Question 139:

I am deeply impressed with your homepage! Galileo Galilei has been rehabilitated. Why has Giordano Bruno not yet been rehabilitated?


Answer: Our answer is closely bound to the relevant passages in the highly regarded work “Toleranz und Gewalt. Das Christentum zwischen Bibel und Schwert“ (Tolerance and Violence. Christianity between Bible and Sword) (Münster, 2007) by the Münster-based Church historian Arnold Angenendt.

The most prominent victims of the Roman Inquisition are truly Giordano Bruno (died 1600) and Galileo Galilei (died 1642). Both gained an exceptional importance for science and the modern interpretation of the world and became precisely for that reason – because they were condemned by the Inquisition – examples of a Church opposed to progress. Giordano Bruno, a Dominican in Naples who subsequently tirelessly journeyed to France, England and Germany, represented the theology of an unlimited, infinite universe, and also the plurality of the worlds. The Roman Inquisition accused him of identifying the Holy Spirit with the soul of the world (Weltseele); denying the Holy Trinity, transubstantiation, the virginity of Mary, Jesus miracles; and particularly for asserting the infinity and plurality of the worlds… In reality his concept of the infinity of the cosmos in time and space made the Christian event of salvation placeless. On 17 January he was burned in the Roman square Campo die Fiori (cf. ebd p. 285).

Most writers who, in recent years, have studied the history of the Inquisition have concluded that the trials carried out by the Roman Inquisition were less cruel than the secular trials and sentences of the period. William Monter states that the most important distinctions were between repentant and unrepentant sinners, between accidental and deliberate sinners, between the criminal and the insane. Unlike most pre-modern tribunals, the Inquisitors relied less on torture as a means to determine the truth, but on cross examination, often with considerable psychological finesse. Although they were certainly capable of recommending the death sentence for worldly violence..., however, they mostly imposed only sentences of various lengths and intensity. In the final analysis, their concern was rather more for a culture of humiliation than force.

We follow Arnold Angenendts critical recapitulation of the Galileo and Bruno cases, as well as the entire Inquisition problematic as a phenomenon of the Catholic Church:

“In the final analysis, however, such comparisons should not and cannot deflect from the necessary fundamental criticism of the Inquisition and, least of all, should not used to make it seem better than it was. For it is precisely here that the Catholic Church shamefully removed itself from the early Christian commitment to renounce force in religious matters. Nevertheless, the comparison with secular justice is essential. The Inquisition myth requires that justice be done by understanding the entire historical context and thus it is also necessary to understand the revisionists with their surprise at new developments: the Inquisition was not the horror scenario that it was, and often still is, portrayed. However, that is not the last word: how could Christianity that wanted to be a religion of love and declared humankind to be the image of God, allow such a thing to happen, or even bring it about? The answer must be two-fold, firstly historical and then theological. Historically speaking, established Christianity managed to remain faithful at least to a shade of the New Testament commandment: “It will not be so among you” (Mt 20:26): the Inquisition was not what it is generally held to be. In reality it had a greater sense of justice and was less cruel than other forms of justice. It would be a historical prejudice not to be willing to acknowledge this. However, the theological response must be different. How could such a thing happen in a Church that wanted to commit itself to non-violence and which regarded, and still regards, itself as led by the Holy Spirit, saw itself and still sees itself as governed by the Papal office? John Paul II.s plea for forgiveness during the Holy Year 2000 does not go far enough to explain this [concerning this Papal plea see Question and Answer 41, here above as well as the Vatican II Declaration on Religious Freedom]. True, the Pope has characterised as inadequate an attempt to exonerate the Inquisition on the grounds that, compared with other tribunals of the time, it was more moderate and more correct in its work. However, is it not also the case that the historical fact of Inquisitorial executions needs to be reconciled with the papal-universal claim to leadership? (A. Angenendt, Toleranz und Gewalt, pp. 293-94.)


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