Imagine that an unknown 20-year-old were to write a book today taking issue with some point of religious doctrine, basing his arguments on his interpretation of texts in Hebrew, Greek and Latin. I doubt anyone would notice.
Michael Servetus did that almost 500 years ago, and it caused a firestorm. He was instantly condemned as a heretic and was forced to live the rest of his life pretending to be someone else. His books were burned. Eventually he was burned at the stake in John Calvin’s Geneva.
His real crime, of course, was to think for himself. He challenged the authority of church and its hierarchy.
I write these words from Zaragoza, Spain, where I just attended a two-day congress commemorating the 500th anniversary of Servetus’s birth. The first day’s sessions were held in the art museum in Zaragoza. The second day was held an hour away in the small village he was born, Villanueva de Sigena.
What amazing change. Servetus, or Miguel Servet as he is called here, is now a cultural hero. Political leaders attended the opening and closing ceremonies. Spain, once a bastion of the most conservative Catholicism, now allows gays to marry. Thousands come to Villanueva every year and pay homage to Servetus. Yet when I was a young man Francisco Franco still led a Fascist government here.
I pray that all this progress is permanent. We too easily take our freedom for granted, and often forget the terrible price others have paid.