Murphy considers the long shadow the Inquisition has had on our modern world @ New Humanist
On a hot autumn day in Rome not long ago, I crossed the vast expanse of St Peter’s Square, paused momentarily in the shade beneath a curving flank of Bernini’s colonnade and continued a little way beyond to a Swiss Guard standing impassively at a wrought-iron gate. He examined my credentials, handed them back and saluted smartly. I hadn’t expected the gesture and almost returned the salute instinctively, but then realised it was intended for a cardinal waddling into the Vatican from behind me.
Just inside the gate, at Piazza del Sant’Uffizio 11, stands a Renaissance palazzo with a ruddy ochre-and-cream complexion. This is the headquarters of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, whose job, in the words of the Apostolic Constitution Pastor bonus, promulgated in 1988 by Pope John Paul II, is “to promote and safeguard the doctrine on faith and morals throughout the Catholic world”. Pastor bonus goes on: “For this reason, everything which in any way touches such matter falls within its competence.” It is an expansive charge. Every significant document or decision emanating from anywhere inside the Vatican must get a sign-off from the CDF. The Congregation has been around for a very long time, although until the Second Vatican Council it was called something else: the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office. From the lips of old Vatican hands, one still hears shorthand references to “the Holy Office”, much as one hears “Whitehall”, “Foggy Bottom” or “the Kremlin”.
But before the Congregation became the Holy Office, it went by yet another name: as late as 1908, it was known as the Sacred Congregation of the Universal Inquisition. Lenny Bruce once joked that there was only one “the Church”. The Sacred Congregation of the Universal Inquisition was the headquarters of the Inquisition – the centuries-long effort by the Church to deal with its perceived enemies, within and without, by whatever means necessary, including the most brutal ones available.
The palazzo that today houses the Congregation was originally built to lodge the Inquisition when the papacy, in 1542, amid the onslaught of Protestantism and other noxious ideas, decided that the Church’s intermittent and far-flung inquisitorial investigations needed to be brought under some sort of centralised control – a spiritual Department of Homeland Security, as it were. The Inquisition had begun in the Middle Ages, to deal with Christian heresies, and been revived in Iberia, under state control, to deal with Jews and Moors. Pope Paul III considered the task of his new papal Inquisition so urgent that construction on the basilica of St. Peter’s was suspended and the labourers diverted so that work could be completed on its headquarters. At one time the palazzo held not only clerical offices but also prison cells.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith inherited more than the Inquisition’s DNA and its place on the organisational charts. It also inherited much of the paper trail. The Inquisition records are kept mainly in the palazzo itself, and for four and a half centuries that archive was closed to outsiders. Then, in 1998, to the surprise of many, the Vatican decided to make the archive available to scholars.
Any archive is a repository of what some sliver of civilisation has wrought, for good or ill. This one is no exception. The archive may owe its existence to the Inquisition, but it helps explain the world that exists today. In our imaginations, we offhandedly associate the term “inquisition” with the term “Dark Ages”. But consider what an inquisition – any inquisition – really is: a set of disciplinary procedures targeting specific groups, codified in law, organised systematically, enforced by surveillance, exemplified by severity, sustained over time, backed by institutional power and justified by a vision of the one true path. Considered that way, the Inquisition is more accurately seen not as a relic but as a harbinger.
Murphy considers the long shadow the Inquisition has had on our modern world @ New Humanist
Matthew Adams reflects on the 500th anniversary of Eramus' The Praise of Folly @ New Humanist.Five hundred years ago a strange new book appeared on the streets of Paris: the Moriae Encomium (or The Praise of Folly), by Desiderius Erasmus. Born in Rotterdam in 1466, Erasmus was educated at a school in Deventer (“the day will come when thou wilt reach the highest summit of erudition,” predicted one of his elders), and after his parents died of the plague when he was just 13, his guardians sent him to be schooled at a monastic institution known as a “Brothers’ House”. These unhappy years – during which, he recalled, “some secret natural impulse drove me towards good literature” – were followed by a period in a monastery of Augustinians, before he took up a series of teaching positions, first at the University of Paris in 1494, and later as a Professor of Divinity at Cambridge.These institutions were already beginning to register the influence of Northern humanism, a movement that sought to establish a new synthesis of the values inscribed in ancient Greek and Roman literature and those of Christianity, and that counted Erasmus as its prince. The humanist idea amounted to a programme for educational, theological and religious reform, and in The Praise of Folly – which Erasmus composed over seven days in England in the house of his “sweetest” friend, Sir Thomas More (the book’s title in Greek, Morias Enkomion translates as The Praise of More) – we find the period’s most condensed and ironic example of this radical attempt to harmonise the heuristic claims of rational philosophical enquiry with those of revealed religion. The Folly fast became the most famous secular book of the century (running through 36 editions in Erasmus’s lifetime alone); it provoked enormous controversy; and to contemporary readers it must have seemed, to borrow from Peter Ackroyd, “as if the whole structure of the late medieval world was being shaken."read more
Ebenezer Obadare reflects on the issues underlying attacks on gays in African countries @ New Humanist.
