John Paul II, Second Father and Cover-upper

(Audio version of the post)

Hope you had a happy St. Patrick’s day on Friday. The late Pope John Paul II regarded Poles and Irish as spiritual cousins. That’s why he made a trip to Ireland during the first year of his papacy, 1979, along with a trip to Poland. (And he came to Mexico and the US that year also, as some of us remember.)

Recently a documentary aired in Poland. It was the work of Marcin Gutowski, who has spent years trying to understand how his countryman Karol Wojtyla dealt with the crime of sexual abuse of minors.


Gutowski has a book called Blindness (Bielmo), about what John Paul II knew and when. Also, Ekke Overbeek has just published Maxima Culpa, on the same topic (both books currently available only in Polish).

Gutowski’s documentary, which has caused a national uproar in Poland since its airing earlier this month, reviews the cases of three criminal priests with whom Wojtyla had dealings, while he was Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow, Poland, prior to his election as pope.

The documentary uses the Polish language, of course, which I don’t know. And you can’t watch it in full in the US right now anyway. (The internet is not licensed to show it here.) But I have done a fair amount of digging around to try to understand what exactly the documentary asserts.

It asserts that Karol Wojtyla did what he could to cover-up the criminal acts of sexually abusive priests.

Not only do many Poles not want to think this, but a lot of us now-older American Catholics do not want to think of Pope John Paul II as a sex-abuse cover-upper, either. When I was first starting out in life, JP II inspired me to enter the Church and become a priest. I read everything he ever wrote. Throughout my twenties (the 1990’s), I revered Pope John Paul II as the wisest and best man living.

The fact is, though, that we have reason to credit the portrait of Wojtyla that Gutowski and Overbeek have painted. They have given us: Cardinal Wojtyla, sex-abuse cover-upper archbishop. We already had the picture of the same man as: sex-abuse cover-upper pope. We had that picture clearly before us, if only we took the time to look.

John Paul II on the Mall
John Paul II in Washington, D.C., 1979

In the spring of 2011, sex-abuse survivor Peter Isely published an essay about his experiences with the late Polish pope.

Isely chronicled the hundreds, if not thousands, of personal appeals by sex-abuse survivors to JP II, all of which went unanswered.

On the centenary of JP II’s birth, I compiled a little bit of the evidence of the pope’s cover-up of the crimes of Father Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legionnaires of Christ.

Then the Vatican’s “McCarrick Report” came out in late 2020. It contains a decisive nugget of information about Pope John Paul II’s role in McCarrick’s career, a nugget of information that I have mediated on long and hard.

It was the year 2000…

The pope was considering who should become the new Archbishop of Washington. The Cardinal Archbishop of New York had denounced McCarrick to the pope, warning him in the strongest terms not to promote the then-archbishop of Newark to the nation’s capital.

McCarrick wrote to Rome, denying that he was a sexual predator. But he admitted that he had made seminarians sleep in his bed. McCarrick knew that he could not deny that particular fact, since too many churchmen knew it to be true. He risked being dismissed as a liar if he tried to deny it.

So McCarrick told the pope a story about the “family life” he shared with his seminarians. As if we were still living in the 1800’s, when non-married adults did sometimes sleep in the same bed for purely practical reasons. Like to keep warm, or because there weren’t enough beds.

Since no adults in the western world had shared beds for those reasons in many decades (except in emergencies), McCarrick’s explanation rang colossally hollow, to be sure. But, actually, that didn’t matter, when it came to the decision that JP II had to make.

The simple, undisputed fact–that the Archbishop made seminarians sleep in his bed–that was itself a clear firing offense.


From the point-of-view of any reasonable boss of a boss, if you learn that your subordinate forced his subordinates get into bed with him, and there’s no dispute about the fact, then the culprit is done. Fired. Out. In this case, with defrocking procedures to begin immediately.

Remember, we’re not talking about the year 1900. We’re talking about the year 2000. In the year 2000, there would have been no controversy about this in any well-run company. You force a subordinate to sleep in the same bed as you, you’re fired.

But JP II did not fire McCarrick. He made McCarrick the Archbishop of Washington and a Cardinal. I was there.

McC went on to participate in the conclave that elected Benedict XVI. He went on to preach a beatification Mass. He stood right behind Pope Francis when the pope came to Washington to do a canonization. He had a high school named after him.

McCarrick went on to do many, many other things that a cruel villain like himself never should have been doing in Christ’s Church. Including ordaining me a priest on May 24, 2003.

