
The claim is even more strongly put in the film version of Angels & Demons, reworked as a sequel rather than a prequel to the 2006 Da Vinci Code and opening in theaters this week. "The Catholic Church ordered a brutal massacre to silence them forever," declares Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), referring to Copernicus, Galileo and the rest of their fellow conspirators in Brown's version of the Illuminati, here a secret society "dedicated ...