A spectre is haunting Africa – the spectre of homosexuality. Over the past decade, a curious and totally unlikely coalition of religious leaders, the ruling class and sections of the mainstream media has launched a vigorous campaign against homosexuality and perceived homosexuals. Trading in the most spiteful rhetoric and symbols imaginable, members of this alliance have sung from the same hymnal, affirming, implausibly, that homosexuality is a recent import into Africa and that homosexuals are responsible for the continent’s postcolonial throes. Not unpredictably, the alliance’s investment in hate has yielded bountiful dividends of violence and murder. In January, the Ugandan teacher and gay rights activist David Kato was murdered by yet unidentified assailants after a national news magazine in the country “outed” (Kato never attempted to hide sexual orientation) him as gay and openly urged his execution. Ugandan police were suspiciously quick to blame his death on a botched robbery operation.African countries, to be sure, are not unique in this assault on perceived sexual deviance. Western countries may have instituted a raft of legal measures to protect sexual minorities, but such legal protection often has to contend with deeply rooted cultural antipathy. The truth is that even in the West, the struggle for sexual parity is unfinished, a fact the ongoing battle over same-sex marriage in the United States amply illustrates.read more
Sally Feldman considers our obsessions with collecting @ New Humanist.
Tom Hanks does it with old typewriters, Demi Moore and Courtney Love enjoy vintage dolls, while Quentin Tarantino prefers board games, and both Whoopi Goldberg and Lily Tomlin go mad for Bakelite jewellery. What they all have in common is that most powerful and human of instincts: the urge to collect.As someone whose closest connection with the hunter-gatherer impetus was the time I tracked down a bargain Chloe handbag at the Selfridges sale, I find it difficult to identify with this urge. It shouldn’t be that foreign to me. I’ve known my fair share of collectors. There’s Barbara, who can barely move in her tiny flat for the vast array of teddy bears dominating the soft furnishings; Roger, who collects saxophones, Hawaiian shirts, Art Deco ceramics and fake food; Guido, an Italian financier whose mansion is spilling over with vintage kitchen utensils and old radios. I once shared a flat with someone who eventually ended up sleeping in the kitchen because his room was piled to the ceiling with magazines, records and tapes of music programmes he’d carefully made, labelled, but never got round to hearing.What I’ve learned, the hard way, is that the one thing you must never ask a collector is “why?” It’ll get you nowhere. They’ll just stare at you in baffled amazement before returning to contemplation of their most recent acquisition, or dreaming of the next one. These are people who thrive on making classifications, pondering the arrangements of their trophies and annotating them with informative labels. Often their obsession seems to derive from a need to impose order on a chaotic world, from the fear of death and oblivion. The collection will ward off mortality, carrying the illusion of eternity. Collections represent nostalgia for previous worlds, a desire to reclaim the past, to rescue and give meaning to objects otherwise lost in the flux. At the same time, though, collecting also encourages some of our most dangerous and base qualities: possessiveness, acquisitiveness, the lust for power.read more
Philip Ball on the uses and abuses of the monster myth @ New Humanist.
When Time magazine interviewed Ian Wilmut after his team announced the cloning of Dolly the sheep in 1997, it remarked that “One doesn’t expect Dr Frankenstein to show up in a wool sweater, baggy parka, soft British accent and the face of a bank clerk.” It was one of many examples of how Frankenstein, supplemented by other myths both ancient (Faust) and modern (Brave New World), sets the context for media commentary on new developments that allow us to modify and perhaps to create living organisms. Even the “synthetic” microbe created by Craig Venter and his co-workers in 2010 was quickly dubbed “Frankenbug”, and reports dwelt on the perceived Faustian overtones of “playing God”. Some might say that, in the age of assisted conception and cloning, Mary Shelley’s Gothic novel is more relevant than ever. But that’s to put the case back-to-front: we shouldn’t be asking what Frankenstein has to tell us about reproductive technologies, but rather, how this 19th-century tale came to supply the journalistic shorthand that makes us fear them.read more