JP II could have, and should have–by any reasonable estimation–stopped it all from happening. He did not.

I think the pope fuzzily imagined in his mind some kind of rug that all this hard-hearted nonsense would somehow fit under. Because, by then, he had been imagining the existence of a such a rug for decades.

JP II’s apologists refer to this decision about McCarrick, made in AD 2000, as an “administrative error.” Administrative error? If the pope had accidentally sold Michelangelo’s Pieta to Bono for 15,000 euros, that would have been an administrative error. This was something else altogether.

This leaves us, then, with plenty of reason to believe Gutowski and Overbeek, plenty of reason to credit the extensive evidence they present. That said, their portrait of the cover-upper Archbishop of Krakow has been criticized in two ways:

1. The Polish bishops have argued that JP II’s pontificate provides evidence of his “decisive measures against cases of sexual abuse in the Church.”

The bishops point to a number of examples, especially JP II’s decision, in 2001, to reserve to the Holy See all canonical trials of criminal sex-abuser clergymen. Starting in 2001, Rome began to handle the ecclesiastical punishment of this particular crime. This change, the Polish bishops write, “proved to be a turning point in the Church’s fight against sexual crimes within its own ranks.”

In point of fact, it has proved to be a turning point in the Church’s cover-up of sexual crimes within its own ranks. This centralization of sex-abuse cases has had this result: A huge mountain of information about these crimes now resides permanently behind the Vatican walls, totally inaccessible to any secular law-enforcement agency on earth. Many of those crimes have become actionable in secular courts of law. But the affected parties do not have access to the documented information held by the Vatican.

Which means this 2001 change has now become the most massive Church cover-up yet. Initiated by Pope John Paul II.

2. A more-trenchant criticism of Gutowski’s and Overbeek’s portrait of Wojtyla comes from scholars of Polish history who question the reliability of some of the documents that the journalists relied on to form their narrative. These scholars raise legitimate questions. Certainly the memos of Communist secret policemen, their spies, and counter-spies within the Church–none of these can be taken at face value.

This criticism does not in the end, though, amount to very much. For one thing, both Gutowski and Overbeek sought access to diocesan archives, and Church officials denied their requests. More importantly, however: The journalists’ narrative does not rely decisively on Communist-archive material. Both Gutowksi and Overbeek personally interviewed sex-abuse survivors who had been victimized when Wojtyla was Archbishop. Gutowski interviewed a survivor who personally told Wojtyla, at the time, about the abuse. The Archbishop said: Keep it quiet.

Boston Globe 2002Poland is in an uproar right now not because Gutowski and Overbeek have produced the first evidence that Wojtyla covered-up crimes. Poland is in an uproar because these journalists have now produced the decisive evidence. We could say the same about the Catholic Church in the USA in 2002: That year, the Boston Globe did not produce the first evidence that the bishops of our country had operated as a mafia of criminal cover-uppers. The Globe produced the decisive evidence of that fact.


In 2009, they held a series of meetings in the Vatican that resulted in a declaration that Karol Wojtyla had lived a life of “heroic virtue.” The first step towards sainthood.

Very little information about those meetings is available to the public. The official documentation provided on the website of the Vatican Dicastery for the Causes of Saints describes as heroic JP II’s forgiveness of his unsuccessful assassin and his struggle with Parkinson’s disease.

Did anyone involved in those meetings consider the point-of-view of the victims of crimes that Wojtyla had almost certainly covered up during his tenure as Archbishop of Krakow? Did anyone think about the families of those victims?

By 2009, the Church had supposedly “learned its lesson” about covering-up sex abuse. In an interview recorded earlier this month, Pope Francis claimed that ‘everything changed’ in the Church after 2002, after the ‘Boston scandal.’ (You can watch the interview below.)

Did the Cardinals assembled in 2009, then, discuss the point-of-view of Polish sex-abuse survivors, and their families? Did Benedict XVI consider it, before he signed the decree, declaring to the world that the cover-upper archbishop and pope lived a life of “heroic virtue?”

We have no way of knowing the answer to these questions.

But we do know, because a credible Vatican insider has revealed it, that someone said to Pope Francis, shortly before he canonized JP II in 2014: “Holy Father, there certainly must be sex-abuse survivors, and their families, still living in Poland–people who will remember Wojtyla telling them to keep quiet about the crimes committed against them. And someday, that fact will come out. Someday soon. Maybe you shouldn’t go through with this canonization?”

