This week brings news that Nicolaus Copernicus, the 16th-century astronomer who was buried in an unmarked grave nearly 500 years ago, was rehabilitated by the Roman Catholic Church this weekend as his remains were reburied with honors:
The ceremonial reburial of Copernicus in a tomb in the medieval cathedral at Frombork on Poland’s Baltic coast is seen as a final sign of the Church’s repentance for its treatment of the scientist over his theory that the Earth revolves around the Sun, declared heretical by the Vatican in 1616.
Copernicus, who lived from 1473 to 1543, died little-known at the age of 70 and was buried in an unmarked grave beneath the floor of the cathedral at Frombork. DNA tests five years ago identified his bones and skull by comparing them with hair found in his books kept at the University of Uppsala in Sweden.
On Saturday the remains were blessed with holy water and ceremonially reburied in the main body of the cathedral under a black granite tombstone describing him as the creator of heliocentrism and decorated with a golden sun encircled by six planets.
Tom Roberts (National Catholic Reporter) can’t resist taking a jab at the Catholic Church for their tardiness:
It’s taken me a few days to catch up with the news that the Catholic Church has seen fit to give proper burial to Copernicus. But what the heck, it took the church 500 years to get it right, so what’s a few days?
Reading the article to which Roberts, linked, however, I couldn’t help but notice the wee note:
Copernicus was not persecuted in his lifetime for his heliocentric views, which only came later to be seen as a danger to the faith.
Further clarification on Copernicus’ relationship with the Church from Catholic Answers This Rock (January 1991):
In a minor astronomical work, Commentariolus, not printed during his lifetime, he first proposed a heliocentric theory of cosmology, placing the sun at the center of the solar system. This led many of his friends to request that he publish his findings. Among these were Cardinal Schonberg of the Roman Curia, Bishop Giese of Culm, and the future Pope Paul III. Schonberg insisted that Copernicus publish his material in the interest of science.
A young Lutheran scholar, Rheticus, left his chair of mathematics at Wittenberg (where, in 1517, Martin Luther had posted his 95 theses on a church door) to work with Copernicus in Poland and to prepare the scientist’s manuscripts for publication–an early example of ecumenical cooperation. A summary of Copernicus’s findings was released, and it met with tremendous hostility from Protestant theologians; there was no such general hostility from Catholics. Rheticus was barred from returning to his post at Wittenberg.
At the insistence of Clement VII the material was expanded into the great work of Copernicus’ career, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres), which officially proposed a sun-centered theory to the world. The printed book, dedicated to Clement’s successor, Paul III, reached Copernicus just hours before his death on May 24, 1543.
In 1616, when the Galileo affair was underway, a handful of clerics managed to put De Revolutionibus on the Index of Prohibited Books; no one could read it until certain passages were corrected. Fewer than ten sentences, characterizing the heliocentric theory as fact rather than hypothesis, had to be changed. In 1758 the book was removed, belatedly, from the Index.
See also The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
Among Catholics, Christoph Clavius (1537-1612) was the leading astronomer in the sixteenth century. A Jesuit himself, he incorporated astronomy into the Jesuit curriculum and was the principal scholar behind the creation of the Gregorian calendar. Like the Wittenberg astronomers, Clavius adopted Copernican mathematical models when he felt them superior, but he believed that Ptolemy’s cosmology — both his ordering of the planets and his use of the equant — was correct.
Pope Clement VII (r. 1523-1534) had reacted favorably to a talk about Copernicus’s theories, rewarding the speaker with a rare manuscript. There is no indication of how Pope Paul III, to whom On the Revolutions was dedicated reacted; however, a trusted advisor, Bartolomeo Spina of Pisa (1474-1546) intended to condemn it but fell ill and died before his plan was carried out. Thus, in 1600 there was no official Catholic position on the Copernican system, and it was certainly not a heresy. When Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) was burned at the stake as a heretic, it had nothing to do with his writings in support of Copernican cosmology.