February 21, 2000
volume 11, no. 36
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Letter of Cardinal Sodano on Philosopher Condemned To Stake

    VATICAN CITY, FEB 18 (ZENIT).- The Church expresses "profound sorrow" for the condemnation to death of Giordano Bruno, the philosopher burnt at the stake exactly 400 years ago. Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican Secretary of State, wrote a letter to this effect, which he sent yesterday to the participants in a congress on this Italian thinker, being held in the Faculty of Theology of Southern Italy in Naples.

    It was "an atrocious death,... a sad episode in modern Christian history," the Cardinal wrote. It reflects the incoherence that at times has marked the behavior of Christians over the centuries, "casting a shadow over the announcement of the Gospel."

    Because of this, and on the occasion of the Jubilee, the Pope appeals to all "to make a courageous and humble act of acknowledgment of one's own faults and of those of (persons) who are and are called Christians." Giordano Bruno's case reminds us that "truth only imposes itself with the force of truth itself." Cardinal Sodano continued by explaining that truth "must be witnessed with absolute respect for the conscience and dignity of every person."

    Cardinal Sodano called on his readers to overcome "the temptation to arguments," instead analyzing this event with "an open spirit to the full historical truth." Indeed, it is impossible to understand what occurred if one disregards the historical context and the mentality of society in the 1600s. The Tribunal of the Inquisition, the Secretary of State emphasized, prosecuted Bruno "with the methods of coercion that were common at the time, giving a verdict that was in conformity with the law of the period." One must hope that "the thinker's judges were inspired by the desire to serve truth and promote the common good, doing all that was possible to save his life."

    The document does not attempt to rehabilitate Giordano Bruno's ideas, which were "incompatible with Christian doctrine." But, "in this case as in similar ones" it is important to recognize the errors "to give direction to a Christian conscience that is more attentive to fidelity to Christ in the future."

The Bruno Case

    Giordano Bruno was born in Nola, near Naples, at the foot of Mt. Vesuvius, in 1548. Christianity was in the throes of an overwhelming crisis. The Church was split in just a few years. Luther, Calvin, and Henry VIII took whole nations away from Rome. Religious wars broke out. The Catholic Church responded to the Protestant Reformation with the Council of Trent, which fostered profound spiritual renewal, but at the same time gave birth to a defensive mentality in order to safeguard unity.

    Bruno was born at this time, a time in which the pluralism of ideas was often synonymous with war between peoples. Bruno was an intelligent youth, ardent to learn. From the beginning his life was marked by loneliness. He lost his parents when he was very young. He entered the Dominican convent in Naples at age 17. Already the following year, plagued by doubts about the Trinity and the Incarnation, he fled from the suspicion of heresy.

    He began to wander through Europe. He went to the north of Italy, to Switzerland, France, England and Germany. Wherever he went he was initially admired, but eventually ridiculed, hated, and expelled. A very cultured man, of extraordinary memory and fascinating ingenuity, he broke all the fixed ideas of the time. He belonged to no school in particular. He rejected all principles of authority.

    Genial and irreverent, he considered monks to be "holy idiots." For him, religions were no more than a conglomeration of useful superstitions to keep ignorant peoples under control. He regarded Jesus as a kind of magician, and the Eucharist as a blasphemy. He believed in re-incarnation and saw the beating of a universal soul in everything. He was virtually a pantheist: God was confused with Nature. Bruno left Christianity. Before being excommunicated by Catholics, he was excommunicated by both Calvinists and Lutherans.

A Bundle of Contradictions

    Bruno is a brilliant figure, but also contradictory. In a certain sense, he anticipated modern thought based solely on reason, but at the same time he looked to the past and dedicated himself to magic, removing himself from Galileo's experimental science. He seemed to be the herald of free thinking and freedom of conscience, but at the same time he was a son of his time. He regarded Lutherans as the plague of the world because they denied free will, the possibility of choosing between right and wrong, and called for their violent repression and extermination by governments. Bruno can certainly be regarded as a father of relativism: not only does he go beyond Ptolemy's geocentric system -- dominant at the time, but beyond Copernicus himself and his heliocentrism. "The universe is infinite and I am its center," he cried.

    The thirst for the infinite is, perhaps, one of the most fascinating aspects of Bruno: his desire to surpass his own limitations and reach the absolute, a quest that was never satisfied. It was this "heroic furor" that led him to look for the infinite in God and withdraw into Him in an extreme intuitive thrust. Expelled by all, Bruno ended exhausted and wished to return to the Catholic Church, and to embrace its thought. He returned to Italy, was arrested in Venice and taken to Rome.

    Following 8 years in prison and interminable questioning, and having been close to recanting on several occasions, he was condemned as an impenitent heretic. The words Bruno spoke to his judges are famous: "You tremble more in passing this sentence than I do in receiving it." On February 17, 1600 he was burned at the stake. He was 52. According to a chronicle of the time, Bruno refused to pray to a crucifix and died swearing. The inquisitor at his prosecution was Jesuit theologian St. Robert Bellarmine. ZE00021809


February 21, 2000
volume 11, no. 36

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