We know that this conversation took place. Pope Francis canonized JP II anyway.

In the interview above, Pope Francis explains it all away with this argument:

We cannot judge people in history by our own standards. We have to apply the standards they followed at the time. For the Church, everything changed in 2002, because of the Boston scandal. Before then, it was all cover-up. In families now, in neighborhoods, it’s still all cover-up. You have to judge people according to the standards of their time and place.

I, for one, find this argument utterly unconvincing. After all, it is contradicted by practically every fact of the actual case. The law of the land in Poland held, at the time, that sexually abusing a minor constituted a crime. Wojtyla knowingly covered up crimes. He told people to keep quiet who themselves recognized at the time that crimes had been committed against them, or against their children.

Now, was this all part of a political game Wojtyla had to play, to try to outwit  the Communists? If that idea can explain away the cover-ups, then why didn’t Wojtyla do anything about those very crimes, and those very victims, when he could have? Namely, when he became the Bishop of Rome, the pope, in 1978?

No, we can find a better explanation in Peter Isely’s essay:

John Paul II’s advocacy for human rights around the world clearly and decisively ended at the front door of the church.

The Polish bishops claim that:

The root cause of the communications media assault on John Paul II is the attitude of the media toward his teaching which does not correspond to contemporary ideologies promoting hedonism, relativism, and moral nihilism.

The irony here is enormous.

First, how about this question: Who is the moral nihilist? The victim who denounces a crime, or the one who tries to shame the victim into silence?

Here’s another question: Who exactly has compromised the authority of the Church here? Gutowski and Overbeek? A historical debate about what exactly happened in the Krakow chancery in the late 1960’s and early 70’s does not touch on the question of whether the then-Archbishop is in purgatory or in heaven.

The choir of Yes men who went along with a rushed canonization: they are the ones who have compromised the authority of the Church. Not the survivors who have spoken. The papal cult-of-personality cultivators: they have compromised the authority of the Church. Not the survivors who have spoken.

john paul superstar time magazine

I still admire the man I looked up to, in many ways. He gave us many genuinely profound reflections on how to live as a Christian in our times. He was certainly a master showman and an expert in making impressive gestures. Who can really doubt that he loved God and His Christ, and that he prayed hard his whole life?

But he was also a careerist bureaucrat, an equivocator, a stubborn bastard, and an obtuse narcissist.

I pray for my flawed, dead blood father, that he may get to heaven sooner rather than later. I pray likewise for Karol Wojtyla, a kind-of second father for this bookish goofball who became a priest. May the pope of my youth rest in peace. May the good Lord be merciful to him.

But I know this much: The victims of the crimes Wojtyla helped to cover up: They deserve to get to heaven before he does. And I figure that, from where Wojtyla sits now, he knows that, too.

The Publisher is Taking Pre-Orders for My Book

Ordained by a Predator: Becoming a Priest in the Middle of a Criminal Conspiracy will ship in November.

It will make a lovely Christmas gift 🙂

They interviewed me about it via e-mail and on camera. Part of the video is in the second tweet below.

The Scottish McCarrick

Cardinal Sin Brian Devlin

Brian Devlin could have called his book Ordained by a Predator, Scottish Version. Except that Devlin was not, in fact, ordained by the predator. The predator became Archbishop a few weeks after Devlin’s ordination.

Devlin was, though, preyed-upon by the predator. He was preyed upon by a priest who, like McCarrick, went on to become both a Cardinal and the most-prominent churchman in the land. In the case of Keith Card. O”Brien, the land was Scotland.

Devlin narrates what happened one evening in O’Brien’s room in the seminary. The two of them had just prayed Night Prayer.

Devlin was a 20-year-old seminarian at the time. He lived in fear of being expelled and having to explain it to his Irish mama. Devlin writes:

I was highly tuned into the reality of the power O’Brien had over me. I knew that if I displeased or challenged him, I would be a casualty at the next student-review meeting… The thoughts of the review meeting induced panic in me. Have I offended any of the faculty? …Will I be kicked-out?

Many students were sent packing. There was no appeal. No process of scrutinizing the scrutinizers. Their power is final, and it’s ruthless. And inherent within it is its ability to be manipulated into a sexual predator’s playground.

[NB. This quotation is actually a combination of a passage in Devlin’s book and a passage in a magazine article he wrote summarizing his book.]

