Sunday, March 26, 2017

Absolutist Christendom

The next challenge to the Christian faith came to span all Europe and involved Protestants in the British Isles and Catholics in France: it attempted to turn the new European Renaissance nation-states ruled by a monarch into the default form of Christian government.

The idea of a Christian political order has enthralled many over the years, but it is not easily derived from Scripture without doing violence to the text. Since Constantine, the first Roman emperor to become a Christian, many rulers have claimed God’s favor, with some assent from the clergy. Yet throughout the Middle Ages the Church put limits on the power of kings and made sure that Christian kings followed laws and traditions, as well as God’s ordinances and justice. Popes and patriarchs claimed the right to crown and depose kings.


The Church’s power of persuasion eventually declined, and certain monarchic dynasties pulled medieval fiefdoms together into countries. Some people, such as Britain’s King James (VI of Scotland and later I of England), argued that the circumstances that led to a government such as his own were a sign of divine favor, implying a divine right to rule. In 1598, James published The True Law of Free Monarchies, a general treatise on the subject and a response to populist political theorists in Scotland. He also published Basilikon Doron (Greek for Royal Gift), a manual for his son on being a king.

“The state of monarchy is the supremest thing upon earth, for kings are not only God's lieutenants upon earth and sit upon God's throne,” James expounded to the English Parliament in 1610. “Kings are also compared to fathers of families; for a king is truly parens patriae [Latin, parent of the country], the politic father of his people.”

In the Anglican and broader Protestant understanding, the divine right of kings of the 17th century is a political and religious doctrine of royal legitimacy. It asserts that a monarch answers to no earthly authority; his right to rule comes directly from the will of God. The king is not subject to the will of his people, the aristocracy, or any other group, including the Church, he governs. As we have seen, Martin Luther urged secular authorities to crush the Peasant Rebellion of 1525 based on his interpretation of Pauline writings.

In England, the idea was rejected by the Puritans and other nonconformists under Cromwell, who committed the then-shocking crime of regicide in 1640; however, Cromwell and his order were overthrown. The disconnect between the divine right of kings and the English way of life erupted in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The Whig overthrow of James and permanent installation of Protestantism as the sole legal form of Christianity (Catholicism remained illegal until 1840), with limited rights for Nonconformists, notably set in motion in the 1689 Bill of Rights of the modern constitutional British monarchy, which gives the king or queen the right to reign but not rule.


A very different story can be told of developments across the English Channel, where Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627-1704), a bishop and theologian, became court preacher to Louis XIV of France (1638-1715), also known as the Sun King (le Roi-Soleil), and notably tutor to his son.

Bossuet is the principal French Christian theorist of the divine right of kings, although monarchical absolutism in France can be traced to Cardinal Richelieu and the Sun King himself, whose well-known saying “L'état, c'est moi (I am the State)” is more accurately rendered “The interests of the state come first. When these have priority, one labors for one's own good. Advantages to the state redound to one's glory.”

The writings of Bossuet helped define monarchy in the 17th and 18th centuries, in his country and through much of Europe. He is most notable today for three classics he wrote as royal tutor: Traité de la connaissance de Dieu et de soi-même (Treatise on the Knowledge of God and Oneself—1677), followed by Discours sur l'histoire universelle (Discourse on Universal History—1679) and Politique tirée de l'Écriture Sainte (Politics Drawn from Holy Scripture—1679).

Like Luther, Bossuet got some of his ideas about authority from Paul, but at the heart of Bossuet’s theology is the notion that human history is under the protection of divine providence. This is a perfectly orthodox, biblically rooted Catholic doctrine found in St. Augustine’s City of God, which Bossuet updated in his Discourse on Universal History. It teaches that God preserves the universe. Despite evil arising from human misuse of free will, God continues to direct all things, even evil and sin itself, to the purpose for which the universe was created: that all should manifest the glory of God and reach full development and eternal happiness therein.

The book of Wisdom, for example, speaks of the world as a ship captained by God under a “fatherly Providence that brings her safe to port” (14:3). Similarly, in Matthew 6:25-34 we see Jesus admonishing his disciples, “Do not fret over your life, how to support it with food and drink; over your body, how to keep it clothed,” for “If God, then, so clothes the grasses of the field, which today live and will feed the oven tomorrow, will he not be much more ready to clothe you, men of little faith?”

