Copernicus Gets a New Grave, Belated Respect From the Catholic Church

By Joseph Calamia | May 24, 2010 11:01 am

514px-Nikolaus_KopernikusOver four hundred years after his death, the man known for moving the sun to the center of the solar system made a move himself.

On Saturday, at a medieval cathedral at Frombork on Poland’s Baltic coast, the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus—whose ideas were once declared heresy by the Vatican—was reburied with full religious honors.

After a stint in city of Olsztyn, Copernicus’s remains returned to his original resting location (under the cathedral’s floor), but his grave got an upgrade. After his death in 1543 he lay for centuries in an unmarked grave, but his new plot has a black tombstone with six planets orbiting a golden sun. The ceremony concluded a several week tour of a wooden casket with the astronomer’s remains.

The ceremony included shows of respect from the Catholic Church, which eventually had to admit that Copernicus was right about the whole planets-moving-around-the-sun thing. According to The Times, a local archbishop praised Copernicus for his hard work and scientific genius, while Archbishop Jozef Kowalczyk, the Primate of Poland, said that he regretted the “excesses of zeal” that led the Church to brand Copernicus a heretic.

But Copernicus didn’t dig himself into his former grave with his treatise De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) on a heliocentric solar system; he didn’t publish it until right before his death. Relative obscurity likely resulted in the previous lack of tombstone.

Still, as The New York Times reports, Copernicus was known in other ways as a 16th century bad boy:

He was repeatedly reprimanded for keeping a mistress, which violated his vow of celibacy, and was eventually forced to give her up. He also was suspected of harboring sympathies for Lutheranism, which was spreading like wildfire in northern Europe at the time, [Jack] Repcheck said.

Scientists found what they believed to be Copernicus’s body in 2005, and confirmed in 2008 that it was his by matching DNA from bones found at the cathedral with genetic data from hair tucked into one of the astronomer’s books.

The New York Times again reports that many came to see Saturday’s reburial:

One of the world’s leading Copernicus scholars, Owen Gingerich, traveled from his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to attend the ceremony. ”I missed the first funeral back in 1543 and thought this was an occasion not to be missed.”

Related content:
Discoblog: DNA Test Solves the Mystery of Copernicus’s Remains
Cosmic Variance: Copernicus: Still Dead
Bad Astronomy: Copernicus needs to join the Boy Scouts
DISCOVER: 20 Things You Didn’t Know About… Galileo

Image: Wikimedia / Nicolaus Copernicus portrait from Town Hall in Thorn/Toruń – 1580)

  • Ridge

    “Archbishop Jozef Kowalczyk, the Primate of Poland, said that he regretted the ‘excesses of zeal’ that led the Church to brand Copernicus a heretic.”

    The Magisterium should regret why it should even exist at all as an institution. There is no logical basis why it should (even from a scriptural perspective) and why society should even regard it as an entity at all. The harm it has done to society since history invalidates all the good we could come up now why we should respect it any manner whatsoever.

  • Dave

    Science has corrected the nonsensical claims of religion countless times. How many times has religion corrected science?

  • ToneDeF

    @ Dave #2

    I believe it was Georges Lemaitrie, a catholic priest and physicist, who first corrected Einstein on his theory of a static universe with his theories on an ever expanding one originating from an initial point [the big bang]. When explained, it is reported that Einstein responded, “This is the most beautiful and satisfactory explanation of creation to which I have ever listened.”

    So the answer to your question is “at least once”.

  • Bill

    @ ToneDeF: Thank you. You took the words right out of my … um, fingers. Except you said it better than I was thinking. And let’s not forget Fr. Gregor Mendel, the founder of the modern science of genetics.

    What disturbs me (but does not surprise me) is the general assumption held by many in popular culture–and, so, the media–that the Church is anti-science. The biased reporting on the re-interment of Copernicus shows just this.

    One could write volumes on this subject–and show the Church’s appreciation and use of thought worlds that exist outside of faith–but such a discussion would assume that those who dislike the Church really want to hear a view that contradicts their own presuppositions. In being so closed minded they become the personification of the myths that they seek to impose about others.

  • echidna

    In the case of both Lamaitre and Mendel, these men were fully qualified as scientists, and did scientific work. They also held religious office. Certainly they participated in scientific discourse, but the contributions they made were not religious in nature – they were scientific.

    Science is the study of reality, grounded in evidence. Religious people are not excluded, but some (too many) fall for the trap of denying reality to make room for their religion – which is how religion gets the anti-science reputation.

  • Ian

    What is this nonsense about Copernicus getting ‘belated respect’? The Copernican theory was taught in Jesuit colleges, ‘De revolutionibus’ was dedicated to Pope Paul III and only published following encouragement from several Cardinals.

    His works were only withdrawn when Galileo proceeded to teach Copernican theory as truth in the absence of any real evidence – motion of the Earth was not totally proven until Foucault’s pendulum, and confirmation of Stellar Parallax some 200 years later. Galileo was also temperamental and hurt the Pope’s ego by putting the his words in to the mouth of ‘the dummy’ in his work ‘Dialogs’.

    Funny how Fr Roger Boscovich (note the Fr) used Copernican theory in his research and was never censured.

    Besides why didn’t you mention the flak Copernicus received from the astronomers of the day, Martin Luther and John Calvin?

    C’mon folks get it right and stop this nonsense about the Church was anti-science, or a bunch of idiots – read your history starting with Pierre Duhem, Stanley L Jaki, James Hannam and Thomas E Woods.

    And there was me thinking Discover Magazine knew how to undertake research!

  • Brian Too

    @6 Ian,

    So are you saying that the Church was an eager promoter of and participant in science from the earliest days up to and including the present? Methinks not. The Church has repeatedly come around to a new perspective only after grievous errors, damaged lives and centuries of time have elapsed.

    As for those individuals you cite as examples, I don’t know a single one of them. That’s not my ignorance either. They are minor historical figures at best.

    If you want credibility in such an argument, show how the Church stood foresquare behind Galileo, Copernicus, Newton, Brahe, Darwin and others, even in the face of fierce criticism from others (say, the relevant King or Queen of the day). Oh wait, they didn’t. You’re trying to use rare exceptions to make the case that the Church was on the side of the Angels of Knowledge, metaphorically speaking. Your argument does not fly.


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