(with promises of three future posts)
Louis IX reigned as king of France from age 12, in 1226, until he died at age 56, from dysentery during one of the Crusades, in 1270.
King Louis, illustrious in his own right, had an even-more illustrious contemporary. St. Thomas Aquinas walked the earth for just about the same span of years (1225-1274). The two saints’ paths crossed in Paris, including at Notre Dame cathedral, then under construction.
King Louis did many magnanimous things. He invented the presumption of innocence in criminal courts. He forgave rebels. He lived such a humble and prayerful life that they clamored for the canonization of the “monk-king” immediately upon his death.
Centuries later, they named St. Louis, Missouri, after him. An equestrian statue stands in front of the St. Louis Art Museum, in Forest Park: The Apotheosis of St. Louis. The statue represented the city, as its emblem. That is, until they built the now-more-famous Gateway Arch on the Mississippi River.
Apotheosis literally means, ‘making a god out of.’ Figuratively it means: an artistic depiction of a human subject as a heavenly citizen. Another example: the U.S. Capitol dome has the painting Apotheosis of George Washington, by Constantino Brumidi. (That artist lies buried just a few yards from the grave of my dear dad.)
Last month some citizens of St. Louis started a petition, urging the removal of the statue of the king-saint. The petition insists that King St. Louis IX “was a rabid anti-Semite” and “vehemently Islamophobic.”
Owing to this controversy, groups of people have gathered at the statue frequently in recent weeks. At one point, young Father Stephen Shumacher tried to defend the honor of the saint. He had a hard time getting through to anyone. But we have to admire him for his bravery.
Now, did King Louis do evil in north Africa during the Crusades? Only if waiting too long to retreat, and getting himself captured, counts as ‘doing evil.’
Unpacking the Crusades morally would overwhelm our efforts at this moment. But I think we can safely say that King St. Louis IX bears no particular stain there. No one can number him among those who abused the mission the Crusaders had.
But: As a young king, Louis did order the wholesale burning of Jewish holy books.
From what I can tell, Father Shumacher never had the opportunity to defend King St. Louis on that point. Perhaps the young priest could have offered a defense. He could rightly have pointed out that the term “anti-Semitic” does not fit. King Louis did not despise the Jews because of their ethnic origins. He simply despised their Talmud.
In 1240, the king heard a public debate between a former Jew, who had converted to Catholicism, and Rabbis Judah and Yehiel of Paris. It was not a fair fight. The former Jew claimed that the Talmud says evil things–evil things which it manifestly does not say. (Reminds me a little of a situation I have found myself in recently.)
After the debate, in the square in front of the Louvre, they burned thousands upon thousands of carefully transcribed pages of ancient text, in an open bonfire. King Louis, acting under the orders of the Pope Gregory IX, had ordered the confiscation of every Talmud in the kingdom. They burned over twenty cartloads of hand-printed Hebrew books.
To this day, faithful Jews lament this event with an annual fast in June.
I find myself lamenting it as well. It hits very close to home, since a Catholic authority has ordered the “burning” of the very words you are reading right now. (Not that I’m comparing this goofy weblog to the ageless wisdom of the Talmud.)
My hero St. Thomas Aquinas hadn’t finished his teenage years when the 1242 Talmud burning took place. He was still growing up, in what is now Italy.
But the Angelic Doctor cannot altogether escape association with the evil of that day. His teacher, St. Albert the Great, participated in the Talmud disputation in Paris. And St. Thomas, in his Summa Contra Gentiles, quotes from a spurious text in order to accuse Jewish theology of an error it doesn’t actually have. Aquinas quotes from the “extractions” from the Talmud written up by the ex-Jew who argued dishonestly for the holy book’s destruction.
We will come back to this. The debate that preceded the Talmud burning has some illuminating aspects. The arguments made by Rabbi Yehiel, in defense of the Talmud, deserve our careful consideration. A scholar at New York University wrote an informative paper about this, which I will summarize for you, dear reader, soon.
…The city of St. Louis will have a new Archbishop on the anniversary of the king-saint’s death, August 25. The new archbishop will come to St. Louis from the diocese of Springfield, Massachusetts, over which he has presided for six years.
Years ago, Archbishop-elect Mitch Rozanski served as the pastor of a cluster of inner-city Baltimore parishes. I taught middle-school in a neighboring ‘hood at that time. I used to say a little prayer to the Lord in the tabernacle when I ran past then-Father Rozanski’s parishes on my evening jogs.
Thing is: The aw-shucks Baltimorean arrives in St. Louis just as a controversy of enormous significance unfolds in the diocese he’s leaving. A retired judge in Massachusetts has published a report about the inner-workings of the Catholic Diocese of Springfield.
We cannot overstate the significance of Judge Velis’ report. It reveals in detail the profound problems in the way our Church’s diocesan bureaucracies treat sex-abuse survivors. I will soon provide you, dear reader, with a full digest of Judge Velis’ report. It is a document that can guide our discussion here for months, or even years, to come.
The Catholic people of St. Louis deserve better than what this situation will do to their sense of confidence. They have a new archbishop coming to them from a diocese where a clamor is growing that he ought to resign. He presided over an utterly heartbreaking debacle.
That said, we know something about good Catholic people deserving better than what they get at the hands of the hierarchy these days…
Thirdly: We have to face another name change. One that cuts me to my very heart. More on that soon, too.