Keith O’Brien was twenty years older than Devlin, and he was the seminary “spiritual director.” O’Brien had spent years grooming Devlin, so that the young seminarian would think nothing of coming to O’Brien’s room to pray Night Prayer, just the two of them. They had, in fact, done so many times.

Devlin writes:

At the end of the evening, Keith would usually envelop me in his hug, and I would leave. However, on that night something different happened. He did hug me… but it was far far longer than it had ever been before, with a greater intensity. I remember as I turned to leave, he sat down and pulled me on top of him.

My first reaction was of total confusion. Had he stumbled and pulled me down accidentally? But then he put his arms around me. I felt a fleeting sense of how ridiculous this was: nearly six-foot-tall me sitting on this much older man’s knee. He began to caress me. He told me that he loved me. At that point I was asking myself if he was joking. But then it became clear he wasn’t.

He told me he would always love me. With ever more urgency he rubbed my arms and chest. My embarassment turned to shame and fear.

Devlin managed to get himself out of the room. The next morning O’Brien manipulated the young man into ‘forgiving’ him. Devlin reflects:

I told him everything was fine. (I was too shocked and confused to say otherwise.) I told him I forgave him. What else could I do?

Devlin continues:

On reflection, without doubt his plea for forgiveness was a way of preventing me from talking about it further. He bound me to silence that morning.

At that instant I gained an important, life-changing insight. I felt with certainty that O’Brien was a conman and a sham.

Cardinal Keith O'Brien Pope Benedict
Keith O’Brien and Prince Phillip welcoming Pope Benedict to the UK in 2010

Like with McCarrick, the silence that O’Brien imposed on his victims stretched on for decades. When O’Brien was named Archbishop of Edinburgh, a few years after the episode narrated above–and only weeks after Devlin had been ordained–the new priest decided he had no choice but to leave the priesthood. He knew he couldn’t serve under the conman.

Twenty-five years later, however, Devlin came into contact with some old friends from the seminary, through the new gizmo called Facebook. He learned that he was not alone in keeping a secret about the Archbishop. And he learned that the Vatican had known some of these secrets for years. Apparently O’Brien sexually assaulted a subordinate while he was in Rome to receive his Cardinal’s hat in 2003.

(Makes me wonder who McCarrick may have assaulted when he got his red hat in 2001–and I was twenty feet away, oblivious.)

Devlin’s conversations with his old friends gave him a new perspective. He writes:

It was almost too astonishing to believe that, after never having spoken with these men for decades, we were now having deep and intimate conversations about similar experiences from the past which had caused us immense suffering.

They showed me true friendship. The did not see what had happened to me as being less relevant than their own experience because I had left the priesthood and they’d stayed and slogged it out.

Devlin thought the group should share their stories with the public. But the others preferred to try the internal Church process instead. Devlin agreed to co-operate with the effort.

Choosing the ecclesiastical-protocol path would eventually expose this fact: There really is no internal-Church process. No one to whom they complained really wanted to do anything about it.

Somehow this took Devlin by suprise.

I had not at all considered that the Church might choose to do nothing. I had never for an instant thought that anyone would need to be convinced. I had presumed there would be some sort of legal process that the Church would have in place to deal with whistle-blowers like us, and it wouldn’t matter if the person being accused were a bishop and Cardinal.

I was very wrong.

It was not enough for four priests to swear before Almighty God and testify that we were abused by O’Brien. Instead the nuncio [Vatican ambassador to the UK] would have to ‘convince all the powers that be in Rome’ to take our concerns on.

(Of course, if Devlin had had the chance to speak ahead of time with all the poor souls who tried for decades to get the ‘powers that be in Rome’ to listen to them about McCarrick’s abuses, he would not have had such a suprise.)

So, in the end, the group of O’Brien survivors did what Devlin had wanted to do originally: go public with their stories.

As it happened, a reporter published their full story shortly before the conclave of March 2013.

The Vatican nuncio had threatened the survivors, insisting that they keep quiet. Had they complied with that threat, O’Brien might very well have entered the conclave as a voting Cardinal. He could have been elected pope, just as McCarrick could have been elected pope in 2005–even though the sworn testimonies of at least two of his victims already sat in Vatican files. (O’Brien could have been elected pope in 2005, too–even though apparently at least someone in the Vatican knew he had sexually assaulted a subordinate in Rome two years earlier.)

The public furor resulting from the late-February 2013 article, however, finally moved the Vatican brass to do something. They put O’Brien out to pasture, with the excuse that he would soon turn 75. O’Brien co-operated.

