Copernicus vindicated

You may not have heard of the Cathedral of Frombork on Poland's Baltic coast. But the remains that were re-buried there yesterday after a ceremony led by Poland's leading churchmen were of one of the best-known scientists in history, long associated with one of the most significant shifts in the way we view the world.

Nicolaus Copernicus, the 16th-century astronomer whose De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium ("On the revolution of the heavenly spheres") dethroned the earth from the centre of the universe and ushered in the modern scientific age, was condemned by the Church as a heretic decades after his death. He had spent years developing his heliocentric notion that the earth revolved around the sun, based on observations of the heavens he made with the naked eye (this was before the telescope).


Yesterday he was buried as a hero at a Mass celebrated by the papal nuncio in the Cathedral where once he once served as a canon and doctor. (His skull and other bones were discovered in an unmarked grave beneath the cathedral floor in 2005.) According to an AP report, "a black granite tombstone now identifies him as the founder of the heliocentric theory, but also a church canon .... The tombstone is decorated with a model of the solar system, a golden sun encircled by six of the planets."

The honors accorded by Copernicus by the Catholic Church come 18 years after Galileo -- the Italian astronomer who developed Copernicus's theory -- was rehabilitated by the Vatican.

Yesterday's Mass was led by the new Polish Primate, Jozef Kowalczyk, Archbishop of Gniezno. Wojciech Ziemba, the archbishop of the region surrounding Frombork, said the Catholic Church is proud that Copernicus left the region a legacy of "his hard work, devotion and above all of his scientific genius." The archbishop of Lublin, Jozef Zycinski, meanwhile criticized the "excesses of the self-proclaimed defenders of the Church" in condemning Copernicus's theories.

Before he died in 1543, Copernicus' ideas were neither well known nor considered dangerous: in fact, they weren't condemned by the Church until 1616, when the Church was battling the ideas of Martin Luther. Copernicus had been suspected at the time of sympathy for Lutheranism. He had also clashed with cathedral authorities over the mistress he kept, whom he was forced to give up. But his Catholic credentials are otherwise pretty impeccable -- down to his doctorate in canon law at Bologna University.

Still, in De Revolutionibus he foresaw the stir his conclusions would cause.

Perhaps there will be babblers who, although completely ignorant of mathematics, nevertheless take it upon themselves to pass judgement on mathematical questions and, badly distorting some passages of Scripture to their purpose, will dare find fault with my undertaking and censure it. I disregard them even to the extent as despising their criticism as unfounded.

It is good to know that the babblers, triumphant for a time, lose out eventually.

Austen Ivereigh


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David Nickol
10 years ago
Only the Catholic Church could pat itself on the back for "exonerating" great scientists four hundred years after they have been condemned and long, long after their work had been generally accepted by the scientific community. 
Paul Kelley
10 years ago
WOW!! Only 394 years since his condemnation. Those of us who would like to see the Church make an intelligent response to the sexual abuse crisis should not be dis couraged.
John Stehn
10 years ago
Why am I not surprised to read this defamatory account of the Copernicus affair in America?  I guess because it is part and parcel of the post-Concilliar triumphalism that flows from every pore of this magazine.  Copernicus was never condemned as a heretic by the Church.  The Protestants (heretics themselves) claimed his theory was heretical.  The Church placed his book (which was dedicated to Pope Paul III by the way, who was an admirer of Copernicus’ work) on the Index because it claimed as fact, something which was not yet proved, and because it appeared to contradict a literal reading of a passage of Scripture.  Once the certitude was removed from 6 passages in later editions, the book was taken off the Index.
The claim that the Church was hostile to the heliocentric theory of the solar system is just one example of the modern superstitions that we cling to so pathetically these days, for obvious reasons.  All the Church asked for was proof.  Seems reasonable to me.
10 years ago
This very day there are scientists who are researching the hypothesis/hypotheses that there was never a man named Jesus who was born in Bethelehem, performed miracles and was killed by the Romans. Should the Church not push back against any such confirmatory conclusions by these researchers that are held out as fact? Should the Church not demand extraordinary proof of such conclusions?

Shouldn't the level of proof required to deem something as factual for worldly purposes be lower than the level required to deem something as factual for purposes of dispelling matters of Catholic faith? Or should we accept as factual for all purposes, as the secularists and Jesuits do, that which our most esteemed scientists say is fact?

I wonder how many scientists would agree that changing bread and wine to flesh and blood is impossible?

The more I read this blog, the more I am led to believe that the Jesuits are an evil intent to destroy the Catholic Church from within.
Beth Cioffoletti
10 years ago
Regarding those esteemed scientists, I received the following bit of wisdom in an email from a friend ...
"... A liberal education was always intended to preserve the potential for playfulness by rubbing arts against science.  Now, exactly when we should fall back on judgment, intution, and understanding (percept), we nostalgically worship science without understanding it.  Science may reveal an undiscovered truth, or as often reveal an assumption to be a false positive.  In either case, the truth was there before the science."
I like that - the truth was there before the science.
Tom Maher
10 years ago
News of Copernicus' reburial and some of the unherad of facts about Copernicus' life puts the past in a fresh new light.

Lost in modern historical accounts is the fact that Copernicus, the renowed thinker who's Heliocentric theory was one of the most distinguished work of modern scientific though, was a Catholic. But further he was a highly educaterd doctor and canon of the church. This is a big surprise.

