The Vatican v. Protestant Free Thinkers

Rome again. There seem to be two very different Vaticans these days, existing a bit weirdly, side-by-side. On the one side we have the Church, whose magisterium has been very much under siege of late, rocked by scandals that continue to roll toward their seemingly inevitable crescendo. This Church, aggressively anti-modern for two papacies in a row, now seems decidedly tone-deaf, in addition to being intentionally out-of-step with the modern world.

On the other side we have the Vatican Library and the Vatican Museums, eminently modern institutions that have drunk deeply from the well of modern ideas. Museums, and the libraries that birthed them, are modern institutions, after all. These places—the Church, versus the Library or Museums—can seem like entirely different worlds, these days. I’ll have something to say about the Library here, and will hope to have more to say about Museums in the future.

Fresh from the Archives

In the Secret Archives of the Vatican Library, there are two display cases adjacent to the reading rooms, dedicated to new publications—books mostly, along with a handful of journal articles. It is always worth taking some time to consult these cases, both to learn what is happening in this corner of the scholarly world, but also to see what the Vatican presses themselves have published recently.

An important new four-volume work caught my eye this week. Edited by Ugo Baldini and Leen Spruit, it is entitled Catholic Church and Modern Science: Documents from the Archives of the Roman Congregations of the Holy Office and the Index (Roma: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2009). The stated intentions of the volume are noteworthy, and so I thought, worth noting in Religion Dispatches, especially given my last two essays on the strange treatment of several portions of the bodies of two emblematically modern scientists, Copernicus and Galileo, whose remains have recently been treated virtually as secular relics in Poland and in Florence, respectively.

It might seem that such a volume’s purpose would have to be apologetic, one more attempt by an embattled Church to get out from under yet another scandal, this time the scandalous mistreatment of several recently rehabilitated modern scientists. Viewed this way, it would be but the latest intervention in one of the premier slugfests of modernity, the sandlot struggle between “religion and science.”

But these volumes are a part of the culture of the Library, and therefore far less interested in slugfest or point-scoring. To view them strictly within the armature of the Church would be to misrepresent their stated purpose, or purposes, ones that are far more interesting and provocative than mere apologetics would suggest. It would also significantly underestimate their importance. While the Church’s main quarrel in the Early Modern period might seem to have been with the newly emerging modern sciences, this Library volume suggests a very different view of the period: namely, that the Vatican was less interested in science per se than it was in the ever-deepening gulf that threatened to separate Roman Catholics and Protestants in Europe forever.

These Library publications suggest that the concerns of the magisterium at this time were focused almost entirely on the new threat posed by the Protestants. If some scientists, especially the astronomers, got caught in the cross-fire, then this was only because they were perceived to be Protestant-style “free thinkers.” The Roman Church, by contrast, was insistent on the importance of thinking traditionally and orthodox-ly, not just freely. This is a very different picture of Rome in the 1500s and 1600s, the same era saw that witnessed the first slow-moving gestures toward the creation of the Library, and then the Museums, at the Vatican.

So, the Church in the 1500s cared more about the Protestants than the scientists. The Preface to the first volume in this series presents this initially odd-sounding thesis with some care, by reminding us, first, of some important dates.

Pope Paul III established the modern Inquisition in 1542; it was designed to deal with persons, primarily those who evidenced what was deemed to be a willful adherence to ideas contradicted by Catholic Orthodoxy. This language is instructive, because faith was understood to be partly an act of will in the Early Modern period. Thus, Protestant kinds of free thinking amounted, in the Church’s view, to a distorted kind of willing, not just an error in thoughts or beliefs.

(The editors are at pains to remind us that this Inquisition was primarily aimed at Christians, and specifically at the Reformers, rather than at Jews and/or Muslims… unless the latter converted, ironically enough. This raises the real scandal for the Church in this period: namely, the fact of forced conversions—in a number of places, but especially in the New World).

Next, Pope Pius V created the Congregation of the Index in 1571; it was designed to deal with texts, and became interested in scientific works, as I have said, mainly because their authors were believed to have displayed underlying Protestant sympathies. According to the editors, this new Office represented a Church’s conscientious response to a new “epistemological configuration” that “eventually prevailed in the modern period.”

New Math, New Science, New Protestants

The point is that the really seismic changes at the Vatican all came in the 15th and 16th centuries, the age that just so happened to encompass the Protestant rebellion and the emergence of modern science at once.

But by the 17th century, mathematics—and specifically mathematical physics—achieved a dominance that overturned the main interpretive principles that had been widely accepted since the time of Aristotle’s Physics: namely, that the various disciplines of scientific enquiry were hierarchically related, and that mathematics was a subordinate discipline.

What the “new moderns,” men like Copernicus and even Galileo, represented was the triumph of a new kind of mathematical science, where numbers and computation were esteemed in a whole new way. Copernicus, be sure to recall, did not yet have access to the telescope, so he was basing a number of his computations on things he could not see. In this brave new world, then, the scientists were also casting their “faith in things not seen.” It’s just that what they “saw” was perceived to run counter to the Roman Catholic faith, and its more traditional way of making sense of the world of the senses.

Whether the Church’s problem was ultimately the new math, the new science, or the new Protestants, is an open question that these volumes are content to leave open.

What they propose to look at instead are the Church’s procedures—a way of looking at texts as well as at persons—in order to get a fuller view of the issues as the Church understood them in the 1500s and thereafter.

Such an approach, the editors hope, has the advantage of getting away from the endless dispute over the notorious cases of Giordano Bruno (who was burned in the Campo di Fiori in 1600 and whose story has been brilliantly told in a recent book by Ingrid Rowland) and Galileo Galilei (who was forced to recant in 1633), and the argument over who started it all.

(The complicated case of Giordano Bruno is treated at Volume I: 862-972 [he was repeatedly imprisoned after 1593, placed on trial in 1598, then killed in 1600], the posthumous case against Copernicus’s book is treated at II: 1473-1481 [it was prohibited in 1598], and yet most curiously, Galileo’s case is not treated at all. Volume 4 provides an Appendix with a fascinating “Index of Forbidden Books” beginning at page 3103].)

The animating spirit of, and inspiration behind, these new volumes is said to be the one announced by John Paul II in his anticipation of a new Church for a new millennium (laid out in the Apostolic Letter, Tertio millennnio adveniente, 10 November 1994), which famously called for a “purification of memory.” What John Paul II intended was to recall the Roman Church to a mindfulness of her failures as well as her successes. Faith, as that Pope never tired of repeating, can never be promoted by force; truth’s power lies its truthfulness, nothing more.

Now in a great many ethical and political matters, John Paul II was as anti-modern a Pope as the Church has seen in recent memory; his successor even more so. But on the devilish topic of religion, science and free enquiry, these same Popes have elected to stand emphatically on the side of the moderns. This volume offers an extraordinary glimpse back on a time when it was not yet so.

But it is so, now, in the Vatican Library and in the Museums, which can make them both seem very far away from a Church that is, in reality, still adjacent to them both.