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Friday, February 05, 2010


I make no claims to understand the Byzantine logic of Catholicism, but I do feel empathy for Cardinal Robert Bellarmine. History records that it was Bellarmine who was the instrument of Galileo Galileo’s destruction. But the learned Cardinal was not an brainless evil little toady like Caccini, or a Machiavellian social tyrant such as Maffeo Barberini (aka Pope Urban VIII), and they both played far larger roles in bringing down the best brain in Europe since Pythagoras. And the Cardinal did write, early the fifteenth century, such revolutionary sentences as: “…Civil authority is instituted by men; (and that power resides) in the people, unless they bestow it on a Prince.” Such a stunning thought could almost have been written by Thomas Paine, a century and a half later. What Bellarmine wrote speaks of a faith that values logic and democracy. It is a brand of Catholicism which at times today feels nostalgic.
Things began to go ugly in the spring of 1615, when the Dominican monk Tommasco Caccini took it upon himself to journey to Rome. Caccini was very suspicious of mathematics, which he did not understand, and his intent was to throw what he saw as “money changers” out of the Vatican. On the surface Caccini was complaining about Copernican astronomy, but Copernicus was beyond earthy correction, having died in 1543. In fact this “dreadful fool”, as his own brother described Caccini, sought to overturn the dominance of the Jesuit order in the Church. This was a "cultural war".
Of course the Pope himself, Paul V (above), was a Jesuit, so Caccini aimed at a stand-in instead; Galileo Galilei. Caccini told the Holy See that Galileo had contaminated all of Florence with his heresies about the sun being the center of the solar system, and the moon not being a pristine celestial orb. Worse, Caccini alleged, Galileo was saying in public that God did not perform miracles. Caccini might be a “turbulent ignoramus”, as Galileo described him, and Pope Paul V might know that his own nose was being tweaked by the Dominican, but the church could not ignore the charges that had been made.
The pope turned to his most dependable cultural warrior, 73 year old Cardinal Robert Bellarmine. It had been the intellectual Bellarmine who had out maneuvered and isolated the clever James I of England over his English translation of the bible, and who had prosecuted the magician Giordano Bruno sixteen years earlier. They had been forced to put a wooden clamp on Bruno’s tongue to prevent him from shouting heresies while they burned him at the stake, but in the end Bruno was silenced. It is doubtful the Pope wanted Galileo silenced so absolutely, but he expected Bellarmine to remove the Flrointine as an irritant.
The problem was that Bellarmine was too much of an intellectual, and he understood enough about mathematics to know that Galileo’s numbers were right. When the old and ill Bellarmine interviewed Galileo, which he did three times, he fell under the genius’s spell. In the end Bellarmine provided the Florentine with a letter that allowed him to "discuss" the idea of a sun centered universe, so long as he did not claim publicly that it was fact and not mere opinion. Despite what Bellarmine and Galileo both knew to be fact, officially the Earth remained at the center of the universe because several Popes had said it was so. Robert Bellarmine would die in 1624, and later be named a saint of the church. But his letter of instruction for Galileo would prove to be a dead letter.
That letter rose from the dead after Pope Paul V died in 1621. He was followed by the brief and sickly Pope Gregory XV, and in 1623 by the energetic and energetically ignorant Pope Urban VIII, aka Maffeo Barberini. How Barberini’s mind worked was revealed in 1624 when he issued a Papal Bull, or pronouncement, making it a sin to smoke tobacco - not because it was unhealthful but because it often caused its users to sneeze, an act which Barberini considered similar to sexual ecstasy - which leaves me wondering about Signor Barberini’s boudoir habits.
For the next eight years it was war and not sin which occupied Barberini. If he was not fighting battles to extend the Church’s (and his families') dominions, then he was preparing to fight battles. Barberini turned the Vatican into an arsenal, and built a factory in Tivoli to supply it with weapons. And when the Holy See ran short of cannon Barberini had bronze ripped from the roof of that temple to the Roman Republic, the Pantheon, and melted into more cannon. As an unknown sage put it at the time, “That which the barbarians did not do, Barberini did” (in Latin – “quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barberini”).
But finally, with the printing of Galileo’s newest book, “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems”, in February of 1632, the prosaic world of ideas captured Barberini’s attention. Seeing criticism of himself in Galileo’s arguements (and, honestly, it seems to have been there) Barberinii ordered the book seized and the printer arrested. And he ordered the Inquisition to investigate Galileo.
The Church had been at war with dissenters from the moment Christ died on the cross, and by 1542, when Pope Paul III established the “Congregation of the Holy Office of the Inquisition” in Rome, that war had become formalized and institutionalized, replet with all the forms of torture, including waterboarding, and with all the advantages and disadvantages found in any bureaucracy.
By 1633, when an ailing Galileo was ordered to Rome (he arrived carried in a litter) to face the Dominican Cardinals who had been given responsibility for his inquisition, the machinery of correction had been perfected. To be charged was to be guilty. And the best that could be expected was humiliation and forgiveness.
Galileo thought his 1616 letter from Cardinal Bellarmine would protect him, but Bellermine was a decade dead. Instead the Cardinal’s letter would be the clamp used to silence Galileo’s tongue. Galileo was presented with an “official” copy of that letter which included a phrase – “Galileo agrees to neither hold, defend, nor teach the Copernican opinion in any way whatsoever” – that had not been in the original. Holding this forgery Galileo mumbled, “I don’t remember the clause “in any way whatsoever… ”. And then his voice fell silent. He must have understood at that instant that this Pope (and his army of sicophants) was willing to commit the sin of bearing false wittness to secure Galileo's conviction, or his death.
When presented with his false confession of his sins the old man signed. To have refused would have been to invite a death by fire. And in the last act of the farce Galileo was required to openly announced his “abiurare”, that he abjured and renounced the idea that the sun was at the center of the solar system. Later generations would insist the old left the court muttering his independence, but that is mere wishful thinking. The Pope used the power of Galileo's imagination, which had once opened the universe to all of humanity, to silence him. 
In exchange for his “abiurare” the old man was allowed to return to his home in Florence. But he was never allowed to write another word on science. He died in January of 1641, blind and gagged. It was a great victory for Barbarini.
It was not until October 31, 1992 – Halloween, 350 years later –that Pope John Paul II expressed the Church’s official regret at the way Galileo had been persecuted. John Paul admitted that the Earth does indeed revolve around the sun, once every year.
According to John Paul II, “The error of the theologians of the time…was to think that our understanding of the physical world’s structure was, in some way, imposed by the literal sense of Sacred Scripture.” It seemed, at least for a time, that Catholicism would enter the twenty-first century in peaceful coexistence with science. Cardinal Bellarmine would have been pleased, but I’m willing to bet, more than a little wary.

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