A little over four hundred years ago, on a winter morning in Rome early in the year 1600, the Roman Catholic Church put to death a man it considered one of the greatest threats to its authority.
As the philosopher Giordano Bruno was burned alive at the stake in the Piazza di Campo dei Fiori, the Inquisitors who had persecuted him, and Pope Clement VIII who had signed his death warrant, might have exulted at their final victory over a man who had flouted their authority with astronomical heresies, and doubts about the Virgin Mary being exactly that.
In kindling his execution pyre, the Church leaders behaved as they had for centuries, killing off dissenting ideas by killing off the people who had them. But this time it was to be different, because it was the ideas of Bruno, and those like him, that would ultimately triumph. Reason and science would be victorious over dogma and superstition.
The popes of the mediaeval Catholic Church were famed as pious saints and heinous sinners. Popes led armies into battle, made and broke treaties, plotted coups, schemed conquests. They had rivals tortured and murdered, kept concubines, fathered offspring. But far above all, they were the arbiters of what was real, and what was not. If they said angels were real and witches were real, to their followers they were.
Then around four centuries years ago, the Church began a gradual decline in power against the nation states and the rising entrepreneurial class, against increasing literacy and the reason of the Enlightenment. From the seventeenth century the Church started assuming more the role of spiritual guide and ethical advisor, in its gradual transformation towards a kind of transnational agony aunt, with plenty of moral huff and puff but little if any real temporal thwack.
Nonetheless, any organisation with a billion members will still wield great influence - but compare its importance in everyday life with, say, the World Wide Web, and we see how much has changed. The carbon credit of today is the papal indulgence of the time of Luther.
The burning of Bruno occurred against the steady advancement of scientific thought counter to the traditional views of the Church. Along with Pythagorus long before him, the Polish astronomer Nicholas Copernicus contended that it was not the earth at the centre of the solar system - and so the universe - but the sun. Wisely, he saved his most contentious views for publication after his death, which might have come sooner otherwise.
The German Lutheran Johann Kepler followed with views of planetary motion that were soon to inspire Newton towards his universal laws of gravitation, while Kepler’s Catholic contemporary Galileo risked his life for decades endorsing Copernicus. He was hauled before the Inquisition and forced on pain of torture to recant things he held to be the truth. In 1633, at the age of nearly 70, Galileo was tried for heresy, after which he became blind, and died a few years later.
Giordano Bruno was born Filippo Bruno near Naples in 1548. He studied philosophy, entered the Dominican order and took the name Giordano. But when he read works by the controversial Dutchman Erasmus proscribed by the Index, the list of banned books set up by the pope in 1557, Bruno faced charges of heresy, and a trumped up one of murder.
At age 28 he left the Dominican Order and travelled to Paris, where he gained the protection of the king, Henry III. He published books of philosophy, and The Candlemaker, a comic satire on his native Naples, before going on to England where he lectured at Oxford on Copernican astronomy.
He was invited to the court of Queen Elizabeth, where his adamant heliocentrism earned him quarrels with some of the leading English scholars of the day. Bruno went further than Copernicus though, theorising about an infinite universe and the possibility of other worlds. Like Democritus long before, he advocated an atomic basis to matter, anathema to the prevailing Catholic dogma.
He also followed Erasmus in vigourously satirising superstition. His view of the Bible as simply a collection of stories and not literal truth, and the doubt he cast upon Mary’s virgin birth of Jesus, were treated as outrageous heresies by Rome. The “universal man” and humanist who coined the phrase “libertes philosophica” - the freedom to think and to question - was not to be tolerated.
Rome waited: Bruno’s time would come. It did in 1591, when homesick for Italy he accepted an invitation from a wealthy Venetian to return to his native land. For a time all went well: Bruno even ventured from Venice to Padua to lecture. His downfall came when he decided to leave Venice for Germany, but before he could his Venetian patron denounced him to the Inquisition. Bruno was arrested and extradited to Rome, where he was locked in the cells of the Sant’Uffizio or Holy Office, the Roman Inquisition.
