The Church wishes to apologize: Part one

Part One: The Inquisition – Hell on Earth

Giordano_Bruno Giordano Bruno, burnt alive at the Campo di Fiora, Rome, February 17th 1600

First the case of Galileo, the well-known astronomer noted for using the telescope to systematically observe the stars and planets. By writing the book entitled Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, in effect advocating Heliocentrism– Copernicus’ theory the earth revolves around the sun– Galileo took one step too far for the Roman Catholic Inquisition.  The author was ordered to present himself to the court in 1632, but Galileo delayed, being ill and almost 70 years old. He made the trip to Rome the following year, after being threatened with bonds and forced transportation. By order of the pope, he was interrogated and threatened with torture. (Galileo Galilei 1564– 1642)

Whether this sick old man was actually tortured is a matter of controversy. As recorded in his conviction sentence, Galileo was subjected to “rigorous examination.” According to Italo Mereu, a historian of Italian law, that phrase was a technical expression of the day used ambiguously to describe torture. At any rate, Galileo was sentenced in an austere hall before the members of the Inquisition on June 22, 1633. He was found guilty of “having held and believed false doctrine, contrary to the Holy and Divine Scriptures, that the Sun . . . does not move from east to west and that the Earth moves and is not the centre of the cosmos.”

Galileo did not want to become a martyr, so he was forced to recant. After his sentence was read, the elderly scientist, kneeling and dressed as a penitent, solemnly pronounced: “I do abjure, curse, and detest the said errors and heresies [the Copernican theory] and in general all and any other error, heresy, or sect contrary to the Holy Church.”

There is a popular tradition—unconfirmed by solid evidence—that after abjuring, Galileo stamped his foot and exclaimed in protest: “And yet it does move!” The humiliation of renouncing his discoveries weighed heavily upon the scientist until his death. He had been condemned to jail, but his sentence was commuted to perpetual house arrest. As blindness descended upon him, he lived in near seclusion.

Pope Urban VIII and the theologians of the Roman Inquisition condemned the Copernican theory, falsely claiming that it was contrary to the Bible. The contradiction lay between science and an obviously incorrect interpretation of Scripture. That was how Galileo saw the matter. He wrote to a pupil: “Even though Scripture cannot err, its interpreters and expositors can, in various ways. One of these, very serious and very frequent, would be when they always want to stop at the purely literal sense.” Any serious student of the Bible would have to agree.

Galileo went further. He claimed that two books, the Bible and the book of nature, were written by the same Author and could not contradict each other. He added, though, that a person could not “with certainty assert that all interpreters speak under divine inspiration.” This implicit criticism of the church’s official interpretation, along with Papal infallibility, was likely considered a provocation, leading the Inquisition to condemn the scientist.

Referring to the Galileo case, several scholars have raised doubts about the infallibility of both the church and the pope. Catholic theologian Hans Küng writes that “numerous and indisputable” errors of “the ecclesiastical teaching office,” including “the condemnation of Galileo,” have brought the dogma of infallibility into question.

In November 1979, a year after his election, John Paul II hoped for a review of the position of Galileo, who, the pope admitted, “had to suffer a great deal . . . at the hands of men and organisms of the Church.” Thirteen years later, in 1992, a commission appointed by the same pope acknowledged: “Certain theologians, Galileo’s contemporaries, . . . failed to grasp the profound, non-literal meaning of the Scriptures when they describe the physical structure of the created universe.”

The fact is, however, that the heliocentric theory was not criticized by theologians alone. Pope Urban VIII, who played a prominent role in the case, rigidly insisted that Galileo refrain from undermining the centuries-old church teaching that the earth is the centre of the universe. That teaching came, not from the Bible, but from the Greek philosopher Aristotle.

After the modern-day commission made a laborious review of the case, the pope called the conviction of Galileo “a hasty and unfortunate decision.” Was the scientist being rehabilitated? One writer said “To speak, as some do, of Galileo’s rehabilitation is absurd, because history condemns, not Galileo, but the ecclesiastical court.” Historian Luigi Firpo tellingly said: “It is not the place of persecutors to rehabilitate their victims.”

One of the major influences upon Galileo was Giordano Bruno, who we shall next consider. Bruno was arrested on May 23, 1592, cross-examined on his philosophical works and on January 27, 1593 handed over to the Inquisition in Rome on the direct request of the Papal Nuncio, Lodovico Taverna, acting on behalf of Pope Clement VIII.