Devlin reflects:

Church authorities were blinded by their fear of scandal. The true scandal, though, wasn’t the publicity we caused. The scandal was the hypocritical sexual predation of Cardinal O’Brien and the desire by Church leaders, in the full knowledge of that behavior, quietly to cover it up.

They did not want to turn over the rock, for fear of what they might find hidden under it.

Devlin adds, with real magnanimity:

There was also the question of O’Brien’s right to challenge us, his accusers, if he wanted to. Due process in every other circumstance would give someone that right. Not, it seems, in the Church.

The Vatican considered the matter settled after O’Brien went into retirement. But Devlin continued to press for some kind of genuine judicial process. He believed the Catholics of Scotland deserved the truth, and a sense of justice being served. Devlin tried working his way through Church channels again, to no avail. So he wrote directly to Pope Francis.

Holy Father, Cardinal O’Brien has been sent for six months prayer and penance. And then what? Are we expected to regard this as fair and due process? Indeed, is the Cardinal himself not justified in expecting more than this?

I am not asking for much, Holy Father. I simply want to know what is being done, and what will be done, to investigate the abuse and harm caused by Cardinal O’Brien against me and many others.

Devlin laments the fact that, to this day, his letter to the pope remains unacknowledged and unanswered.

A year after Devlin wrote to Pope Francis, a Vatican official showed up in Scotland to take the testimony of Keith O’Brien’s victims. Devlin found the official to be a kind listener.

A year after that, the Vatican announced that O’Brien had resigned the ‘rights and privileges’ of being a Cardinal, while retaining the title. O’Brien made a brief public statement to the same effect.

Devlin writes:

I found out about this announcement through Twitter. There was no personal communication from the Church authorities in Scotland or in Rome. I was offered no sight of the report prepared by the Vatican official, not even a redacted version of it. It may be that it never crossed anyone’s mind that I would have a desire or even the right to see what had been written about me.

In his statement, O’Brien made reference to the ‘fatherly care’ Pope Francis had given both him ‘and those I have offended in any way.’

I’m still waiting to be offered some of that care, fatherly or otherwise, from this most pastoral of popes. I don’t suppose I’ll hear from him anytime soon.

The report prepared by the Vatican official has never been published. Devlin and others demanded that a full, public investigation of the Archdiocese was necessary, because of the cover-up and cronyism involved in O’Brien’s long tenure.

Another O’Brien survivor insisted that there was a financial aspect: he knew of O’Brien giving a jet-ski to a paramour, and no one knew where the money came from.

No such investigations were ever carried out.

O’Brien died in 2018.

Devlin writes lovely, introspective prose. He has ideas about Catholic sexual morality–ie., that it is wrong. I do not agree with that. But this book is well worth reading. Brian Devlin is a champion of justice and of Christianity. He is a hero.

The US Constitution, 150 Years Ago

Capitol Breach Subpoenas

An eventful summer, as far as national news. Recently I have heard two statements, both of which are false.

1. A Senator recently said, regarding the apparently imminent end of Roe v. Wade: “A Constitutional right has never been taken away before.

2. A historian recently said, regarding the violence at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021: “It was the greatest Constitutional crisis we have ever faced.

I know both these statements are false because I recently read The Broken Constitution by Noah Feldman. The book considers the actual greatest Constitutional crisis we have ever faced, which began in late 1860.

Feldman Broken ConstitutionAnd that crisis had to do with a “Constitutional right” that was ultimately “taken away:” the right to own black people as slaves.

Feldman argues that the U.S. has actually had two constitutions. The first held sway until the Civil War. Then President Abraham Lincoln “broke” that Constitution in order to save the Union by force. Then the amended post-war constitution became the inspiring charter for national life that we revere today.

Fact #1 that Feldman demonstrates with ample evidence: The U.S. Constitution written by the Framers, and adopted by the original thirteen states, not only countenanced chattel slavery, it fortified it as an American institution, giving it extensive protection from any possible abolitionist political movement that might arise.

Those Framers included venerable Virgininians, of course, whose pictures adorn our currency. In the minds of those men, the stability of late-18th-century Virginia required the protection of slavery as an institution. Slaves made up a critical element of the capital in the economy, as they had for nearly two centuries. Abolition would have meant the impoverishment of the governing class. So the Framers set up a federal political system designed to protect the institution, even though those same Framers thought of slavery as immoral.

