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Copernicus re-buried: an interesting but misleading story

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | May 25, 2010

An interesting AP story is making the rounds this week, reporting that the Catholic Church has finally given due honors to Copernicus. Unfortunately the story is chock-full of statements that are severely misleading if not downright wrong.

Start with the opening sentence:
Nicolaus Copernicus, the 16th-century astronomer whose findings were condemned by the Roman Catholic Church as heretical, was reburied by Polish priests as a hero on Saturday, nearly 500 years after he was laid to rest in an unmarked grave.

That sentence implies that Copernicus was denounced as a heretic before he died, and thus deprived of a proper Christian burial. In fact he was never denounced; he died in good standing with the Church. He was buried not in a pauper's grave but in the cathedral in Frombork (a city that is now a part of the Archdiocese of Warmia, Poland). 

The heliocentric theory that Copernicus advanced was indeed controversial during his lifetime. So controversial, in fact, that Copernicus delayed for years before publishing his masterpiece, De Revolutionibus Orbium Caelestium. Yes, he delayed because he feared an adverse reaction-- not from Church leaders, but from his fellow scholars. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that Copernicus was worried about a hostile reaction from the Church. De Revolutionibus was published under the auspices of a Catholic bishop; it was dedicated to Pope Paul III.

Nor did Church leaders turn on Copernicus after his book was printed. Actually they didn't have time. Because of the author's delays, De Revolutionibus did not appear in print until the astronomer was on his deathbed.

There is a grain of truth to the notion that Church authorities were suspicious of Copernicus during his lifetime. At one point he was suspected of keeping a mistress; later he was suspected of Lutheran sympathies. But his scientific work never caused him any conflict with the Church.

Later, during the unfortunate and avoidable dispute over the works of Galileo, De Revolutionibus was placed on the Index of prohibited books. (The book was soon republished with a few sentences amended, and taken off the Index.) But the questions raised about the Copernicus book in 1616 obviously did not affect his burial in 1542.

Copernicus was buried in the Frombork cathedral, where he had held the title of canon. At the time, burial sites for such officials were not precisely marked, and in that sense it's true that he lay for almost 500 years in an "unmarked" grave. But a plaque in the cathedral testified to his burial there, and the circumstantial evidence pointing to his gravesite was sufficient to guide the search that, in 2005, pinpointed his remains.

The truth about Copernicus can be found, even in the AP story, by those readers who persist beyond the first few sentences. After the unusual ceremony honoring the great astronomer, an honor guard took the coffin and "lowered it back into the same spot where part of his skull and other bones were found in 2005." The mortal remains of Nicolaus Copernicus now lie exactly where they had lain for most of the past 500 years: in a place of honor, in a Catholic cathedral. 

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  • Posted by: polish.pinecone4371 - May. 26, 2010 6:17 PM ET USA

    Thanks for clarifying that, Phil. I thought it was wrong because there was nothing in my memory telling me that there had been any problem with Copernicus, but I had not made any special study of it and did not know. Thanks again for providing this useful bit of information.

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