Tuesday, 1 May 2018

The Flat Truth

If this week's conferees in Birmingham really do believe that the earth is flat, then they are among the first people ever to have done so.

Science arose out of the uniquely Christian rejection of humanity's otherwise universal concepts of eternalism, that the universe has always existed and always will; animism, that the universe is a living thing, an animal; pantheism, that the universe is itself the ultimate reality, God; cyclicism, that everything which happens has already happened in exactly the same form, and will happen again in exactly the same form, an infinite number of times; and astrology, that events on earth are controlled by the movements of celestial bodies within an eternalistic, animistic, pantheistic and cyclicistic universe. 

Science cannot prove that these closely interrelated things are not the case; it simply has to presuppose their falseness, first established in thirteenth-century Paris when their Aristotelian expression was condemned at the Sorbonne specifically by ecclesial authority, and specifically by reference to the Biblical Revelation. That is why science as we now understand the term never originated anywhere other than in Medieval Europe.

Forget the earth being flat. No one ever believed that, at least until the rise of modern Flat Earth Societies. The suggestion that this was the Medieval view can be dated precisely to January 1828, which saw the publication of The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, as highly fictionalised an account as one would expect from its author, Washington Irving, who also gave the world those noted works of historical realism, Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, as well as popularising the use of "Gotham" to refer to New York.

Forget, for the present purpose, Galileo, who was never imprisoned, who was never excommunicated, who died professing the Faith, the daughter who cared for whom in his last days became a nun, and so on. His error was not to say that the earth moved around the sun (although he could not prove that scientifically at the time; we happen to know, centuries later, that he was right, but that is not the same thing), but that the Church should teach heliocentrism as proved out of Scripture, which is in fact silent on the subject. His was not an erroneously low, but an erroneously high, doctrine of Biblical and ecclesial authority. 

In the absence of scientific proof in his own age, he wanted his theory, which turns out to have been scientifically correct but which neither he nor anyone else could have known to have been so in those days, to be taught and believed on that authority, the authority of the Bible as interpreted by the Catholic Church. That, the Church refused to do. Who was on the side of science in that dispute? I think that we can all see the answer to that one. As, in the end, did he, dying as he did a Catholic in good standing. 

Meanwhile, news reaches us of the Hispanic Civilisation Foundation, the aim of which is to counter the continuing influence of the leyenda negra. Does no one expect the Spanish Inquisition? I certainly do, and I am never disappointed. The same people who regard The Life of Brian as the last word on Jesus declare their general intellectual dependence on Monty Python's Flying Circus by bringing up the Spanish Inquisition in relation to the Catholic Church, and especially in relation to the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, "formerly known as the Inquisition."

The CDF was in fact the Roman, not the Spanish, Inquisition; but neither ever claimed or exercised any jurisdiction over non-Catholics. The Roman Inquisition granted the accused rights far in excess of those prevalent at the time, such as the right to legal representation, paid for by the Inquisition if necessary, a right not formerly recognised in England until 1836. Only people whose activities were a threat to the State, a tiny percentage, were ever handed over to it for execution or anything else, a severity far less than that of the Protestant governments of the time.

As for the infamous Spanish Inquisition, it was staffed by clerics, but it was established, and they served, strictly at the pleasure of the Spanish Crown (perhaps it is difficult for people used to the Church of England to understand this distinction?), which had it approved on false pretences by Pope Sixtus IV. He was a repeated but unsuccessful opponent of its severity, an opposition, moreover, which has to be seen in the light of the below in order to be appreciated fully. From 1558, it imprisoned the Spanish Primate, Archbishop Caranza of Toledo, for eight years, despite repeated Papal attempts to secure his release. Furthermore, the Spanish Inquisition enjoyed popular as well as royal, but not Papal, support. 

As a civil body, the Spanish Inquisition has to be compared to other civil bodies of the time; and it actually compares rather well, using torture in only two per cent of cases, and then for no longer than 15 minutes, with only one per cent experiencing torture more than once. Of 49,092 cases between 1550 and 1700, fully 1,485, not even three per cent, ended with the death sentence, and only 776 were actually put to death by this agency, not of the Church, but of the State.

On average during that century and a half, the Spanish Inquisition executed five people per year. Yet the Popes considered it unacceptably severe even in that day and age, when the English were executing anyone who damaged a shrub in a public garden, the Germans were gouging out the eyes of those who returned from banishment, and the French were disembowelling sheep-stealers.

The Spanish Inquisition dismissed anyone who broke its clearly set out Instructiones, and people before the secular courts in Barcelona would sometimes blaspheme in order to be sent to one of the much more humane prisons maintained by the Inquisition. 

All of the above may be verified from the works of serious scholars such as Professor Henry Kamen, an English Jew, of the Barcelona Higher Council for Scientific Research and Professor Stephen Haliczer of the Northern University of Illinois. Who is to be believed? Scholars such as they? Or Monty Python's Flying Circus?

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