Bossuet, however, got carried away and came to see Louis XIV’s France and Solomon’s Israel as equivalent moral and holy examples of national rule. His attitude is clear in his reference in a letter to “le roi, Jesus-Christ, et l'Eglise, Dieu en ces trois noms” (the king, Jesus Christ, and the Church, divine in these three names). In fact, he hoped in the future to see France ruled by a Christian philosopher on the throne, presumably his pupil. Louis’ son, however, died before his father and never occupied the throne. Still, Louis XIV became an absolute monarch who, with his successors, claimed to rule by divine right.

Monarchism as a heresy

The core of all heresy or heterodoxy, meaning teaching that is simply not in accord with the Christian faith yet claims to be, is that it takes elements of a teaching and distorts it, usually by aggrandizing its place. Luther turned elements of faith, such as the Bible and the divine gift of grace, and turned them into the unique and only (sola) core of all Christian belief.

The divine right of kings is embedded in contemporary strands of political thinking that still claim Christian support for authoritarian rule (including many a murderous dictator claiming to defend “Western Christian Civilization”), but a careful distinction will disabuse the reader of such a thought.

The Bible does not easily and glibly support monarchy, even though that was the predominant form of government when it was being composed. When the people ask Samuel for a king, the last of the biblical judges reminds them that God is the their only king, but the people want one of flesh and blood like those of their neighbors. This is Israel’s disloyalty, ultimately its ruin.

Similarly, Jesus famously sidestepped political issues of his day, such as paying taxes (Matthew 21:33-46; Mark 12:13-17; Luke 20:9-18), and refused to claim a territory (John 18: 33-37), while asserting that the rule (mistranslated “kingdom”) of God began with his ministry (Mark 1:15). The words “king” and “kingdom” are misused in worship (feast of and hymns about Christ the King) and in biblical translations where other terms are more accurate (David, for example, is anointed as a maschiah, or savior, and secondarily put in place as a monarch). The passages translated as praising kings and turning the rule of Christ into a “kingdom of God” are examples of Christian pandering to kings by clergy and not entirely accidental.

Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, however, provided grist for the mill for the likes of Luther and Bossuet in a well-known passage, 13:1-7. The passage begins with a seemingly unfettered endorsement of the state: “Every soul must be submissive to its lawful superiors; authority comes from God only, and all authorities that hold sway are of his ordinance.”

However, those who appeal to the passage pretend that it is the only and final word on the matter. In fact, while Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17; 1 Timothy 2:1-4; and Titus 3:1—all Pauline texts—present a positive view of the state,  Matthew 4, Luke 4, 1 Corinthians 2:6-8, Ephesians 6:12 and Revelation 13 show government in more negative terms.

Romans is the source of much controversy in Christianity, mainly because it is one of Paul’s most complex writings, obviously written for people who lived in the sophisticated capital of the world at the time. Yet even in this government-positive Romans 13 passage Paul makes clear that the state serves God and has no intrinsic authority. There is no suggestion that Christians should obey state orders contrary to the gospel of love and peace.

Indeed, the history of the early Church shows that when Roman soldiers converted, the first thing they did was quit the army. Tertullian remarks, “shall a Christian serve in war? Nay, how shall a Christian serve even in peace?”

Drawing on Romans, Augustine narrowed the distance between faith and the state, although he was among the first major Christian thinkers to live in the peculiar circumstance of a government whose ruler proclaimed himself a Christian. In the late Middle Ages, with a longer experience of what the mix actually meant, Thomas Aquinas drew on Romans to allow the overthrow of a king to the point of regicide when the king was a usurper, but he forbade the overthrow by his subjects of any law-abiding king.

Christendom, or the earthly social culture of monarchical caste societies organized under the veneer of barely skin-deep faith, died a deserving death in 1914. That year, on Christmas, World War I soldiers from both sides were brought to stop their industrial-scale murder by the sound of carols. An informal truce broke out for miles along the front—a peace brought about by the faint echo of faith in nominally Christian Europe—which was ended swiftly by orders from both sides’ high commands.

