Monday, September 21, 2009

Five Heresy Trials

I've mentioned before that I'm rehearsing a production of Doubt by John Patrick Shanley, to be performed at ACAT in Waterville November 13–22. From the perspective of my character, Sister Aloysius, it's the story of a spiritual crisis.

At the same time, I'm currently listening to the audiobook of Galileo's Daughter by Dava Sobel, which tells the story of Galileo's correspondence with his beloved older daughter, a cloistered nun whose religious name was Sister Maria Celeste. The correspondence shows, among other things, how completely Galileo lived within his faith, to the extent that when for the greater glory of God he was asked to deny things he knew to be true, he did so.

The combination has me thinking about how a church defends itself from what it considers a threat, and how the nature of those threats -- and those defenses -- changes over time. Five different trials for heresy point up these changes.

1. John Wycliffe, May–November 1382. More than 125 years before Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the cathedral door, John Wycliffe set forth the principles of Reformation: Holy Scripture in the vernacular, a new priesthood marked by poverty and humility, and a practice of religion that included roles for laymen. In the summer of 1381 he proclaimed twelve truths laid out by Jesus at the Last Supper. The chancellor of Oxford declared several of these heretical. The Archbishop of Canterbury called a synod in London to review Wycliffe's propositions; a rare earthquake disrupted the meeting, which the Archbishop called evidence of divine wrath against these erroneous doctrines. The synod found fourteen of Wycliffe's propositions heretical, and ten erroneous, and declared that anyone promoting them would be prosecuted. Wycliffe had a stroke sometime that summer, but appeared at another synod against his views at Oxford in November. That meeting too rejected Wycliffe's theories, but did not excommunicate Wycliffe himself. He died of a stroke at Mass on the feast of the Holy Innocents, December 28, 1384. Thirty years later, the Council of Constance declared him posthumously "a stiff-necked heretic," and banned his writings and teachings.

2. Joan of Arc, January–March 1431. Inspired by visions that she believed were divine instructions, Joan of Arc led an army that placed Charles VII on the throne of France. When John of Lancaster, the first Duke of Bedford and regent for Henry VI of England, captured Joan at Compi├Ęgne, he put her on trial for heresy. Kings ruled by divine right; Joan's visions had to be blasphemous, in order to discredit Charles VII's claim to the throne of France. Wearing men's clothing was an additional heresy. The clergy who examined Joan were men of the world, and were either in Bedford's service or serving under compulsion. Even so, the record had to be falsified and Joan forced back into men's clothing in order to get enough evidence to execute her for heresy. She was burned at the stake on May 30, 1431, and her remains crushed and scattered into the Seine to keep people from taking relics. Twenty-four years later, her mother won a retrial that cleared Joan's name, established her as a martyr, and laid the ground for her eventual canonization in 1920.

3. Giordano Bruno, 1599–1600. Giordano Bruno has the distinction of being the last person burned at the stake for heresy by the Catholic Church. I'd like to read a biography; he seems to have had a real talent for making enemies. He was a Dominican priest who was first accused of heresy at the age of 28, for criticizing Church doctrine in public. He left the order, fled to Switzerland and became a Calvinist, but they excommunicated him within a year. From there he went to France and then to England, where he joined the court of Queen Elizabeth I and became friends with Sir Philip Sidney. By 1585, however, he was back in France, and petitioning to be taken back into the Catholic Church. They refused, as he would not agree to rejoin the Dominicans. Instead he went to Germany, where he became a Lutheran, but they too excommunicated him. By 1591 -- he was 43 -- he was back in Italy, and was denounced to the Inquisition. Although he abjured the heresies he was accused of, he was condemned for writings in which he asserted, among other things, that Christ was not God, but merely a skillful magician; that even Satan could be saved; and that the Holy Spirit was a sort of pantheistic deity that was essentially the soul of the earth.

4. Galileo Galilei, 1633. Galileo was already an old man by the standards of his day when the Church called him to account for his findings -- based on the work of Nicholas Copernicus -- that the Earth and other planets revolved around the sun. The Vatican had told him to abandon the theory in 1616; he was forbidden from teaching or writing about the idea. The 1633 trial accused him of teaching the doctrine, which he denied under oath. He was convicted and sentenced to prison, which was commuted to house arrest. He went blind in 1638, and died in his country home in 1642, at the age of 77. The Catholic Church did not drop its official opposition to the theory of heliocentrism until 1758. In 1992, Pope John Paul II hailed Galileo's discoveries and cautioned against applying literal interpretations of scripture to scientific discoveries. The Vatican formally apologized to Galileo and others in 2000.

5. Anne Hutchinson, 1637. Anne Marbury Hutchinson moved to New England with her husband and 15 children in 1634, following the Puritan leader John Cotton. The Puritans wanted to cleanse the Church of England from all taint of Romanism; in particular, John Cotton and his followers believed that closeness to God did not require the intermediation of the Catholic Church's sacraments. Anne followed this belief to what seemed to her its natural conclusion: salvation was a gift of God that could not be lost, once accepted. This doctrine of "Free Grace" directly threatened the secular authority of Puritan leaders in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, as under Free Grace, sin and secular law-breaking are not enough to keep someone out of Heaven. Governor John Winthrop called Anne Hutchinson to trial for her heretical beliefs, charging her specifically with violating the commandment to honor her father and mother (i.e., the authorities). She was convicted and banished, and died with five of her children in 1643, in an Indian massacre at what is now East Chester, New York.

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