As did most of Europe, at the time. We Americans rarely recognize this historical fact: when we adopted our slavery-protecting constitution, we were bucking the moral trend of the late-18th-century Western world.

Then the twist of history came, that the Framers did not anticipate. The “Industrial Revolution” was well underway, and the Framers thought that would lead to a gradual transition away from the farm economy, which, in the South, involved slavery.

But the invention of a particular Industrial-Revolution machine, the cotton gin, turned cotton farming into a huge, Industrial-Revolution business. Shortly after the adoption of the slavery-protecting U.S. Constitution, slavery became a bigger business than it ever was before. Since we had a professional Union army (thanks to the Constitution), we used military force to expand the big business of slave-produced cotton into the land that had been the home of the Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Seminoles, Natchez, and other tribes (i.e. Tennessee and the Deep-South states).

Feldman’s book focuses on Lincoln and his thinking during the protracted Constitutional crisis called the Civil War. When Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on New Year’s Day, 1863, he knew it would change the country forever. But he justified himself legally with a line of reasoning that we now find quite remarkable.

To paraphrase Lincoln’s thinking, as he put pen to paper to sign the proclamation:

Yes, slaveowners have a Constitutional right to their property, and their slaves belong to them as their property. But we are at war. In wartime, the opposing military force has the right to confiscate the property of the enemy, if the property can be put to any military use. Therefore, I have the right to order the ‘confiscation’ of the slaves in the Confederacy, by emancipating them, so that those freed blacks can fight on our side.

Even at the moment when Lincoln set in motion the chain of events that would spell the end of chattel slavery in America, he still thought of the right to own slaves as a “Constitutional right.” He “took it away” solely as a matter of military necessity. In other words, if the blacks were all Quakers, or some other kind of pacifist, and would not fight, for either side, then Lincoln would not have thought himself legally justified in emancipating them.

Lincoln did not want to act as a dictator. He followed the international law of war, which allows for property confiscation, when the property in question is militarily useful. Now, that same law of war also stipulates that confiscated property should be returned to the owner at the end of the war. But Lincoln reasoned that, in order to get freed blacks to fight hard for the Union, he had to promise them freedom for life. So even that aspect of emancipation was justified, in Lincoln’s mind, by military usefulness.

Because the Confederate states had broken faith with the Constitution and compelled him to use military means to subdue them, Lincoln considered himself justified in substituting the international law of war for the customary provisions of law in the U.S., as long as the war lasted.

Feldman argues that this means that the original Constitution was effectively abrogated during the war. Indeed, Lincoln not only deep-sixed what had been thought of as “property rights” when it came to slaves, he also did away with free speech and the right to a speedy trial.

But you don’t have to go the whole way to agreeing with Feldman–that we have actually had two Constitutions–in order to grasp this: The problems with the presidential transition between the election of November 2020 and the inauguration of January 2021 were not the worst Constitutional crisis we have ever had.

The transition period between the election of 1860 and the inauguration of 1861 saw the secession of seven states from the Union. South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas all seceded between the election and Lincoln’s inauguration.

So even if the secession of those seven states was all that happened 1860-1861, it would still qualify as far worse than 2020-2021. But it was only the beginning, of course. Four more states seceded between April and June 1861. Then there was a war that lasted four long years, costing 600,000 American lives. Then Lincoln was assasinated less than a week after the war ended, as he was just beginning his second term in office.

I’m not trying to make light of what happened on January 6, 2021. I have listened to some of the congessional-committee hearings on the radio. The testimony has painted a compelling picture of serious wrongdoing and grave danger.

But if the purpose of the hearings in enlightenment and understanding, it hardly serves the goal to overstate the case, with historical amnesia. We had a Constitutional crisis from late 1860 through at least 1865, a crisis like we have never had, and which, please God, we will never have again.

And the idea that ending Roe v. Wade would be the first instance of “taking away a Constitutional right?” Another example of obtuse historical amnesia. The “right” to abortion belongs in the same dustbin of history as the “right” to own slaves. Both amount to specious claims to a “right.” Thank God for sober minds finding their way clear to taking those “rights” away.

Reading Feldman’s book is a great way to get perspective on all this. I highly recommend it.

NATO and the War in Ukraine

Sarotte Not One Inch NATO

Our Holy Father said recently that “NATO has barked at Russia’s door” and “perhaps facilitated” Russia’s “reacting badly and unleashing the conflict in Ukraine.”