Over the following seven years he attempted to reach a compromise with his inquisitors, and through them the Pope, Clement VIII, pointing out that his views on many matters were not in essence inimical to Catholic dogma. But the Pope demanded nothing less than a total retraction of his views. In the end, Bruno said he had nothing to retract.
None of this should suggest that he might not have dealt with his circumstances differently, and possibly to better effect. In the judgement of author Morris West, whose play The Heretic is about Bruno, he was ‘like all of us, a contradictory character: a muddled philosopher, an arrogant scholar, a boaster and a poet, scared, venal, compromising, and yet, in sum, a figure of heroic proportions.’
He was also perhaps among the greatest thinkers of his time, and now considered one of the most important figures in the history of Western thought. That Pope Clement and the Inquisition tarried so long in consigning him to the flames indicates they perhaps silently agreed with much he said, but in the end could not tolerate such freedom of thought and speech.
The words Bruno spoke when sentenced would resonate long after his death: “Perhaps you, my judges, pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I receive it.”
As he was led to the stake, he refused to recant any of his beliefs, holding his freedom dear to the end, also refusing a proffered crucifix as the fire was lit beneath his feet.
It is a perverse irony that the Christians whom Nero once so cruelly burnt alive for their beliefs, had now become so accustomed to burning other people, for their beliefs. And while the Middle Ages were definitively cruel times, and other leaders brutally treated any who opposed them, it should be remembered that in the case of the Church the burnings were ordered by the most senior followers of Jesus Christ, whose philosophy of love, compassion and forgiveness was a cornerstone of the faith they professed.
How had this happened? How had the Sermon on the Mount become the Spanish Inquisition of the mad monk Torquemada, the burning of tens of thousands of women as “witches”, and a great philosopher reduced to ashes? The answer is that the authority of the Church had become paramount, to be enforced with the stake against reason and knowledge.
The burning of Giordano Bruno was worse than barbaric: it was futile. Within a few decades, the English mathematician and physicist Isaac Newton propounded a series of laws of physics that sought to explain all physical phenomena, including the orbits of the planets around the sun.
The reverberations were felt everywhere: Newton had changed the power over knowledge. It was not just a case of humanity no longer being at the centre of the universe, but of religious dogma no longer being at the centre of knowledge, that place now held by science. The Enlightenment had arrived, and over time the Church would cede its power to bully and torture, to kill those who disagreed with its dogma. The vain bonfire of Bruno was the beginning of an end, a ghastly last hurrah.
Centuries after its victory over Catholic dogma, science now finds itself pitted against a new religious foe, a plethora of aggressively evangelical Christian fundamentalist cults. Some have tried to turn the clock back on the Enlightenment through extreme creeds such as “Creationism”. This is a literal interpretation of the biblical account of the creation of the world and humanity, placing both just a few thousand years in the past.
While some might see Creationism as quaintly redneck or just plain ignorant, it is actually a furious and sustained attack upon the scientific method, discounting not only Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, but carbon dating and fossil records - which by corollary would have to be part of some fantastic, international conspiracy, or a colossal mistake - as well as over a century of archaeology and anthropology.
Not content with promoting such absurdities as cave men riding saddled dinosaurs, the champions of Creationism agitate to have it taught in schools, alongside real science. Common sense has generally prevailed, but if by any chance they were to gain the upper hand through their Trojan Horse of the upmarket-branded “Intelligent Design”, one suspects they would move quickly to scratch the inconvenient truths of science from the syllabus, and return to mediaeval Biblical fundamentalism. Centuries after his death, Bruno’s beliefs would be imperilled again, as would Galileo’s - and this time, Newton’s. Bruno’s thought must not be allowed to fall again to cultish ignorance, to the check-shirted Chads and Elijahs who shun science and history in favour of an edited, doctored anthology of tales attributed to ancient desert tribesmen.
