How Fact Becomes (Anti-Catholic) Fiction


"Did you ever hear of Giordano Bruno?" a buddy asked me. "Some guy said the inquisition burned him, a great scientist and a hero in Italy."

My response: "Giordano Bruno died from a massive ego, intellectual pretension, a singular dishonesty, an overactive libido, and for being a miscreant priest who allowed himself to be ordained when he didn’t believe any essential truths of the faith. He’s a walking billboard for the inquisition."

Okay, maybe Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the recently retired Secretary of State of the Holy See, said it more diplomatically on the 400th anniversary of Bruno’s death in 2000: He called his death "a sad episode," but refused to apologize for the actions of his inquisitors.

Giordano Bruno had been forgotten to history until he was resurrected as a martyr for modern science in the late 19th century, though he was about as far from a scientist as one could get. His tale is a lesson in how Catholic urban legends are made.

Bad Theology, Bad Science

Bruno was born in Nola, part of the Kingdom of Naples, in 1548. He entered the Dominican monastery and was ordained a priest at the age of 24.

Early in his novitiate, Bruno demonstrated a distinctly odd theology. He stripped his cell of all religious art—particularly art devoted to the Blessed Mother—and later criticized a fellow seminarian for his devotional reading.

By the age of 18, he had already rejected the divinity of Christ and belief in the Trinity. In contemporary understanding, that made Bruno not merely a heretic, but an atheist. (In the 16th century, atheism was defined not as a complete rejection of the existence of God—a simply incomprehensible position—but rejection of Christ.)

But Bruno kept these views to himself and was ordained a priest for the Order of Preachers in 1572. At this point he began to develop a mish-mash of ideas, a combination of Plato, Protestant theology, Hebrew mysticism, his own "atheism" and the philosophical wanderings of a 15th-century German priest and cardinal, Nicholas of Cusa (1400-1464).

Bruno had come to believe that God had created—and continues to create—an infinite number of worlds, both in an infinitely large outer space, and an infinitely small inner space, if you will. It was that belief in an infinitely small "inner space" of creation that led some to see him as the originator of modern science, with our understanding of a world made up of atomic and subatomic particles.

But in this, he was simply regurgitating Cardinal Cusa’s speculations, which were philosophical musings, not scientific investigations. Cusa’s goal was to find the proof of God—the action of God’s creation—in all matter great and small.

Bruno’s goal was different, describing an endless universe of endless creating that God needed, rather than a universe that needed God. As one of his cellmates in Venice put it: "He said that God needed the world as much as the world needed God, and that God would be nothing without the world, and for this reason God did nothing but create new worlds."

If that sounds like mumbo-jumbo, it’s because it is mumbo-jumbo.

Trying to get to the root of Bruno’s beliefs is like wrestling with an eel. The scientific methods employed by a true nascent scientist like Nicholas Copernicus were processes the free-thinking Bruno loathed.

That is what makes him such an odd pick for a scientific martyr. Though possessing knowledge of contemporary mathematics, Bruno had little use for calculations or observation, preferring to borrow ideas from across the landscape and to fuse them into unintelligibility. Bruno’s "science" is as meaningless today as it was in his own time.

A Triple Excommunicate

Bruno gained what actual reputation he had in his own life from feats of memory. From his Dominican training, he adapted mnemonic systems that allowed for preaching that could last for hours but had a remarkable orderliness to it. As a young priest, Bruno traveled to Rome to demonstrate his skill to Pope Pius V.

But even here, Bruno was a failure. Apparently, he was unable—or unwilling—to teach his mnemonic skills, either fearful that his "tricks" would be stolen by others, or simply incapable of conveying his system in an orderly fashion.

Bruno remained with the Dominican Order for roughly 10 years. In 1576, fearing that his ideas would bring him face-to-face with Church authorities, Bruno took to the hills.

He wandered about Italy and France until finally landing in Geneva in 1579, where he announced himself a Calvinist. He then proceeded to insult a prominent Calvinist professor and soon became an excommunicated Calvinist. Under those circumstances, he decided to flee to Paris, where King Henry III engaged him in mnemonic training.

In France he published a number of works on mnemonics and works meant to allegedly spell out his "natural philosophy." By then, though he had expressed an interest in returning to his order, "his escape from the convent also meant an escape from the vows of chastity and obedience, and he pursued women with Falstaffian mater-of-factness rather than poetic pining" (Ingrid D. Rowland, Giordano Bruno, Philosopher Heretic, 159).