The Wall Street Journal took stern exception to this statement, in a staff editorial. The WSJ editors write:

Since the invasion, Francis has called for an end to the war and criticized the violence, but he hasn’t directly called out Russia for starting the conflict. Now that he finally speaks, he blames NATO for accepting members that want to avoid being invaded by Russia. What a terrible moral signal to send to dictators.

Let’s consider this argument, with the help of a book I just finished, Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of Post-Cold War Stalemate, by M.E. Sarotte. Continue reading “NATO and the War in Ukraine”

Two non-church Churches and a Ghost Palace

Sunset on the Garonne, in Toulouse, France

St. Thomas Aquinas’ mind stretched across many boundaries during his pilgrim life, and his bones straddle a boundary, even in death.

In the annals of French history, the same term–Jacobin–refers to two different groups. The Jacobins of the late 1700’s hated the monarchy and played a major role in the Reign of Terror that followed the 1789 revolution (1).

This group got its name from holding its meetings in a building that had once been a Dominican friary. Because Jacobins also = Dominicans.

After St. Dominic founded his religious order in 1214, the first Dominicans in Paris lived in the friary of St. Jacques. Parisians came to refer to them by the name of their house. Hence, “Jacobins” (2).

St. Thomas Aquinas’ tomb

St. Thomas’ relics lie under the single altar in the “Church of the Jacobins” in Toulouse. Which does not mean: Church of the French Revolutionaries. It means Church of the Dominicans. The friars built the church during the first decades of the order’s life. It is their “mother church.”

Except it isn’t. Because it isn’t a church anymore.

The (French-Revolution) Jacobins despised the (Dominican) Jacobins and expelled the order from France in 1789. Fifteen years later, Napoleon put the Church of the Jacobins to use as a military barracks. The bishop moved St. Thomas’ relics to the nearby church of St. Sevrin (an ancient marvel itself.) The holy bones remained there for almost two centuries.

As the 19th century wore on, the people of Toulouse came to dislike the army using the old Dominican church as a barracks. The city took ownership of the building and turned it into a museum. In 1974, the government came to an agreement with the Church, and the bishop moved St. Thomas’ remains back.

Jacobins Toulouse

There is one Holy Mass celebrated in the building each year, on January 28, the anniversary of the arrival of the saint’s bones in Toulouse in 1369, St. Thomas’ feastday.

This non-church church is truly a unique Gothic edifice, with a single row of columns supporting the roof. The altar sits in a strange position–not in the apse, but near the middle of the northern of the two naves formed by the one row of columns.

Jacobins Toulouse column

An unusual place. A church that isn’t a church anymore.

But you can pray there. I could hardly believe that I was actually kneeling in front of this altar. For decades I have thought about visiting my friend’s tomb–my daily companion, through his books, since I was nineteen years old.

Jacobins Toulouse

…While St. Thomas walked the earth, King St. Louis IX built a chapel adjoining his palace in Paris–the Sainte Chapelle. The king built it to house the Lord Jesus’ Crown of Thorns.

That relic no longer remains in the Sainte Chapelle. (It was kept in Notre Dame–a priest had to run in, to rescue it, during the 2019 fire.) There is never a Mass in Sainte Chapelle anymore, not even once a year.

But the famous stained glass windows of Sainte Chapelle not only captivate you with their luminescence–swaddling you in light–but they also convey a stunningly unified message. All 1,113 panels contribute to communicating one single idea.

20220204_161515Namely: God Almighty governs all things. He has given human beings a circumscribed share in that government. To some human beings, he has given the authority to govern nations. To the custodian of Christ’s Crown of Thorns, He has given the secular government of Christendom.

The panels in the windows of Sainte Chapelle depict episodes or images from: Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, Judges, the books of Samuel and Kings, Judith, Esther, Tobit, Job, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, the Holy Gospels, and Revelation. One window has panels depicting the history of the Crown of Thorns, since the Passion.

All the episodes and images relate to the theme. Together, they communicate the idea. The King of France, custodian of Christ’s crown, possesses divine authority to rule human affairs.

[NB. I didn’t make this thesis up. It comes from Alyce Jordan’s book Visualizing Kingship. Also, you can see close-ups of the window panels by clicking HERE.]

The Sainte-Chapelle message, of course, goes against our American idea that the authority to govern comes from the consent of the governed. But that was not really a point in dispute when King Louis built his chapel. Rather, the potentially disputable point had to do with the consent of the pope.

