Bring on the Dirt!

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.

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  • Frank Weathers

    LOL. And don’t forget, we’ve got Dracula too.

  • Frank Weathers

    And dare I mention the genealogy of Christ? =)

  • Anonymous

    Why, so we do! He was a convert, wasn’t he? Some converts add new blood to the Church; others spill or suck it.

  • Manny

    I hadn’t heard Carroll’s “People Who Died” in many years. Thanks.

    Lord knows there are “screw ups” in all walks of life. Humanity sins – shocking!

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  • cathyf

    Cesare Borgia? He’s on the Catholic farm team of depravity. For the real major league Iron Age Of The Papacy, go to the late 9th early 10th century. We had a pope who dug up his predecessor’s corpse, propped it up on a chair, and put it on “trial”. Another one died in the bed of a married woman, although historians aren’t quite sure whether he had a stroke or was bludgeoned by her enraged husband. A bunch of popes were murdered, several by their successors.

    Well, if nothing else it does show that papal infallibility is a bit more nuanced than is immediately obvious…

  • Anonymous

    Ah, you’d be referring to the Synodus Horrenda, or Cadaver Synod. Formous was the defendant. Can’t remebmer the name of the living pope who tried him.

  • Mari Tyers

    Haha! Refreshingly irreverent. Thanks for giving Keller the send up he’s due. The review I read in the past week’s Sunday Book Review was rather irritating.

  • My_everything_18

    Ah, kid, after a long days work, have me laughing myself sick! Bravo! (my iPad dies not know me, but you do, pippi)

  • Elizabeth Scalia

    I feel a little like Homer Simpson: Catholic villains are the best! Yay, Catholics! You Protestant villains are weak! Weak, I tells ya!

  • William Cook

    Vlad the Impaler may have been Orthodox as some scholars conclude. Frank Weathers offers amiable advocacy for a fellow sinner at his blog (search Dracula).

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  • Joe Durepos

    Great stuff, thanks for the belly laugh. Who was the character from the movie with Chris Cooper and Ryan Phillipe? Selling secrets to the Russians, making porno videos, and daily mass? We do it with style when we do it.

  • Tony

    “Smoked some glass?” That’s pretty hardcore. In all seriousness, I loved the article. One of our first Bishops sold our Lord for 30 pieces of silver. Seems like we were off to a bad start. :)

  • Anonymous

    There seems to have been some confusion on just what I meant by smoking glass. It is not a typo, neither am I referring to a decorative touch. “Glass” is slang for crystal methamphetamine.

  • silvermoonsc

    Heh, I thought everyone knew that, and naturally I finished the expression in my head…which just goes to show where my mind’s at half the time. Still, it is pretty hardcore. It’s just that familiarity with such things has inurred us to how rock-bottom it is (no pun intended). Had we found a secret opium den in the bowels of St. Peter’s, it might seem more romantic, but…well, not really, ya know?

  • Silvermoonsc

    Nah, that wasn’t really stylish. Filming yourself having sex with your wife (unbeknownst to her) and sharing the videos with your friends is not “stylish”. Selling out your country and the men and women who are working to protect your freedoms just for personal financial gain is not stylish. That guy was garbage, nothing more, nothing less. He was a tawdry, sleazy, filthy pig who basically raped his wife and screwed over people for his own personal gain. What’s stylish about that?

  • Bluemax83

    I think it’s funny that the author spends an entire book criticizing Popes for not living up to Catholic teachings, and in the last paragraph is critical of Pope John Paul II for…you guessed it…being quite faithful to the Catholic teachings on sexual morality.

    As old Chesterton says, “any stick with which to beat the Church.”

  • Anonymous

    I was thinking some what along these lines myself recently. I was really surprised at how relevant the Church has been in the last ten years or so. For an institution or body that was supposed to be at the nadir of it’s existence, on it’s way out the door of history, (or history?) it seems unable to ever leave the stage. Whether it is pedophilia, to which I credit the Church for carrying the cross of this culture and cultural reality of which we have never had a national conversation about, until or even till this day, unless, we are talking about pedophile priests. Although I have to give credit to the media for the Elizabeth Smart and Jaycee-Lee Dugard front and center conversations. Or whether we are discussing the psychological immaturity of homosexuality which we should have anticipated with arrival of material abundance as stated in Ezekiel. Not to fail to mention the issue of abortion, which is somewhat strange to admit is legal when I consciously write it out like this, and marriage which I will give it’s own honored place as a subject in itself, marriage is not a ‘gay’ issue. No matter what the era, it seems that there are always people like homosexuals and communist who just can’t see their way around the Church and live their lives. We complain on one hand of ‘lapse Catholics’ who only roll out of bed on a Sunday morning for breakfast completely forgetting about the Church but then for many, it is the Church, not the law making State ironically, that is in the way of an earthly albeit hedonistic, utopia. (Although now I am beginning to think that the Church is like a girl you’ve been trying to meet for days and just so happen to keep bumping into her in the hall or the cafeteria.) I mean honestly, there were actually articles (Douthat, NY Times) that the Church was finished. I go to mass six days a week and take the Holy Eucharist practically every time. I wasn’t doing that ten or fifteen years ago myself.

  • Bernadette

    I kinda love this post more than I can say. When I got to the bit about Cesare Borgia and AUT CAESAR AUT NULLUS I almost sprayed coffee on my keyboard. One thing you can say for Catholics, we may be hot or we may be cold, but (at least until recent times) we definitely weren’t lukewarm!