The Pope and the Heretic

The Inquisition delivered its verdict on January 20, 1600, stating: “We hereby, in these documents … pronounce sentence and declare the aforesaid Brother Giordano Bruno to be an impenitent and pertinacious heretic, and therefore to have incurred all the ecclesiastical censures and pains of the Holy Canon…. We ordain and command that thou must be delivered to the Secular Court … that thou mayest be punished with the punishment deserved, though we earnestly pray that he (the Roman Governor) will mitigate the rigour of the laws concerning the pains of thy person, that thou mayest not be in danger of death or of mutilation of thy members.

“Furthermore, we condemn, we reprobate and we prohibit all thine aforesaid and thy other books and writings as heretical and erroneous, containing many heresies and errors, and we ordain that all of them which have come or may come in future into the hands of the Holy Office shall be publicly destroyed and burned in the square of St. Peter before the steps and that they shall be placed upon the Index of Forbidden Books.”

On the Infinite Universe and Worlds

Despite the false note of concern about Bruno’s physical well-being, the Inquisition’s verdict was a death sentence. Being handed over to secular authorities for the actual killing was a formality, in the long history of the Inquisition there is not one instance of a secular court overturning the Church’s death sentences. The hypocrites even abjured the shedding of blood, hence preferred their victims were burnt alive. Bruno, however, was defiant to the end, reportedly exclaiming on hearing the sentence: “Perchance you who pronounce my sentence are in greater fear than I who receive it.”

The Inquisition and its tormentors are remembered only as crass symbols of evil. But Bruno has stood the test of time. An examination of his life reveals a true Renaissance man with a passionate interest in all aspects of human learning, who participated with great energy and determination in the intellectual turbulence of his times. His insights made an important contribution to the ideas that laid the basis for modern science. His stubborn refusal to bow to the authority, power and repressive apparatus of the Roman Catholic Church, the most powerful institution of his day, stands as a lesson for thinking people today.

Bruno once described his time as a novitiate in the Dominican convent in Naples in the form of a play, but in effect,  a withering indictment of the Church:  “You will see, in mixed confusion, snatches of cut purses, wiles of cheats, enterprises of rogues; also delicious repulsiveness, bitter sweets, foolish decisions, mistaken faith and crippled hopes, niggard charities, judges noble and serious for other men’s affairs with little truth in their own; virile women, effeminate men and voices of craft and not of mercy so that he who believes most is most fooled—and everywhere the love of gold.”

In 1992, after 12 years of deliberations, the Roman Catholic Church grudgingly admitted that Galileo Galilei had been right in supporting the theories of Copernicus. The Inquisition had forced an aged Galileo to recant his ideas under threat of torture in 1633. But no such admission has been made in the case of Bruno. His writings are still on the Vatican’s list of forbidden texts.

The Church, in the year 2000, was considering a new batch of apologies. A theological commission headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the head of the ‘Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’, the modern successor of the Inquisition, and of course, Pope Benedict XVI from 2005, completed an inquiry entitled “The Church and the Faults of the Past: Memory in the Service of Reconciliation”, which proposes making an apology for “past errors”. The results were handed to Pope John Paul II. The execution of Bruno was one of the church’s crimes being considered. A number of hard-line Catholic figures have opposed the investigation from the outset, incredibly claiming that “excessive penitence and self-questioning could undermine faith in the Church and its institutions”.

Then there is the impossible question: How many died at the hands of the Church’s Inquisitors? Are we to mean those the Catholic Church has admitted condemning to death? If so, about 5,000. However, a more realistic figure given for Europe as a whole, over the four and half centuries the Inquisition spanned, about 1,500,000. Include the Americas, the best estimate would be 9,000,000, If you include indirect deaths, disease, effects of torture and imprisonment, family privations with the loss of breadwinners, for example, the figures just grow and grow.

The current attitude of the Roman Catholic Church to Bruno is defined by a two-page entry in the latest edition of the Catholic Encyclopaedia . It describes Bruno’s “intolerance” and berates him, declaring “his attitude of mind towards religious truth was that of a rationalist”. The article describes in detail Bruno’s theological errors and his lengthy detention at the hands of the Inquisition, but fails to mention the best-known fact—that the church authorities had him burnt alive at the stake.

“He who desires to philosophise must first of all doubt all things. He must not assume a position in a debate before he has listened to the various opinions, and considered and compared the reasons for and against. He must never judge or take up a position on the evidence of what he has heard, on the opinion of the majority, the age, merits, or prestige of the speaker concerned, but he must proceed according to the persuasion of an organic doctrine which adheres to real things, and to a truth that can be understood by the light of reason.” Giordano Bruno, De triplici minimo (1591)


Thanks to: Man of Insight and Courage