There are too the old recidivist Catholics, such as Pope Benedict and Cardinal Pell, recklessly casting doubt upon the effectiveness of condoms against HIV/AIDS. In doing so, they too turn their backs on science, in favour of religious dogma, risking the lives of millions. In calling AIDS a spiritual problem, they revisit pre-scientific, mediaeval thought.
Since it was first recognised in the early 1980s, AIDS has killed 27 million people, and kills another 2 million each year. Sub-Saharan Africa is the world’s AIDS graveyard. According to the UN, it remains the region most heavily affected, accounting for over two thirds of all people living with HIV, and for nearly three quarters of AIDS-related deaths in 2008. An estimated 1.9 million people were newly infected with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa in 2008 - that is, 70% of the 2.7 million infections worldwide, occurred there. More than 14 million children there have lost one or both parents to AIDS.
Yet last year the Pope, who would have been well aware of all these facts, toured sub-Saharan Africa and preached against the use of condoms to combat the disease, actively exhorting his devoted adherents against their use. His words were faithfully echoed by Cardinal Pell, much to the aggravation of health authorities. And still the missionaries go to the villages of orphaned African children, bearing a promise of eternal life, only whatever you do don’t use condoms, or you’ll end up in hell. As if those children have not already been there.
In the Sydney Morning Herald recently (7 July 2010) journalist Peter Hartcher wrote that the worst years of the AIDS epidemic could well be ahead of us. But there is no need for it to be that way - none. “We know that the spread of the disease is entirely manageable. Australia is a good example. With the right public information, the right strategy and enough funding, Australia has controlled its spread. Only 0.1 per cent of Australians carry the virus.”
What has been at the core of Australia’s campaign against HIV/AIDS? Safe sex, using condoms. The same condoms that Cardinal Pell would have us believe are ineffective, and which the Pope claims only make it worse.
To cast doubts upon the effectiveness of condoms - when it has been attested to by the UN, by government agencies, health specialists, manufacturers, not to mention the billions of people who have used them successfully - flies in the face of fact, of science, and of the scientific method itself.
I have characterised propagating such views as reckless, but the Church’s position is in fact mediaeval, self-servingly mendacious, and scandalous. Some would say it is nothing short of criminal.
Two years ago (17 May 2008) I published a piece in the Sydney Morning Herald about the systematic physical abuse suffered by Catholic schoolchildren at the hands of the clergy - of whom I was one, delivered unto the Jesuits at the age of 7. Fortunately my experience was only of daily sadistic, random, terrorising beatings with the barber’s strap and the cane, and not seduction, rape, sodomy and all the other heinous crimes that go under the ever more desentised label of “sexual abuse”.
In it I wrote: “Some people may say that it was simply the times, that in decades past children were caned in government schools too, that corporal punishment was widespread throughout the educational system. True, children were caned in government schools, but not in the name of a God of compassion, not by one of that God's priests, and not delivered with the same twisted, psychosexual ferocity.
Others might say these things happened too long ago to concern us now, that it is all very different and enlightened nowadays. In the life of the Roman Catholic Church, the world's oldest corporate entity, decades are minutes, and they have long established form with the use of torture... What guarantee do we have that they would not lash out again, given the power, and the opportunity?”
The piece was re-posted onto Richard Dawkins’ site, and some bloggers questioned whether the Church really would would ever act in the same way again, saying its barbaric days were long gone.
I truly would like to believe that to be so. But the ongoing revelations of sexual abuse by the clergy of generations of children given over its care and trust, casts great doubt upon it, demonstrating that the Church is profoundly resistant to changing its ways.
Many thousands of Catholic clergy have now been accused of sexual crimes against a vast number of children. Why? How has this happened, and been allowed to happen, and for decades at the least?