Such a faith-inspired outbreak of peace was never to recur; within three years, the first overtly atheist European state was proclaimed.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Orthodoxy Responds to the Reformation

Eastern Christianity did not feel Reformation rumblings until about a century after it broke out in the West. The Orthodox Catholic Church, as it officially calls itself, put together its own response in the 1672 Synod of Jerusalem.

A synod historically is a council of a church, usually convened to decide an issue of doctrine or practice, in Orthodoxy a gathering of bishops. The term comes from the Greek synodos meaning assembly or meeting, which is a synonym of the Latin concilium, meaning council. The Jerusalem synod was convened by Greek Orthodox Patriarch Dositheos Notaras in March 1672.

Attended by the metropolitan bishops of Alexandria, Antioch, Athens, Constantinople, Jerusalem and Moscow, along with 63 other bishops, the synod was called primarily to respond to charges of heresy in the form of Calvinism. The charges grew out of a 1629 work attributed to Cyril Lucaris, Patriarch of Constantinople, which offered an 18-point summary of beliefs that embraced Calvinism.

Lucaris denied having anything to do with The Confession of Cyril Lucaris, but its reputed authorship gave rise to the idea that the bishop thought Calvinism was the faith of the Eastern Church, a controversy that continued after his murder in 1638 while in Ottoman custody. The problem was made worse by Western Protestant writers who began to claim Greek Church support for their positions.

At this point it is worth recalling the state of affairs in the Eastern Church. From the 1054 break with Rome until this synod, the Orthodox communion was a network of autocephalous, or independent, churches headed by either patriarchs or metropolitan bishops in sees that traced back to the apostles. To these were added, in the early Middle Ages, churches in the lands of various Slavic peoples, especially Russia. The Crusades put Orthodoxy between Western Catholicism and Islam, whose military conflict led to the eventual capture of Constantinople and the Balkans, with the Orthodox churches suddenly subject to the political control of what would become the Ottoman Empire.

Otherwise, Orthodoxy remained very traditional and Nicene in doctrine and practice. Its bishops, who had enough trouble dealing with Islam, were not about to let the Protestant ruckus in the West disturb their peace. Like the Council of Trent, the meeting on Calvinism was the right moment to define a number of doctrines in a set of 18 decrees called the Confession of Dositheus, whose statements in number echoed the propositions of the errant Calvinist work but in content went far beyond.

The bishops restated the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, emphasizing that the Holy Spirit proceeds only from the Father, a nudge against the Latin Church. Next, however, they echoed Trent’s rejection of sola Scriptura (only Scripture), including affirming the Holy Scriptures with the stricture that “not otherwise than as the Catholic Church has interpreted and delivered the same.” Lest anyone miss the point, they stated that “every foul heresy accepts the Divine Scriptures, but perversely interprets the same, using metaphors, and homonymies, and sophistries of man’s wisdom, confounding what ought to be distinguished, and trifling with what ought not to be trifled with.”

The bishops accepted the traditional teaching that an all-knowing God was aware of who would make “a right use of their free will,” but they argued that “the most wicked heretics,” who claim “that God, in predestinating, or condemning, did not consider in any way the works of those predestinated, or condemned, we know to be profane and impious.”

The synod held “the first man created by God to have fallen in Paradise … And as a result hereditary sin flowed to his posterity,” but the council fathers added a strong statement anticipating the immaculate conception doctrine: “the Mother of God the Word, the ever-virgin Mary, did not experience these.” Moreover, Christ is “the only mediator,” but the synod points out that “in prayers and supplications unto Him, we say the Saints are intercessors, and, above all, the undefiled Mother of the very God the Word; likewise, the holy Angels—whom we know to be set over us—the Apostles, Prophets, Martyrs, Pure Ones, and all whom He hath glorified as having served Him faithfully.”

As for authority, the bishops assert that “the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church in which we have been taught to believe, contains generally all the Faithful in Christ, who, being still on their pilgrimage, have not yet reached their home in the Fatherland.” They specify that “the Holy Spirit has appointed Bishops as leaders and shepherds over particular Churches.” The bishops are, as successors of the apostles, “a fountain of all the [Sacraments] of the Catholic Church, through which we obtain salvation.”

