ROME (RNS) -- Four hundred years after he died at the stake on orders of the Inquisition, Giordano Bruno remains a hero to free-thinkers and a heretic to the Roman Catholic Church.

Pope John Paul II has called on the church to mark the start of the third millennium of Christianity by acknowledging its mistakes of the past. In 1992, he forgave Galileo for insisting, correctly, that the Earth revolves around the sun, and last year he put Jan Huss, the Bohemian reformer, on the road to rehabilitation.

But for Giordano Bruno, a failed Dominican monk who became a noted philosopher of the Renaissance, a playwright, courtier and, it is thought, a spy for Queen Elizabeth I, the church offers regret but no forgiveness.

Bruno's thinking was "incompatible with Christian thought," Cardinal Paul Poupard told a Jesuit-sponsored symposium on the philosopher earlier this month.

"I don't think, therefore, that you can or should speak of rehabilitation because, as regards the Giordano Bruno case, there are no grounds for such a hypothetical operation as instead did happen, for example, for Jan Huss and for Galileo," Poupard said.

But, he said, the church must regret burning Bruno at the stake because "the use of coercion and of violent methods is absolutely incompatible with a sincere and authentic search for truth and with the affirmation of the evangelic truth."

Little wonder Bruno met with a violent end. He had a genius for stirring antagonism. He was excommunicated not only by the Catholic Church but also by the Calvinists and Lutherans and for a time thought of starting a new religion called, with characteristic lack of modesty, Giordanism. While teaching at Oxford he wrote a philosophical treatise in play form in which he attacked his fellow professors and accused them of knowing more about beer than about Greek.

To this day, however, Bruno's supporters hail him as a martyr to freedom of thought, a precursor of the rationalism of Descarte, Kant and Hegel and of modern relativism. There is an International Center for Bruno Studies in Naples.

Rome Mayor Francesco Rutelli and leaders of the Radical Party vied to lay wreaths Tuesday (Feb. 15) at the base of a bronze statue of Bruno in Campo de'Fiori, the market square where he was burned at the stake on Feb. 17, 1600.

The statue -- a brooding figure with a monk's cowl covering his head -- was erected in 1889 over Vatican protests by the anti-clerical city council that governed Rome after the forces that unified Italy deposed Pope Pius IX as ruler of the papal states. A student committee raised the funds, and its sculptor, Ettore Ferrari, was a leading mason and left-wing politician.

Bruno was born in 1548 in the town of Nola near Naples. At the age of 17 he entered a Dominican monastery in Naples and at 24 was ordained a priest, but four years later he fled to Rome to escape trial on a heresy charge.

He had removed icons from the monastery walls, leaving only a crucifix, and had discouraged novices from reading assigned texts.

From Rome, Bruno traveled to Geneva and he joined a group of Italian Calvinists. Excommunicated five years later for insulting a leader of the church, he went to Toulouse where he taught philosophy and to Paris where he was a courtier to Henry III and published a satire of pedantry and 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 English Catholics; and taught at Oxford.

In his book attacking the Oxford intellectuals, titled "The Supper of Ashes," he also defended Copernicus' theory of the plants revolving around the sun, taking issue with Aristotle's theory of a closed universe.

In other writing, he rejected the Eucharist, the Trinity, the Incarnation and the existence of the soul. He contended God was the infinite cause of an infinite, pantheistic universe.

No longer welcome in Oxford, Bruno resumed the life of a wandering scholar, traveling to Paris, Bohemia, the court of Emperor Rudolf II in Prague, Helmstedt and Frankfort am Main in Germany, and Padua in Italy. It was at Helmstedt that he joined and then antagonized a Lutheran community.

An invitation in 1592 to go to Venice to teach Count Giovanni Mocenigo the science of memory led to his downfall. Mocenigo in short order turned him over to the Inquisition on a charge of heresy.

After a nine-month trial, the Venice court sent him to Rome where he was imprisoned and underwent another trial that lasted seven years.

Roberto Bellarmino, the Jesuit theologian who presided over the trial, convicted Bruno with reluctance, giving him 40 days to consider abjuring his heresy before he finally pronounced the death sentence on Feb. 9, 1600.

A witness, Kasper Schoppe, reported in a letter that Bruno fell to his 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 and unrepentant. "When he appeared to be on the point of death he refused the image of the Savior with his head turned away and scorn," Schoppe wrote.

Bellarmino was said to have regretted Bruno's execution for the rest of his life.

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