Motley Moose – Archive

Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

On Watch For The Next Inquisition

Perhaps the dominant reason why I am, or lean in the direction of, a liberal, is because of my rejection of religion as a political force. I was born and raised in a conservative Roman Catholic family, but I was also raised to respect the seperation between church and state. I found myself becoming a vocal critic of fascism and theocracy.

So it’s rather ironic that I found my home in Rome of all places

What is great about living in Rome is that this city is more than just about the church…it’s about the millenia-long struggle and compromise between religion, secularism, science and democracy. This weekend, Italians are heading to the polls to elect new members to the European Parliament. Many will attend church this morning and then go out this afternoon and vote for politicians who don’t believe what they did this morning should have any relevance in what they did this afternoon…and those voting are ok with that. As my great aunt once said; Praise Jesus at 9am and Berlusconi at 5pm.

Yesterday, Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee appeared at an event in Virginia to discuss the relevance of the religious right in American politics. Gingrich claimed that we are living a world surrounded by “paganism” while Huckabee compared to passage of Proposition 8 to winning the American Revolution. Last week, President Obama spoke about the advancement of democracy, freedom of religion and woman’s rights in the Islamic World, which, let’s face it, looks a lot like the oppressive Europe our ancestors left. I am reminded just how dangerous political religion is, no matter if it’s Jesus, Mohammed or whoever the point person is in their faith.

It’s completely by accident that I find myself sitting in the Campo di Fiori in Central Rome.

I am perhaps one of the few people in this city, and quite possibly the only Catholic, not at church at the moment. It is by choice, and a choice everyone from my cousin to my great aunt to Prime Minister Berlusconi allows me to make. While the Pope may wish to punish me, his power is safely contained behind the walls of the Vatican.

I sit here on this bright lukewarm Sunday morning, I am struck by a site in the piazza that I’ve seen before, but only now ever grew to understand. Standing at the center of the Campo di Fiori is an imposing statue, perhaps fifteen feet tall atop a twenty foot pedastal; a man, draped in an overcoat of sorts, with a hood too large for his head. His arms crossed in front of him at the wrist. His face tilted down to the ground, but his eyes obviously glancing ahead…toward the Northwest…in the direction of the Vatican. He is defeated, but defiant. He does not show fear, but he shows resignation. He seems to have a warning for all those scurrying in the piazza around him.

That man is Giordano Bruno and he lost his life in this very square, on the very site where the status stands, 409 years ago. Bruno fell victim to his inquisitive nature…his belief that the words of the Bible may not be the final answers to his questions.

Bruno was a generation older of Gallileo and Kepler, but he was a comtemporary of them later in his life. Bruno travelled all over Europe; Venice, Paris, England, Germany…he fled Italy and in the Inquisiti, only to return after 14 years, beliving the Inquisition to be over. This was his fatal mistake.

You see, Bruno got himself in trouble with the church. He advocated a controversial idea that the sun was the center of the universe and that the universe was infinite. He believed in things that today would seem commonplace, but when he was sent back to Rome in 1593 to stand trial for blasphemy and heresy, these beliefs are what led to his death sentence.

The Catholic church tried him on, among other things, holding opinions contrary to Catholic faith and holding what they judged as wrong opinions about Jesus.

Yes, Giordano Bruno was tried and found guilty for opinions.

Oddly enough one of the judges in his trial who concurred in the guilty verdict and the death sentence was Cardinal Robert Bellarmine now Saint Robert Bellarmine, who is the namesake for my uncle.

On the chilly morning of February 17, 1600, Bruno was taken to this very spot where I sit, tied to a stake over a pile of wood which was set alight. Bruno was burned alive, losing his life to a roaring fire that burned for hours. When the fire finally died, all that was left of Bruno were ashes and bone fragmants that were cast into the Tiber. In a matter of hours, Giordano Bruno went from being Europe’s greatest thinker to being a pile of ashes…he was burned for having opinions. He was burned by the church, the very thing that is supposed to protect us and our souls.

Though Inquisitions like the one that sent Giordano Bruno to die are not prelevant today, people are still beheaded in Saudi Arabia, in Western-style parking lots, for denying the Muslim faith…women are hanged in Iran, lifted from the ground by cranes like a steel beam at a construction site, for denying the Muslim faith. Why does this happen in these countries? Because Islam governs their countries, just as Catholicism did when Giordano Bruno wrote his theories and was set aflame.

In a world where people lose their lives to opinions in the East, and where politicians warn opinions are “paganism” in the West, there’s a lot to fear about religion and politics…but I feel safe here, ironically in the heart of the past inquisitions. More than a hundred years ago, the Italian government, having just wrestled control of Rome from the Catholic Chuch, erected this statue and here it remains, standing guard…on watch for the next inquisition.  


  1. Very well put.  The funny thing is that the person in my life best described as a living Christian Saint – my pastor step father – couldn’t agree more with you.  

    Religion does not need governmental power, and having such power corrupts religion.  When a church is able to use – and resorts to using – coercive power to “convince” nonbelievers it ends up doing nothing of the sort.  It merely creates a cult of fear where Faith was supposed to live.

    A particularly notable religious figure once said this very clearly:

    “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”

    Your great uncle was quoting Jesus.

  2. Very well written too. One of your best.

    Here’s a quote that goes well with your diary.

    Benjamin Franklin in a letter to Richard Price

    “When a religion is good, I conceive that it will support itself; and, when it cannot support itself, and God does not take care to support, so that its professors are obliged to call for the help of the civil power, it is a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.”

    That applies not only to financial support, but for support of the tenants of a religion.

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