The 15th decree lists the seven sacraments also recognized by Trent, albeit with biblical references citing each instance in which Jesus Christ instituted them. When it comes to transubstantiation the synod’s response went a bit beyond Trent: “we believe that by the word ‘transubstantiation’ the manner is not explained, by which the bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of the Lord—for that is altogether incomprehensible and impossible, except by God Himself.”

In an addendum to the decrees, the synod answered four questions, three about Scripture and one about saints and icons.

On the Bible, the synod affirmed a canon identical to Trent, which later varied in local usage. However, the synod fathers made the points that Scriptures “should not be read by all, but only by those who with fitting research have inquired into the deep things of the Spirit” and should not be translated to “the vulgar tongue.” They demolish the Reformation’s claim to individual interpretation, saying: “If the Divine Scriptures were plain to all Christians that read them, the Lord would not have commanded such as desired to obtain salvation to search them (John 5:39); and Paul would have said without reason that God had placed the gift of teaching in the Church (1 Corinthians 13:28); and Peter would not have said of the Epistles of Paul that they contained some things hard to be understood.”

Orthodoxy did not have the burden of indulgences to contend with, but it did have icons and in its past the parallel iconoclasm controversy. The synod therefore clarified that “it is appropriate to adore the Holy Icons.” However, the synod “anathematises, and subjects to excommunication, both those that adore the Icons with adoration as well as those that say that the Orthodox commit idolatry … and we ascribe adoration to the only God in Trinity.” Thus Jerusalem matches Trent in reaffirming the theory behind controversial practices (the use of indulgences and icons), while placing clear limits.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Three Nonconformist Sects

While Christianity began to move beyond the Reformation—and its mirror Catholic Revival—a splintering process gave rise to ever more numerous and smaller Christian denominations whose characteristics required a name all their own, the sect.

The difference between a sect and a church type of denomination was explored in the late 19th century by sociologist Max Weber and theologian Ernst Troeltsch. Weber focused on the common way membership recruitment took place, by birth or family affiliation (church) or by personal decision (sect). In his work The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches, which is still in print, Troeltsch focused on the entire religious experience and the denomination’s behavior in or toward society in general.

To Troeltsch, the church type is primarily institutional, with an organized clergy and hierarchy who mediate grace by virtue of their office rather than their sanctity as individuals. A church compromises with the world (just war, slavery, oppression of women, etc.) because it sees itself as a holy institution whose members can all be saintly thanks to its influence. Churches see the New Testament and the early Church as a starting point from which doctrine developed and compromised.

In contrast, sects are smaller and aim to encourage inward perfection and fellowship within them, without clergy and focusing on the moral demands of Jesus’ teaching. They draw more enthusiastic, less theologically minded members who convert through a personal experience of inner change. Generally, they treat society at large with either indifference, tolerance or hostility (they might dissent from civil law) because they see the kingdom of God as opposed to all secular interests and institutions.

The three examples that follow are notable 16th and 17th century examples still influential today.


Baptists today make up a collection of Evangelical Christians—“evangelical” not in the sense of observing the evangelical counsel of poverty or perfect charity (Matthew 19:21–19:21), but rather in the sense of biblical literalism. Baptist denominations all trace to the 1609 church known by that name in Amsterdam, led by English separatist pastor John Smyth (1570-1612).

The unwitting founder underwent a conversion after departing from his post as a Fellow at Christ’s College, Cambridge, and leaving the Church of England. In Amsterdam he baptized himself and then about 60 others. He then began to doubt the validity of his self-baptism and applied to become a Mennonite, dying before being admitted. Some of his followers became Mennonites but others simply continued being Baptist. In 1638, Roger Williams established the first Baptist congregation in what is today Rhode Island, and Baptist churches thrived in the United States, where it is now the largest single Protestant denomination, 33 million, the second largest Christian group after the 80 million Catholics.

Baptist doctrine holds that baptism is limited to professing adult believers (they borrow from Anabaptists’ opposition to infant baptism) and must be by complete immersion. In addition to the two original solas (faith alone and Scripture alone), the Baptists hold to “soul competency”: what they describe as utter individual liberty to interpret the Bible. To this should be added their congregational model of local church autonomy, with two ministerial offices: elders and deacons.

