What a prince Bill Keller is. In reviewing John Julius Norwich’s “Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy,” The New York Times’ executive editor warns that this “rollicking narrative” featuring “265 popes (plus various usurpers and antipopes), feral hordes of Vandals, Huns and Visigoths, expansionist emperors, Byzantine intriguers, Borgias and Medicis, heretic zealots, conspiring clerics, bestial inquisitors and more” might not appeal to “devout Catholics.”
It’s a nice little warning: The following history contains scenes that might shock readers. Not recommended for expectant mothers or members of the Mystical Body of Christ.
I have one question: Just who does Keller think he’s talking to?
Tony Montana — aka “Scarface” — told the INS goons that they could do nothing to him that Castro hadn’t done already. Well, Norwich can’t tell us anything that Garry Wills hasn’t told us already in “Papal Sin.” And then there’s James Carroll. I used to mix him up with Jim Carroll, the “Basketball Diaries” guy. It’s not an unreasonable mistake: The Jim Carroll Band’s greatest hit was “People Who Died”; James Carroll’s “Constantine’s Sword” might as well be subtitled: “Six Million People Who Died, And All Because of Us.” Have you ever seen the thing? It’s 750 pages of pure j’accuse. I’d as lief be spitted on by an actual Roman gladius as suffer a copy to fall on my foot.
Keller must be paying too much attention to the Church’s cheering section — people like George Weigel and Bill Donohue, who spill gallons of sweat and ink in defense of her good name.
Well, it’s a living, I guess, but it’s never made any nevermind to me, nor, I suspect, to most Catholics. There’s real pride to be taken in knowing that even our falls are epic and spectacular.
What’s the worst thing a fundamental pastor’s ever done? Kiss another guy? Smoke some glass? Rip off the faithful? Junior varsity. Nickel and dime. Amateur hour. When one of our popes feels like living in infamy, he sells an entire hemisphere into slavery. You say Franklin Graham was a real hell-raiser? Cesare Borgia could have stolen his pickup and his girl and carved AUT CAESAR AUT NULLUS in his forehead before Lucrezia finished pouring arsenic in his grits.
Max Weber links the rise of the middle class to the emergence of the Calvinist work ethic. Historians and sociologists may dispute the point; what is indisputable is that scandals involving Protestant clergy are dreary and cheesy in a unmistakably middle-class way. Take the PTL thing. Jim Bakker makes a few million ripping off hayseeds and pays a quarter-million in hush money to a secretary who later becomes a Howard Stern regular. And what does he have to show for it? Heritage U.S.A. Not even humorist P.J. O’Rourke had the heart to make fun of the guests there. As he put it, “it would be like hunting dairy cattle with a high-powered rifle.”
Jerry Falwell called Bakker “the greatest scab and cancer on the face of Christianity in 2,000 years of church history.” Yes, he was serious; his imagination is that impoverished. If chicanery in the name of God were a sport, these clowns would be in the AFL.
When we put our hand to shady direct-marketing campaigns, we get St. Peter’s, the Pietá and the Sistine Chapel. Game, set and match to us.
Evening the score
You want to talk violent extremism? Actually, the Protestants begin to look like legitimate players here. The Scots who formed the Solemn League and Covenant were a pretty scary bunch — see Sir Walter Scott’s “Old Mortality” — but they still lost to the Jacobites at Killiecrankie. Some credit should go to the Dutch Reform pastors who urged on the Boers to whomp the Zulus at Blood River with a score of 3,000-love. They also gave the British a pretty tight argument in both Boer Wars.
But after Tommy Atkins marched into Pretoria, something happened: Protestants worldwide lost the last of their mojo. Mr. Scopes, the monkey man, was tried and convicted without an ounce of hot tar or a feather being spent on him. Tragic. And look at the Germans. Lutheranism had enough in the tank to sustain them through a few years of low-grade Schrecklichkeit, including the invasion of neutral Belgium and unrestricted submarine warfare. They needed to develop Nazism before they could climb back in the ring and go really nuts.
Even recently have Catholics been going bad in style. Having decided that Charles de Gaulle was a traitor and a tyrant, French military officers — all being well-bred graduates of St.-Cyr and l’École Polytechnique — didn’t stoop to floating any rumors about his birth certificate. No, asking themselves, “What would Thomas Aquinas do?,” they came up with the answer: Take him out. An air force colonel named Bastien-Thiry engaged five gunmen to ambush the presidential car on the Rue des Petits-Clamarts. De Gaulle survived; most of the conspirators escaped to Argentina, where they found jobs teaching naval midshipmen to deliver electric shocks to dissidents’ testicles in a properly Thomistic fashion.
Bastien-Thiry was arrested, tried by court-martial and sentenced to death. He went to the firing squad clutching his rosary. He had been a Boy Scout. His specialty was designing air-to-surface missiles. His given name was “Jean-Marie.” Even our sissypants wonk patsies are hardcore.
Geeks and apostates
If Scholasticism has retained for us the services of all the best wonks, the glorious clutter of Catholic tradition has pulled in the geeks. Lending itself to a cottage industry in the form of medals and relics and holy cards, the veneration of saints tapped into humanity’s collect-’em, swap-’em-with-your-friends impulse long before anyone had heard of comic books or Garbage Pail Kids. Much has been made of the fact that Superman’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, were Jewish, but nobody’s drawn the most poignant conclusion. Aside from the golem, and the remarkable rebbes venerated by the Hasidic minority, the Chosen People haven’t had a decent superhero since the first century.
We, on the other hand, manage to produce at least one levitator or bilocator in every generation.
Our apostates are the most talented in the world. Anyway, they bear the scars of their origins more proudly than anyone else does. When’s the last time you heard a writer cite his oppressive Baptist upbringing as a spur to his creativity? Has any pop singer felt moved to deface a picture of John Knox on live TV? No, if any Protestant performer evokes his roots, he does it with a queasy false tenderness, because: 1) he’s cutting a gospel album; and 2) wants to appeal to gospel fans. Unlike Catholics, this bunch feels no frisson upon being kicked in the groin.
When we see Lady Gaga, we recall she went to Catholic school, note that her meat dress owes a certain debt to the hair shirt, and even lay money she’ll come back in the end. And why not? If Frank Sinatra boomeranged, there’s hope for anyone.
Max Lindenman writes the “Diary of a Wimpy Catholic” blog on Patheos.com, from which this article was adapted.