ROME (RNS) -- Four hundred years after he died at the stake on orders ofthe Inquisition, Giordano Bruno remains a hero to free-thinkers and aheretic to the Roman Catholic Church.
Pope John Paul II has called on the church to mark the start of thethird millennium of Christianity by acknowledging its mistakes of thepast. In 1992, he forgave Galileo for insisting, correctly, that theEarth revolves around the sun, and last year he put Jan Huss, theBohemian reformer, on the road to rehabilitation.
But for Giordano Bruno, a failed Dominican monk who became a notedphilosopher of the Renaissance, a playwright, courtier and, it isthought, a spy for Queen Elizabeth I, the church offers regret but noforgiveness.
Bruno's thinking was "incompatible with Christian thought," CardinalPaul Poupard told a Jesuit-sponsored symposium on the philosopherearlier this month.
"I don't think, therefore, that you can or should speak ofrehabilitation because, as regards the Giordano Bruno case, there are nogrounds for such a hypothetical operation as instead did happen, forexample, for Jan Huss and for Galileo," Poupard said.
But, he said, the church must regret burning Bruno at the stakebecause "the use of coercion and of violent methods is absolutelyincompatible with a sincere and authentic search for truth and with theaffirmation of the evangelic truth."
Little wonder Bruno met with a violent end. He had a genius forstirring antagonism. He was excommunicated not only by the CatholicChurch but also by the Calvinists and Lutherans and for a time thoughtof starting a new religion called, with characteristic lack of modesty,Giordanism. While teaching at Oxford he wrote a philosophical treatisein play form in which he attacked his fellow professors and accused themof knowing more about beer than about Greek.
To this day, however, Bruno's supporters hail him as a martyr tofreedom of thought, a precursor of the rationalism of Descarte, Kant andHegel and of modern relativism. There is an International Center forBruno Studies in Naples.
The statue -- a brooding figure with a monk's cowl covering his head-- was erected in 1889 over Vatican protests by the anti-clerical citycouncil that governed Rome after the forces that unified Italy deposedPope Pius IX as ruler of the papal states. A student committee raisedthe funds, and its sculptor, Ettore Ferrari, was a leading mason andleft-wing politician.
Bruno was born in 1548 in the town of Nola near Naples. At the ageof 17 he entered a Dominican monastery in Naples and at 24 was ordaineda priest, but four years later he fled to Rome to escape trial on aheresy charge.
He had removed icons from the monastery walls, leaving only acrucifix, and had discouraged novices from reading assigned texts.
From Rome, Bruno traveled to Geneva and he joined a group of ItalianCalvinists. Excommunicated five years later for insulting a leader ofthe church, he went to Toulouse where he taught philosophy and to Pariswhere he was a courtier to Henry III and published a satire of pedantryand a book on mnemonics, the so-called science of memory.
Bruno went to London in the entourage of the French ambassador;joined the court of Queen Elizabeth where her secretary of state,Francis Walsingham, reportedly recruited him to spy on EnglishCatholics; and taught at Oxford.
In his book attacking the Oxford intellectuals, titled "The Supperof Ashes," he also defended Copernicus' theory of the plants revolvingaround the sun, taking issue with Aristotle's theory of a closeduniverse.
In other writing, he rejected the Eucharist, the Trinity, theIncarnation and the existence of the soul. He contended God was theinfinite cause of an infinite, pantheistic universe.
No longer welcome in Oxford, Bruno resumed the life of a wanderingscholar, traveling to Paris, Bohemia, the court of Emperor Rudolf II inPrague, Helmstedt and Frankfort am Main in Germany, and Padua in Italy.It was at Helmstedt that he joined and then antagonized a Lutherancommunity.
An invitation in 1592 to go to Venice to teach Count GiovanniMocenigo the science of memory led to his downfall. Mocenigo in shortorder turned him over to the Inquisition on a charge of heresy.
After a nine-month trial, the Venice court sent him to Rome where hewas imprisoned and underwent another trial that lasted seven years.
Roberto Bellarmino, the Jesuit theologian who presided over thetrial,convicted Bruno with reluctance, giving him 40 days to consider abjuringhis heresy before he finally pronounced the death sentence on Feb. 9,1600.
A witness, Kasper Schoppe, reported in a letter that Bruno fell tohis knees as the sentence was read, then stood up and told the judges,"You who pronounce this sentence have more fear than I in hearing it."
Bruno was led to his death at dawn eight days later, naked andunrepentant. "When he appeared to be on the point of death he refusedthe image of the Savior with his head turned away and scorn," Schoppewrote.
Bellarmino was said to have regretted Bruno's execution for the restof his life.