Cambridge, MA. I have been making entries for In All Things for almost a year now, and by my count, this is the 25th such contribution. I have recently written of dreams (or nightmares) about elections and accountability in the Church, interreligious violence, and love. I have also, truth be told, avoided a number of topics, both things I’ve deemed too technical for this site; for example, I’d better not blog on my professorial ideas about the changed tone of Jesuit missions in the post-Suppression Society in early 19th century India, or about medieval Hindu “evangelism” as represented in an eschatological Tamil-language hymn, or even about a colloquium at Harvard I attended the other night on the poetic structure of the Indian dramatist Kalidasa’s great play, Shakuntala . There are also things that seem too touchy for a blog that is to be briefly written and quickly posted. For example, I’d also better not comment on Cardinal Stafford’s fierce attack on our new president, or the threatened excommunication of Father Roy Bourgeois for his communion with women who are ordained. Such issues are too much for this blog at least. Instead, I will follow advice given to me when I took up this blog — once in a while, just call readers’ attention to a good book.
But rather than sensationalize an already sensational story, Rowland’s book seems — to this non-historian — to do us a great service by uncovering an enormous body of information about Bruno, his upbringing and education and, through extensive review and quotation, by bringing to life his philosophical and literary creations (such as have survived). She makes Bruno himself come alive as an intellec tual on the margins of Church life and society, an unforgettable figure who also seems, at least in retrospect, both brilliant and doomed.
The effect of Rowland’s book is not to romanticize Bruno (who seems at times genuinely weird, and definitely not the best of Catholics) nor to vilify the Inquisition (even if it seemed for a long time unable to understand Bruno or to figure out what to do with him). Rather, she gives us a vivid sense of the complexities of religious thought in a time of change in Church and world, the extrinsic political and social factors that heighten or defuse crises in the Church, and the fragile line any intellectual who calls herself or himself Catholic has to walk.
Rowland’s account the Bruno’s interrogations (over a period of years) and his trial is rather depressing, given that it leads to his being burned alive, for a denial of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharistic bread and wine, and his refusal to agree with Robert Bellarmine’s eight charges against him. It is depressing also because I am not a relativist, and it was wrong in 1600, as it would be wrong now, to burn alive someone because she or he is accused of heresy, as if to resolve by force matters of heart and mind. Reading about this has been all the more depressing, an embarrassment, because we see Bellarmine — a cardinal and member of the Inquisition, and known as one of the great Jesuit saints — taking a leading role in the condemnation of Bruno — when Bellarmine, of all people, could have, should have, battled Bruno theologically and in the realm of ideas, without resorting instead to extrinsic force. (Ironically, or fittingly, Bellarmine seemed at times too much even for the Vatican, and Rowland reports that Pope Sixtus V had Bellarmine’s Disputations put on the Index of Forbidden Books and, perhaps for related reasons, his canonization was long deferred, occurring only hundreds of years later, in 1930.)
I realize that it is easy, now, to admire Bruno greatly for his commitment to the life of the mind. When I last visited Rome some years ago, I happened upon his brooding statue in the Campo de’ Fiori, and it was something like a pilgrimage spot. I suspect though that were I to meet him today at Harvard, I might find him insufferable and deaf to the deeper meaning, beauty, and truth of Catholicism (like some other faculty I know). But surely now, as then, the way to treat the aggressive, stubborn, or overly inventive intellectual is with utter seriousness in debate and in publications, and not by force, fierce attack, burning, and excommunication: who would remember Bruno had he not been excommunicated and burnt alive?
But I’d better stop here, lest my effort to take up an easier challenge by calling attention to a fine book becomes itself too serious for a short, bi-weekly blog.