This means that the two earliest scholars, Copernicus and Galileo, who advanced science and the scientific method in a major way, were both Catholics. This redeines the role of Catholics in science. Previously the impression exists that Protestantism was the independent driving force behind all modern science. Copericus shows that Catholic science existed before Protestant existed. Scientific inquiry had a life of its own in the Catholic Europe in the 13 th century.

Scientific inquiry comes from the central role of the individual scholar regardless of their religous affliiation and is not exlusively derived from Protestantism. This is not the way that Coperinicus was taught in public school.
And Catholic scholars produced great science despite the church's backward condemnation of these new science-derived truths.
Brendan McGrath
10 years ago
Michael Brooks - You wrote, "The more I read this blog, the more I am led to believe that the Jesuits are an evil intent to destroy the Catholic Church from within."  It's funny, I've always felt the opposite - it's always seemed to me that the Jesuits are, and always have been, one of the things that (by God's grace) keeps the Church from falling down.  (Sort of like that story about the pope who had a dream of St. Francis holding up the columns of a church or something, though of course that's the Franciscans.)  I have a number of friends who have drifted to various degrees from the Church, and it's their experience of Jesuit schools that keeps them from falling away completely.  And of course for other friends, it's the Jesuits that have helped them to stay practicing Catholics. 
Even if you dislike this or that about the Jesuits, perhaps you could still see them as one of the instrumenta God uses to keep so many people tied to the Church at least to one degree or another.
10 years ago
Brendan -
What good is keeping people from drifting away if you are merely changing that which they are drifting from?  Surely the Church could get many converts if it dispensed with all personal sacrifice and gave free gifts for signing up like the banks used to do.
 But what good is there to having preserved a group if the essence of what they are members of has been  chipped away at in exchange for membership?  Ultimately, we end up with a large group of secularists or a smaller group of Christians, but the Catholicism goes away.
10 years ago
All Catholics should read:  ''How the Catholic Church built Western Civilization'' by Thomas E. Woods
In it they will find a thorough treatment of the Church's contribution to science of which Copernicus was just one of the many great ones.  Galileo was the founder of modern physics and by the way the Church was the good guys in the Galileo affair as it was not about either science or religion.  It was about politics.  There is nothing to apologize for in the history of the Church and science.
The Jesuits were also among the great scientists of the 1600-1800's.  They contributed a great deal in astronomy and other areas.
Brendan McGrath
10 years ago
Michael - I understand the objections you raise, but I don't think they apply here.  The fact that various people's experiences with the Jesuits keep them tied to the Church doesn't change the Church.  You wrote, "What good is keeping people from drifting away if you are merely changing that which they are drifting from?"  But how have the Jesuits "changed" the Church in the sense you're using the term here?  I mean, theologically, the Church in its essence CAN'T change (though of course it can develop a la Newman, etc.). 
You also wrote, "But what good is there to having preserved a group if the essence of what they are members of has been chipped away at in exchange for membership?  Ultimately, we end up with a large group of secularists or a smaller group of Christians, but the Catholicism goes away."   - Again, the essence of the Church has NOT been chipped away at; it can't be.  And as I imagine you'd agree, what the Church is transcends its membership.  You said that we'd end up with a large group of secularists - now, it would be a problem if the Jesuits were somehow TURNING Catholics INTO secularists, but I don't think that's the case.  Rather, other factors (including some in the Church, such as, say, Cardinal Law) are pulling/pushing many Catholics away from the Church/Catholicism and toward "secularism" or "spiritual but not religious" or whatever - and the Jesuits keep those people from falling away altogether.  In other words, the Jesuits aren't turning Catholics into that "large group of secularists."  Rather, Jesuits are keeping a large group of "secularists" (and that's really not the most accurate term for them; "lukewarm" might be better, or "unorthodox" if you prefer) from abandoning the Catholic Church altogether.  You might argue that they already have abandoned the Church, but I would argue that it's always better to keep them somehow "near" the Church, the Church's schools, etc. - we underestimate the power of the sacraments and of the Church's sanctifying presence if we say otherwise.
The Church is a lifeboat - it's better to be hanging over the edge of the lifeboat than having fallen completely into the shark-infested waters.
Brendan McGrath
10 years ago
On another note - can someone explain why exactly Copernicus was being reburied?  I was just watching the Rachel Maddow show, which reported on the story,  and I winced at all the things that must have been (probably somewhat unconsciousnly and unintentionally) oversimplifications, distortions, etc., the result of looking at the Church through prejudicial/stereotyping glasses (e.g., I think they used the phrase "branded as a heretic," neglected to mention that Copernicus's writing and publishing of various works came at the urging of a cardinal or something, spoke of the Church as a monolith over and against Copernicus, as opposed to a milieu in which Copernicus was embedded and in which there were priests, bishops, etc. of differing opinions).  Rachel Maddow I think said something about Copernicus having been buried in unconsecrated ground or something - is that true?  I saw nothing about that in either the original Catholic Encyclopedia or the New Catholic Encyclopedia 2nd Ed. (2003) - I also saw nothing about HIM being condemned as a heretic: yes, the work was put on the Index, and perhaps his ideas were declared heretical (though even there I'm skeptical that they would actually have been called "heretical" as opposed to rash, dangerous, whatever), but that's entirely different from Copernicus himself being declared a heretic.  Furthermore, if he were "condemned" after his death, why would he have been buried in unconsecrated ground? - unless they dug him up and put him in unconsecrated ground, and now he's being put back? 
Is it possible that something about the ceremony has been grossly misunderstood?
Molly Roach
10 years ago
Acts 5:38-39


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