His works written in France are a mix of bombast, insults, bizarre mysticism, and sheer crackpot ideology. In the midst of trying to explain this disorganized philosophy, he celebrated "magic"—which his biographer Rowland wants to de-stigmatize by explaining it away as some kind of earthly wisdom. But he embraced magic, believing in the occult qualities of numbers and objects. He also claimed that demons caused disease, which could be cured through a king’s touch or by a seventh son’s spittle .

As King Henry began to assert his Catholic faith more strongly against Huguenot claims, Bruno decided that France might not be the best home for an excommunicated Dominican. In 1583, he arrived in England. But in a rare example of good sense in Elizabethan England, Bruno was laughed off the stage at an Oxford debate. By October 1585 he was back in Paris, then onto Germany.

In 1588 he served as a professor in Helmstedt but was then excommunicated by the Lutherans—who accused him of being a Calvinist.

Now excommunicated by the Catholic Church, the Calvinists, and the Lutherans—and never once based on his alleged "scientific" beliefs—Bruno traveled to Frankfurt, where he hoped to make a living among the printers and booksellers.

At this point, he made clear once again his refusal to believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, Christ as the Son of God, or original sin. But in 1591, he decided to return to Catholic Italy anyway.

Heretic on Trial

He secured what appeared to be a pretty soft position—tutoring his Venetian host. Either because his host felt cheated or because of Bruno’s unseemly attention to his wife, he turned Bruno over to the Venice inquisition in 1592.

Most cases brought before the inquisition in Venice resulted in acquittal. But this was different: Here was a renegade priest who faced serious charges, including outright heresy and blasphemy.

Though Bruno subscribed (somewhat) to the Copernican view of the universe with the rotating earth orbiting the sun, he was not prosecuted for those beliefs. The Church had not condemned the Copernican view in Bruno’s day. More than three decades after Bruno’s death, Galileo would be charged for holding similar views, but only because he taught those views as absolute fact, rather than hypothesis. Though Bruno loathed any kind of religious authority, he had absorbed the heresies of his day and they infused his thinking and writing.

The Holy Office in Rome, finding out that Bruno had been charged in Venice, sought his extradition. Venice generally rejected such requests, but in Bruno’s case, Venice wanted him out. Though Bruno made a less-than-sincere offer to retract some of his views, Church officials did not believe him. On February 20, 1593, Venice shipped him off to Rome.

His trial in Rome would take seven years. At first Bruno relied on the defense that most of his heresies were jests not to be taken seriously, but as the process dragged on he grew more obstinate. He eventually turned from what could be interpreted as negotiation over his views to defiance. He refused to retract his heresies and maintained that the judges had no authority over him. The judges had no choice but to condemn him based on his own admissions and turned him over to the secular authorities in Rome. He was executed on February 17, 1600.

A Martyr for "Science"

Thus would have ended the "sad affair" of Giordano Bruno. He died not as a scientist or for scientific beliefs, but because he had rejected the fundamental truths of the faith he had promised to uphold at his ordination—the divinity of Christ, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the Trinity. He had embraced every passing fancy from reincarnation to divination.

While it is difficult today to understand how scandalous this would be to his contemporaries, at that time such views—especially from a priest who had fallen into "sins of the flesh"—were seen as endangering the salvation of souls and the basic harmony of the community. His fate was sealed when he refused to recant.

Bruno essentially disappeared from history for 300 years, until he was resurrected in anti-clerical Italy in the late 19th century.

The unification of Italy in the 19th century had been conducted by confiscating the centuries-old Papal States, concluding with the seizure of Rome in 1870.

But that didn’t end the anti-clerical, anti-papal rioting, and demonstrations which became an ordinary part of Roman life. In 1876, a group of Roman students decided to raise funds to erect a statue in Bruno’s honor, though no one but a few scholars had heard of him, his works were unread, and even those few who ventured to do so found him unintelligible.

But since he was deemed a victim of the inquisition and honoring him seen as an insult to the papacy, anti-clerical forces throughout Italy rallied to the cause.

Donations were solicited from all over secular Europe, and contributions came in from the likes of Victor Hugo of France and Henrik Ibsen in Norway. They had not a clue who was being honored but since the statue was to be a potshot at the Catholic Church, they were willing to lend their names.

Bruno was now reinvented as a martyr to science and reason. On June 9, 1889, over 2,000 anti-clerical organizations rallied at the erection of the statue of Bruno. "Today," they announced, "the date of the religion of reason is established."

Within a generation, Italy would be a Fascist state.


Robert P. Lockwood, director of communications for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, is  the author of A Faith for Grown-Ups: A Midlife Conversation about What Really Matters (Loyola Press).

This article appeared in Volume 20 Number 8.