What a prince Bill Keller is. In reviewing John Julius Norwich’s Absolute Monarchs, he 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 label: The following history contains scenes that might shock or upset readers. Not recommended for expectant mothers or members of the Mystical Body of Christ.
I have one question for Keller: son, just who the hell do you think you’re talking to?
Tony Montana told the INS goons that they could do nothing to him that Castro hadn’t done already. Well, John Julius Norwich can’t tell us anything that Garry Wills hasn’t told us already — in Papal Sin, Return of Papal Sin and Bride of Papal Sin. (I myself have been on tenterhooks, waiting for Papal Sin: The Gay Blade.) 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 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 (at the top) and Bill Donahue (at the bottom), 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 screw-ups are epic and spectacular.
What’s the worst thing a fundie 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. That goes for their kids, too. You say Franklin Graham was a real hell-raiser? Cesare Borgia could have stolen his Harley and his girl, gotten his blue-tick hound in the family way, and carved “AUT CAESAR AUT NULLUS” in his forehead with a stiletto 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 PJ. 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.”
When we put our hand to shady direct-marketing campaigns, we get St. Peter’s, the Pieta and the Sistine Chapel. Game, set and match to us.
Jerry Falwell called Bakker “the greatest scab and cancer on the face of Christianity in 2,000 years of church history.” No, he wasn’t talking about the décor at Heritage. 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.
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 gave the British a pretty tight argument in both Boer Wars, too.
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, a brand-new ideology, 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 lower themselves by floating any rumors about his birth certificate. (Since de Gaulle was born in Lille, an excellent case could have been made that his nose was a Belgian citizen.) 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 himself 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.