Which is not to say that the Sainte Chapelle was meant to be anything other than a place for prayer, and above all for the celebration of Holy Mass. By a duly ordained priest. King Louis revered the Apostles and their successors.

But the king believed he had his mission in life from God, not from the pope. His chapel conspicuously avoids depicting St. Peter in any exalted manner.

As we mentioned here before, King Louis’ grandson–King Philip IV “the Fair”–wanted Pope Boniface VIII deposed from office, for interfering too much. But Boniface insisted that the king had his authority only by delegation from the pope. Philip strenuously rejected this idea.

That conflict ultimately resulted in the building of what is now an eerie ghost palace, which sits on top of a majestic hill rising east from the Rhone river in Provence. The Palais des Papes.

The Palais des Papes, as seen from the west side of the Rhone

In the fourteenth century, Avignon, France, became the capital of western Europe. All roads led there. After Boniface VIII died in Rome, and his successor died after a months’-long papacy lived entirely in Perugia, Pope Clement V got elected in absentia. And proceeded never to set foot in Italy.

Clement V reigned over the Church on earth from France. So did the next five popes.

The Coronation of the Virgin by Rudolfo Ghirlandaio, which hangs in the Petit Palais in Avignon

The huge banquet hall where Pope Clement VI entertained the monarchs of Europe: it’s now a bare chamber. Just cold stone walls. The loggia from which Blessed Urban V blessed pilgrims: it now looks out on an empty windswept courtyard. The cavernous Gothic chapel where popes were crowned: silent. (Carved facsimiles of the Avignon popes’ tombs sit in an adjoining room, adding to the ghostliness.)

The real tomb of Innocent VI, in the charterhouse in Villeneuve, across the Rhone from Avignon.

They raked-in a lot of shekels in that old palace. The Avignon papacy was a business. The pope conferred countless ecclesiastical offices each year, and every time the coin had to ring in the coffer before the transaction was complete. They had huge trunks full of cash hidden in the floors.

But the money wasn’t all spent profligately. Clement VI entertained lavishly, but his banquets fostered peace between nations. And all the Avignon popes were highly cultured men who doled out huge sums to endow schools and pay professors, including scholars of Hebrew and Greek (to improve study of the Holy Scriptures).

They knew they belonged in Rome. The pope is the bishop of Rome, after all. You can hardly condemn absentee bishops, or absentee parish priests, when you yourself are one.

Urban V tried to return to Rome to live and govern, but then he fled back to Avignon when he feared for his safety in Italy. Urban’s successor Gregory XI then finally gave in to St. Catherine of Siena’s many behests and moved back to Rome for good.

But it wasn’t over yet. Gregory’s successor was challenged by a false pope who had been elected by a large number of Cardinals. The false Clement VII moved back to France and set up shop in Avignon, like the old days.

(It’s hard to imagine just how deeply confusing the Western Schism was to your average Catholic Joe of the time. The false pope sat in the throne that the real popes had used for three generations, and the real pope was a stranger in his own country.)

It took four more decades to settle the schism. Finally the new pope, Martin V, traveled from the Council of Constance to Rome, and the days of popes in Avignon ended for good.

The ghosts remain.

Heading South from Paris

Bonjour, cher lecteur.

They have a stunning window of Saint Denis in the rive-gauche church of Sainte Sulpice, plus a depiction of king St. Louis IX by my favorite painter, in the Louvre.

I have long admired this painting, and it moved me to see the original.

Louis’ Sainte-Chapelle overwhelms you. Not only with the spendor of the stained-glass windows, but also with the perfect thematic unity of the episodes depicted in them.

More on this when I have time; the theme of the Sainte-Chapelle windows relates to the Avignon papacy, one of the points of study on my trip.

The Louvre also displays a portrait of the Holy Father who both erected our humble diocese of Richmond, VA, and endured the difficult spectacle of Napoleon crowning himself emperor, in Notre Dame.

From outside the cathedral, you can see work underway on replacing the destroyed roof.

My journey south to St. Thomas Aquinas’ tomb will take me past Montauban, where Thomas Merton spent some of his teenage years. I will pass by Merton’s birthplace, too, later in the week.

I prayed for you in Sacre Coeur, and at the tomb of Sainte Genevieve, and in San Eustache, Sainte Clothilde, and Saint Severin, as well as a bunch of other holy places reachable on the Paris Metro.

Au revoir for now.