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Saturday, October 25, 2014
Date Posted:
7/21/2003


A Tale of Jesuit Cloak and Dagger Intrigue in Counter Reformation Rome A Tale of Jesuit Cloak and Dagger Intrigue in Counter Reformation Rome


Dr Clive Gillis

Rome casts scorn upon Protestant fundamentalists for harping on about the cunning exploits of the Society of Jesus – as though we had compiled a folklore to indulge our own prejudices.

The amazing story of Galileo’s betrayal came to light through the unbiased historical research of Pietro Redondi. Protestants who have been following this series will have realised by now that for the Inquisition education was fine, but any threat to the theory of transubstantiation and the mass took priority. There is no doubt in the present writer’s mind that quite apart from the longstanding antagonism between the Dominicans and the Jesuits, there was a specific Jesuit plot against Galileo following the publication of Galileo’s The Assayer in 1623. What is more, the present writer believes that this plot accounts for the document “G3” denouncing Galileo, which Redondi recently discovered in the inquisition. In essence, “G3” accused Galileo of undermining the doctrine of transubstantiation by his atomic theory expounded in The Assayer. Moreover it seems that the Jesuits deliberately betrayed Galileo in such a way that their hand would not be seen, as indeed it might not have been but for the researchers of Redondi.  

Dominicans versus Jesuits

The trouble began when the Jesuits introduced some changes into their rigid educational system laid down in their manual, the Ratio Studiorum. Not only did the Jesuits begin winning Roman Catholic boys to their seminaries but Protestant parents followed suit because of the excellence and Suavity of the Jesuit schools – and that in central Europe, the battlefield of Counter Reformation. The Dominicans responded by putting early editions of the Ratio on to the Inquisition’s Index of Forbidden Books, as the Dominicans battled for intellectual supremacy against the emerging Jesuit “alternative elite”.

The Jesuits took censure after censure from the traditionalists. But they turned these occasions to their own advantage, publicising their views and ingratiating themselves with the great and the good outside the Roman Church. When Protestant families began to crave the Jesuit’s services, Jesuit ambition became boundless.

Hence, when Galileo appeared, championing the theory of the earth revolving around the sun (against the Dominicans, Aquinas and Aristotle) it presented the Jesuits with an opportunity for some further sport at the Dominicans expense, together with some helpful publicity. This was particularly useful in places like Prague where the Jesuit University, the Klementinium, sported a state of the art observatory, still to be seen today. This was luring Protestant pupils away from the nearby, Protestant, Charles University. Parents then as now wanted the very best education for their children.

The discovery of “G3”

In June 1982, the expert historian Redondi gained admittance to the Archive of the Inquisition. He found there the hitherto unknown denunciation of Galileo for challenging the theory of transubstantiation. Redondi recognised the handwriting of this mysterious document “G3”. It was that of an ambitious, young, rising star in the top Jesuit College in Rome, The Collegio Romano, Fr Orazio Grassi. Now although everyone was encouraged to betray heretics to the Inquisition, only a notable figure would be allowed a formal deposition of their accusations in this way. Such denunciations had to be presented in a very specific format and special manuals of procedure for denouncement existed, the so called “elegant protocols” which had to be followed. The content of the denunciation had to be precise in theology and science.

“G3” was just such. It was a model denunciation. Only Rome’s senior men would be allowed to deposit such a denunciation and Fr Grassi was one of these. The devil, the wind and the Gesu

The high walled medieval buildings and atmospheric long narrow passageways around the Jesuit Collegio Romano have not altered since the time of the Galileo plot. The two main Jesuit Churches, the Gesu and St Ignatius, with its attached Collegio Romano, comprise one huge block of Jesuit real estate. (Fr Grassi was the architect of the huge dome of St Ignatius.) The distance between the two churches is actually quite small yet the author still sometimes gets lost. The wind sweeps along these passages. According to ancient lore, this is because the wind and the devil were walking together one day when the devil suddenly disappeared into the Gesu. The devil has not come out again, and the wind is still waiting outside!

But most atmospheric of all is the narrow way known as the Via St Ignazio, named after Loyola the founder of the Jesuits, which separates the Jesuit block and the Collegio Romano from their rivals in the Dominican block which includes Santa Maria Sopra Minerva and the convent where Galileo was tried by the Inquisition. The Jesuits and the Dominicans could not even glare at one another from opposite windows as an elevated covered walkway connects the two as a bridge. How often the author has gazed up at this sight and imagined the whispers, the spies standing in the shadows, and the dark dealings and betrayals as priests slipped to and fro between the two camps.

Orazio Grassi was an ambitious prodigy from Savona. He had worked his way up from a novitiate to a lectureship in Mathematics in the 23 years he had spent in Rome prior to the publication of The Assayer. Grassi was probably behind the group of Jesuits, headed by Fr Clavius, who fawned on Galileo when Galileo visited the Collegio Romano to compare notes in 1612. Galileo was just becoming fashionable and his visit was a Jesuit coup, one their Dominican neighbours must have smarted under. Grassi subsequently rose to greater heights and he must have been one of those who counselled the ageing Cardinal Bellarmine to let Galileo off at Galileo’s first trial before the Inquisition, 1616.

Grassi versus Galileo

But soon then here followed a spat between Grassi and Galileo. The precise details are conjectural but the following outline is almost certainly broadly correct.