Because of the individual’s liberty and local autonomy of each local church, it is difficult to speak with precision of a Baptist confession of faith until as late as the 20th century—even then there are decided limits. The Baptists split over slavery in 1845 and later on race, with branches distinct ever since.


The historically Christian movement known as the Religious Society of Friends was founded in the middle of the English Civil War by George Fox (1624-1691), who was dissatisfied with the Church of England, but also with nonconformists.

Fox had a revelation that “there is one, even, Christ Jesus, who can speak to thy condition.” He came to believe that it was possible to have a direct experience of Christ without the aid of ordained clergy. He recounted that in a vision on Pendle Hill in Lancashire, England, “the Lord let me see in what places he had a great people to be gathered.” Following the vision’s mandate, he traveled in England, the Netherlands and Barbados preaching his new faith. The central theme of his message was that Christ came to teach his people directly; his followers view their movement as the restoration of the true Christian church, after centuries of apostasy (a view that would guide many splinter groups thereafter).

The epithet that attached to the Friends came around 1650, when Fox was brought before magistrates on a charge of religious blasphemy and one of the judges called him a “Quaker,” according to his autobiography, “because I bade them tremble at the word of the Lord.” Fox may have been referring to Isaiah 66:2 or Ezra 9:4. In the classic pattern of epithets against believers, a term that was first a form of ridicule became widely accepted and even used by some Quakers, but the official name remained Friends.

In North America, as we have seen, Quakers were persecuted by Puritans in the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies, although the colonies of West Jersey and Rhode Island tolerated them. Affluent Quaker William Penn in the 1670s and 80s established Pennsylvania (Penn’s forest) as a commonwealth run under Quaker principles. Penn signed a peace treaty with Tammany, leader of the Delaware tribe, which held until the Penn’s Creek massacre, an Indian raid in 1755 encouraged by the French army.

Quakers’ beliefs, expressed in the policymaking Yearly and Five Year Meetings, vary considerably, with tolerance of dissent also varying among the five branches of Quakerism today, which range from theologically conservative and evangelical to liberal and almost agnostic.

In general, Friends believe in continuing direct revelation to individuals from God and reject the idea of priests, believing in the priesthood of all believers. Some Friends express their idea of God as “the inner light,” or “inward light of Christ.” In a typical service, called a “meeting,” Friends will stand up, prompted by “the Spirit” (which may or may not refer to the third Person of the Trinity), to share visions or insights. This “leading of the Holy Spirit” means that statements of faith and practice are not codified and that the group lacks written doctrine.

The Quakers are better known for their deeds than their theology. Quaker dynasties were prominent in business, including the families of Sampson Lloyd, founder of the Lloyds Banking Group, and those who made their fortunes satisfying the British working class’ sweet tooth with chocolates (the Cadbury family), confectionery (Rowntree) and cookies (Huntley & Palmers). Others founded schools, colleges and universities. More controversially, seemingly more aligned with the gospels, Quakers in North America and Great Britain became well known for their support for the abolition of slavery and opposition to war.


The Amish are a group of traditionalist Christian church fellowships of Swiss Anabaptist origin, related to but distinct from the Mennonites. Their name comes from Jakob Ammann (1644-1730) and, as with the Quakers, it was first used as a schandename (German, name of disgrace) in 1710 by his opponents.

Ammann was a tailor from Bern, Switzerland, a man of little education who probably could neither read nor write. He converted to Anabaptism and died in Alsace, expelled from Calvinist and Zwinglian Switzerland. From dictated letters, it seems he was a firm disciplinarian, uncompromising in belief, who expected others to “conform to the teachings of Christ and His apostles.” In practical matters, he opposed long hair on men, shaved beards and clothing that showed “pride.” Liars were excommunicated. Unlike most Amish married men of today, however, he had a mustache, which is largely forbidden today in the faith.

He denied he was trying to start a “new faith” but believed that baptism brought about a new birth experience that would radically change a person. He declared: “If a [sinner] does not turn from his fornication, and a drunkard from his drunkenness, or other immoralities, they are thereby separated from the kingdom of God, and if he does not improve himself through a pious, penitent life, such a person is no Christian and will not inherit the Kingdom of God.”