Those who have read George Orwell’s classic Nineteen Eighty-Four, with its Junior Anti-Sex League and Two Minute Hate sesions, might have little disagreement with the notion that totalitarian regimes enforce their authority over their members, and especially over their functionaries, by sexual prohibition. Authoritarian rule is enforced by the proscriptive control of human sexual desire - a need in us all which should be celebrated, but which is blocked and controlled by religions, by cult leaders, by political regimes and fascist dictators, to enforce their own power. The vow of chastity, the prohibition of marriage, and the patriarchal values and hierarchy excluding women from meaningful roles, fills precisely that function within the totalitarian concern that is the Catholic Church.
Anyone who has visited inside a men’s prison knows what happens to male sexuality when it is denied. The prison Blocks get their male inmate floozies, and they become the sexual outlet for the others. The Catholic Church has long treated the children of its followers and believers as little more than prison floozies, so that it can enforce its sexually prohibitive authority over its clergy. That is what lies at the core of this most heinous of crimes - the Macchiavellian pragmatism of the Church itself.
When confronted by the child abuse, what does it do? It denies, it smears, it buys off, it hushes up, it refuses to report its rapists to the police, but transfers them to other parishes where they do it all again. And this goes on, for decades.
At last called to account, it tries to deflect responsibility. It blames the evils of modern society. It blames child molesters who have somehow penetrated its ranks in numbers undetected. It blames homosexuals taking holy vows. It blames every one and every thing except itself. It refuses to recognise its own conscious complicity in these crimes, because to do so would require it to act, to end celibacy, end the patriarchal misogyny - and the tragic truth is that it is far more concerned about the loss of its authority, prestige, power and money, than about the systematic rape of children entrusted to it.
Thus, statements such as the Pope’s and Cardinal Pell’s on HIV/AIDS can only feed the deep suspicion that the Church has no intention of changing, but is actually intent on business as usual, conducted behind the hocus-pocus, smoke and mirrors, Wizard of Oz curtain that is the clutch of superstitions known as its dogma. In the Doublethink of Nineteen-Eighty Four, two plus two equals five. In the Doublethink of Church ideology, God is one and God is three and God is one. And virgin can be a mother. Be so bold as to ask how, and in a cash-registering twinkle of an eye, they’ll tell you it’s a mystery.
Today we celebrate the brilliance and the courage of Giordano Bruno, a man who died more than four centuries ago. And today the once almighty Catholic Church is in utter disrepute around the world - no matter how it phrases it apologies, and tries to reassure with promises of change.
It knew what was going on. It did nothing. In essence, its popes and cardinals and bishops didn’t think it was a problem, except in terms of public relations. What the Church still fails to recognise is that it cannot be trusted, because its men cannot be trusted not to rape children given into its care. Who in their right mind would let their child go on a camping trip in the company of a Catholic priest now, or even to buy an ice cream? It is not a matter of an apology, but of credibility, of trust, belief and faith. And what is a religion without faith?
Given the mediaeval attitudes of the Church on AIDS, on celibacy, on women, one can only wonder if it still possessed the legions that Stalin sneered it no longer had, whether it would persecute those who disagreed with it - such as, for argument’s sake, a modern Bruno, for the heresy of handing out condoms and AIDS prevention pamphlets in a street outside a church or Catholic school, in Africa or South America? And one can only suspect that it would burn him again, and keep on burning him, in the absurd and foolish belief that truth and knowledge can somehow be burnt.
But knowledge will prevail. Like evolution itself, the path of knowledge is not straight, but branching, and only ever extends itself through risk and self-sacrifice, in the lives of those such as the philosopher Giordano Bruno, whose statue now towers over the square of Rome where the Catholic Church murdered him, four centuries ago.
Talk delivered at the Philosophers Corner meeting at Ariel Bookshop, Paddington, Sydney, on 8 July 2010, and to the Western Sydney Freethinkers meeting at the Penrith School of Arts, 18 July 2010.
The original version was aired on Ockham's Razor, ABC Radio National, on 6 September 2009.