Galileo was frequently ill and missed observing some important comets in 1619. Indeed the only comet he ever witnessed was as a child. Professor Grassi, as he now was, seized his chance to deflect some of Galileo’s glory on to the Society of Jesus. Having observed the comets in detail Grassi published his lectures anonymously. But there was a problem. The Jesuit General, although welcoming the growing distinctiveness of Jesuit thinking, insisted that nothing be allowed to threaten the Aristotelian bedrock on which Transubstantiation rested.

Thus Grassi’s observations were fine but as a Jesuit he was compelled to draw erroneous conclusions from his data lest he compromise the theories of Aristotle and thereby endanger the doctrine of transubstantiation. Absolute obedience was the Jesuit hallmark, and Grassi could not deviate. Of course Galileo could see the fallacies in Grassi’s reasoning.

What followed is not difficult to picture. Galileo and his pupil Mario Guiducci collaborate in a scathing rebuttal of Grassi’s Discourse on the Comets. Jesuit pride is wounded. Grassi puts all his might into his reply, Libra (The Balance), written under his pupil’s name Lotario Sarsi and published in 1619. But again he is crippled by the Jesuit General’s insistence that Aristotelianism be held sacrosanct. Galileo now discovers his enemy is a Jesuit, Fr Grassi, writing under the pseudonym of Sarsi. (A modern Jesuit admits that Grassi’s attempt to take on an intellect such as Galileo’s was “downright silly”.)

The Jesuit’s enemies then bring pressure to bear on Galileo to trounce Grassi with a refutation. Galileo wisely hesitates but the “pride of the Jesuits” becomes so intolerable that he finally acquiesces. Although Galileo prepared his reply in secret, the Jesuit spy network is soon alerted to the fact that The Assayer (The Fine Balance to weigh gold) was on the stocks. By January 1623, about six months before the Assayer’s publication, Galileo is informed that the Jesuits “have seen through everything”.

Grassi dismayed

Ambitious Grassi is dismayed at the prospect of being humiliated again by Galileo. He is determined not to be the one to bring ridicule on his society and cause “denigration of the Collegio Romano”. He is thrown into a frenzy of retaliation. The whole spring term syllabus is changed to fortify the novices against what might be in The Assayer. Grassi is so filled with rage that, unable to learn from experience, he plans a reply before The Assayer is even published. But Galileo knows Jesuit tactics too well. Grassi must want to be the first man in Rome to have a copy of The Assayer. So why not help him? The spy network in the alleys busses again. A message reaches Grassi that an advanced copy of Galileo’s new book is in the Sun Bookstore. Grassi takes the bait and “immediately rushed there”. On looking at the title page, with its satirical title, “he changed colour”. He lost his Jesuit composure and castigated the innocent bookseller, boasting to him that although Galileo may have taken three years, his reply would be out in three months.

But Father Grassi needs to be certain that he will triumph this time. This meant discovering exactly what Galileo’s present state of knowledge and interest is. He needs a window into Galileo’s mind. He soon finds one, in true Jesuit fashion. Galileo’s pupil and confidant Mario Guiducci is looking after Galileo’s business and particularly the launch of The Assayer in Rome. Guiducci collapses with a malarial crisis rambling incoherently. Galileo’s intelligence supply is cut off. Yet, despite being a stranger, Guiducci seems to be well taken care of and, as he improves, Fr Grassi and “several other” top Jesuits from the Collegio Romano become his sick visitors. He is flattered.

Fleeced by the Jesuits

When he was improving, he wrote to Galileo of his conversation with Grassi. Apparently “a large part of our conversation consisted of praising your writings”. When he was well enough to go out again he found himself unexpectedly welcome in the Collegio Romano as invitation followed invitation. It was surprising how each time he just happened to bump into Fr Grassi who really seemed to have all the time in the world for him. It was only when Guiducci was fully restored to health and found he could not get away from Grassi that he realised he had been fleeced by the Jesuits of the Collegio Romano.

In the event, Fr Grassi, either by order of his superiors or because of the information he had dragged from the febrile Guiducci, or both, abandoned the idea of a rushed reply. Three years passed before his Ratio Ponderum (Teaching upon weights) was published in 1626, also under the pseudonym Sarsi. It was a better book but could not hope to stand up to the progress of science and Galileo’s developing ideas, because everything Grassi proposed had to be twisted to agree with Aristotle. One suspects Fr Grassi realised this for himself by now.

Grassi needed an insurance policy to protect his own skin and safeguard the Society of Jesus. He goes to his confessor who directs him to the Jesuit General. The Society must distance itself from Galileo. They then consider how the Galileo threat could be neutralised. Grassi, with arguments fresh in his mind from writing the Ratio Ponderum, proceeds to ingratiate himself with his general.

Grassi has read the Assayer carefully and seen that Galileo has done the very thing forbidden to himself. Galileo has abandoned Aristotle and propounded an atomic theory which strikes at the heart of transubstantiation and the mass. “If we alert the Inquisition to his activities,” they scheme, “with an elegant and minutely accurate denouncement of unarguable guilt for assailing the mass surely that tribunal will relieve us of our problem without anyone knowing we had anything at all to do with it”. A comparison of “G3” with the appropriate passages in the Ratio Ponderum shows striking similarities in argument and style making it likely that the same author wrote both. And so the mysterious “G3” finds its way to the dreaded tribunal. The rest, as they say, is history. Galileo is sacrificed for the good of the Society of Jesus. 

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