In the early 18th century, many Amish and Mennonites emigrated to Pennsylvania for a variety of reasons. Today, the most traditional descendants of the Amish continue to speak Pennsylvania German, also known as “Pennsylvania Dutch.”

The Amish are known for simple living, plain dress and reluctance to adopt many conveniences of modern technology; they value rural life, manual labor and humility. Church membership begins with baptism between the ages of 16 and 25, which is a requirement for marriage. Once a person is baptized, he or she may marry only within the faith.

Church “districts,” led by a bishop, ministers and deacons, average between 20 and 40 families and worship every other Sunday in a member’s home. The church is governed by the Ordnung (German, rules), which covers almost every aspect of daily life, including barring the use of power-line electricity, telephones and automobiles; regulations on clothing and prohibitions against commercial insurance and participating in Social Security. As present-day Anabaptists, the Amish will not perform any type of military service nor swear allegiance to the flag, which they view as idolatry.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Eppur si muove

The Protestant Reformation was not the only challenge posed by the Renaissance to what I have called the “Medieval cathedral” of Europe. Humanism’s departure from a theocentric worldview delivered by the Church opened up an unfettered search for knowledge (in Latin, scientia), sparking the first run-ins between the teachers of Christian faith and those of science and broader secular philosophy.

In the middle of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th, faith and rational scientific inquiry  clashed as ecclesiastical authorities in Rome lined up on one side and two notable scientists and a theologian defended free thought. At the heart of the disputes that entangled Christianity in Rome, and later Protestantism, was a literal reading of the Bible, combined with the largely medieval conceit that Christian theology, then known as “the queen of the sciences,” could solve almost any puzzle the human mind could throw at it.

Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543), a Polish polyglot and polymath, obtained a doctorate in canon law (he received minor orders and may have been ordained a priest) as well as advanced degrees in mathematics, astronomy and medicine. He was a classics scholar, translator, governor, diplomat and economist (who anticipated what came to be known as Gresham’s Law, the principle that “bad money drives out good”).

His major contribution was formulating the modern model of the universe, which places the sun at its center. Aristarchus of Samos had formulated such a model in ancient Greece, but writings on the subject were lost and unknown by the Renaissance, when most believed that the earth was static and the sun revolved around it. The significance to Christianity lay in the current reading of a passage in Joshua 10:12-14 concerning the defeat of the Amorites, as follows:
On the day when the Lord gave the Amorites over to the Israelites, Joshua spoke to the Lord; and he said in the sight of Israel, “Sun, stand still at Gibeon, and Moon, in the valley of Aijalon.” And the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, until the nation took vengeance on their enemies. Is this not written in the Book of Jashar? The sun stopped in midheaven, and did not hurry to set for about a whole day. There has been no day like it before or since, when the Lord heeded a human voice; for the Lord fought for Israel.
Renaissance Christian scholars and theologians read the passage as implying that the sun and moon revolved around the earth. Arguing quite the contrary, Copernicus’ work De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres), published just before his death, triggered the Copernican Revolution, which in turn brought about the thinking that set off the Scientific Revolution.

Oddly enough, the immediate result of Copernicus’ book was only mild controversy. The Council of Trent discussed neither Copernicus’ theory nor the actual calendar reform it approved, which used tables deduced from Copernicus’ calculations. It was not until 60 years later that the Catholic Church took official action and only because of another genius, an Italian.

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) was an Italian polymath, astronomer, physicist, engineer, philosopher and mathematician. He played a major role in the scientific revolution of the 17th century and has been called the father of observational astronomy, modern physics, the scientific method and science itself. He was a pious Catholic, but the three children—two girls and a boy—who made him an actual father were born out of wedlock.
Galileo’s scientific contributions are vast and beyond the scope of this blog. His confrontation with Church authorities arose from remarks by a man who would become his ecclesiastical adversary and a key player in the two remaining conflicts in this episode of Christianity, Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621). An Italian Jesuit, Bellarmine was a cardinal, professor of theology and later rector of the Roman College. In 1602 he became archbishop of Capua.

