Vatican Regrets Burning Cosmologist

Even as the flames licked his feet, the polymath Giordano Bruno refused to recant. Now, at least he's gotten an expression of remorse from the Catholic Church. On 17 February--the 400th anniversary of Bruno's auto-da-fé at the hands of the Inquisition in Rome--Cardinal Angelo Sodano declared the heretic's execution to be a "sad episode."

Bruno, a 16th century Dominican friar, was expelled from country after country for heretical views that ranged from dabbling in magic to denying the divinity of Christ. What endears him to modern scientists, though, is that Bruno embraced Copernicus's heliocentric model of the solar system and even went one step further: He declared that Earth was just one of an infinite number of worlds, each perhaps inhabited by creatures entirely foreign to us--and to the church. After a long imprisonment, Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600. It is unclear whether Bruno's cosmology played a role in his condemnation, but he has since become a symbol of a church crusade against the progress of science.

On the anniversary of Bruno's execution, Cardinal Sodano, the second-ranking cleric in the Catholic Church, called the incident an "atrocious death." However, he noted that the Inquisition had tried and condemned Bruno with then-common methods--including torture. Even though some aspects of those procedures are "a reason of deep regret for the church today," he said in a statement, people should not judge those who condemned Bruno: The inquisitors, Sodano maintains, "had the desire to serve freedom and promote the common good and did everything possible to save his life."

The statement has puzzled some experts. "I didn't know what to make of it," says Richard Blackwell, a philosophy professor at St. Louis University, who has studied the writings of Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, a (now sainted) member of the Inquisitions that condemned Bruno and Galileo Galilei 33 years later. The records of Bruno's Roman Inquisition were lost, Blackwell notes, so "it's awfully difficult to evaluate either way the justice of the trial."