Galileo, a professor at the University of Padua, took it almost as a dare when Bellarmine observed in 1615 that Copernicus’ system could not be defended without “a true physical demonstration that the sun does not circle the earth but the earth circles the sun.” Galileo thought his theory of the tides provided the required physical proof of the motion of the earth and said so in a work initially titled Dialogue on the Ebb and Flow of the Sea (the reference to tides was removed by order of the Inquisition, which retitled the work Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems).

But he added to the theories a series of observations from a new instrument, the telescope, which he devised in 1609 drawing on work by a Dutch optician who had developed lenses that magnified the apparent size of remote objects. This allowed him to observe Jupiter's moons, Venus, Saturn, Neptune, sunspots, and the moon and to discover the Milky Way, which bolstered his theories on nearby earth.

Galileo’s defense of heliocentrism and Copernicanism flew in the face of what the learned of his day believed. They mostly held to the Ptolemaic earth-centered system supported by Aristotle. Alternatively, the Tychonic system, developed by Tycho Brahe, a Danish nobleman, combined the Copernican system with a philosophical and “physical” approach to the Ptolemaic system.

Facing opposition from astronomers, including Tycho, the matter was investigated by the Roman Inquisition in 1615. It deemed heliocentrism “foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture.” Passages at 1 Chronicles 16:30 (“the world is firmly established, it cannot be moved”), Psalm 104:5 (“the Lord set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved” and Ecclesiastes 1:5 (“And the sun rises and sets and returns to its place”) were cited in support.

Speaking before the Inquisition, Father Niccolò Lorini accused Galileo and his followers of attempting to reinterpret the Bible, which smacked of Protestantism. At the start of 1616, Monsignor Francesco Ingoli launched a debate with Galileo by sending him an essay disputing the Copernican system.

In March 1616, the Sacred Congregation of the Index, established in 1571 to investigate writings denounced as containing errors, issued a decree suspending the late Copernicus’ De revolutionibus until it could be “corrected,” on the grounds of ensuring that Copernicanism, which it described as a “false Pythagorean doctrine, altogether contrary to the Holy Scripture,” would not “creep any further to the prejudice of Catholic truth.”

Galileo went to Rome to defend himself and his Copernican and biblical ideas. Bellarmine had the job of examining him, and their exchanges are a remarkable record of the controversy. The Jesuit, believed to have developed great compassion toward Galileo, was ultimately charged with delivering the verdict of the Inquisition in 1633.

Galileo was found “vehemently suspect of heresy” and required to “abjure, curse and detest.” Publication of his works was banned, and he was sentenced to prison. The sentence was reduced to lifelong house arrest, thanks, perhaps, to Bellarmine. Reputedly, Galileo submitted—but under protest. As related in a 1757 narrative in English, “The moment he was set at liberty, he looked up to the sky and down to the ground, and, stamping with his foot, in a contemplative mood, said, ‘Eppur si muove,’ that is, ‘still it moves,’ meaning the Earth.”

The third wrestle with scientific ideas was with those of the lesser known Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), an Italian Dominican friar, philosopher, mathematician, poet and cosmological theorist in the then-novel Copernican mold. He proposed that stars were just distant suns surrounded by their own exoplanets, raised the then-heretical possibility that these planets could even foster life, and insisted that the universe is infinite and could have no celestial body at its “center.”

Bruno was tried by the Roman inquisition beginning in 1593. He was charged with denying several core doctrines, including eternal damnation, the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, the virginity of Mary and transubstantiation. Bruno’s pantheism, reminiscent of the beliefs of the 20th century Dominican Matthew Fox—removed from the Catholic priesthood on similar charges—was also a matter of grave concern. The Inquisition found him guilty, and he was burned at the stake in Rome.

After his death, Bruno gained considerable fame, becoming celebrated by 19th and early 20th century rationalists as “a martyr for science.” However, historians debate whether his heresy trial was a response to his astronomical views or to other aspects of his philosophy and theology.

Unlike what happened with Copernicus and Galileo, Bruno’s case exemplifies the way, from Trent onward, the Catholic hierarchy put a tight lid on new ideas in a broad array of fields, with fateful consequences—including the relative underdevelopment of science, industry and wealth in Catholic countries over the next half millennium.