Virgins, Martyrs and Vermin


A few more thoughts on the quirks of the canonization process…

Regarding the round-the-clock publicity surrounding the capture and liberation of Private Jessica Lynch, Larry Flynt sniffed, “{the government] force-fed us Joan of Arc.” If Larry had done his homework he’d have known that far greater scoundrels than anyone in the Bush administration had promoted the cults of — sorry, Jessie — far holier women, the Maid of Orleans being only one.

The final push to raise Joan of Arc to the altars came from the followers of a two-legged reptile by the name of Charles Maurras. A French political philosopher of the late nineteenth and early twentieth enturies, Maurras dubbed his vision “integral nationalism.” It involved a rejection both of socialism and bourgeois individualism. In their places, he proposed a communal committment to the pays reel, or “real country,” from which Protestants, Jews and Freemasons would be excluded. Though agnostic, he saw great practical value in the Catholic Church — as a defining component of France’s national character and by extension a guarantor of social order.

When it emerged that Captain Dreyfus had been framed, Maurras responded: So what? Better a Jew should rot in jail than the nation suffer embarrassment.

Maurras’ movement, Action Francaise, supported itself partly through the sale of a newspaper by the same name. To sell copies, it employed a corps of ruffians known as les Camelots du Roi, literally, “the King’s Newsies.” If you can imagine men standing on street corners, screaming, “EX-TREE, EX-TREE, READ ALL ABOUT THE LATEST JUDEO-MASONIC PLOT TO CORRUPT CIVILIZATION, OR WE’LL BREAK YOUR KNEECAPS,” you’ll get a sense of Maurras’ brilliance as a grassroots political organizer.

For a mascot, the movement chose none other than Joan of Arc. Brave, selfless, Catholic and royalist to the core, she represented all the values Maurras’ followers professed to cherish. Whenever they wanted to put points on the political scoreboard, they held rallies in Joan’s honor — rallies which often degenerated into massive street brawls with anti-clericals, or even Christian Democrats. During the First World War, this pugnacious form of veneration built to a fever pitch. The Camelots touted Joan as an exemplar of Gallic and Latin civilization in iits death match with the Boches,whose barbarity Maurras put down to the influence of Martin Luther and the Jews. (Who could hope to break up that love-fest?)

How was the Vatican taking all this? Initially, quite well. Pope Pius X was an admirer of Maurras. When the Holy Office proscribed seven of his books, largely on the grounds that his appreciation for Catholicism was shallow and conditional, the pope refused to publish the proscription. “Action Francaise,” His Holiness said, “has done much good…for the principle of authority…for order.”

Later popes were less tolerant. Disconcerted at seeing so much of the French ecclesiastical hierarchy in thrall to a non-Christian — and a violent, bigoted one at that — Pius XI published the condemnation his predecessor had spiked, and condemned the Action Francaise newspaper into the bargain. But before he did, he stole Maurras’ favorite symbols. As a gesture of goodwill to the French Republic, he canonized not only Joan, but also Therese, Bernadette and the Cure of Ars. Yes indeed, in the early 1920s, it was a regular can-can line up in heaven.

Recommended reading: Ambivalent alliance : the Catholic Church and the Action française, 1899-1939 / Oscar L. Arnal. Publisher Pittsburgh, PA : University of Pittsburgh Press, c1985.

Of course, it can be argued that Maurras was far from the worst Charles Joan got tangled up with. There was also the mad, bad Dauphin on whose behalf she donned armor in the first place. But Mussolini’s sponsorship of Maria Goretti was nothing short of grotesque. Here we have a preteen martyr of chastity paired with Europe’s creepy uncle, a man who respected continence about as much as he respected Ethiopian sovereignty.

Nevertheless, il Duce did have his reasons. Maria had spent the last years of her life in the Pontine Marshes. (For this reason, some hagiographers have tagged her the Lily of the Swamp, a title that always sounded to me like it should belong to a pre-Raphaelite horror film.) These comprised over 300 miles of picturesque, malarial wasteland — paradise to anyone hunting ducks or shooting a nature documentary, but nonstop misery for the people who had to make a living there. In the 1920s, Italian government officials submitted plans to drain the swamps and reclaim the land — plans which Mussolini, prime minister from 1922, endorsed, and eventually co-opted. Wikipedia describes how he put his personal stamp on the project:

The project reached a peak in 1933 with 124000 men employed. The previous agrarian population was moved out under protest in the name of progress. Workers were interned in camps surrounded by barbed wire. The camps were overcrowded, wages low, hours long, food bad, sanitation poor, health care missing, medical attention lacking. Workers could quit. The turnover was high. In 1935 at the completion of the phase they were all dismissed without notice. Many were infected with malaria.

Nineteen thirty-five was also the year when the Passionists formally opened Maria’s cause for beatification. To proclaim his solidarity with the people he’d displaced — and perhaps the workers he’d nearly killed from neglect — Mussolini publicly supported her cause. Ever since, Maria’s detractors — like Italian journalist Giordano Bruno Guerri — have tended to hold this against her, which strikes me as a little unfair. Sure, young ladies should be careful of the company they keep, but that’s much easier when they’re alive. And besides, don’t good girls always end up with bad boys? Isn’t that what Thomas Aquinas meant by the Natural Law?

About Patheos Daily Reflections
  • Rhinestone Suderman

    Because, of course, St. Joan, St. Maria Goretti are directly to blame for the crimes of Mussolini, Maurras and Action Fracaise. Indeed, had they never lived, these villains would never have been tempted to make political hay out of them! One can just see Mussolini slapping his forehead, shouting, “There never was a St. Maria Goretti? I cannot use her to proclaim my solidarity with the workers I displaced? I have no choice now but to turn to a life of virtue—and end my alliance with Adolph Hitler!”

    It’s St. Joan’s and St. Maria’s fault, for: 1.) Having existed, and. . 2.) Having lived, and died, in their very different ways, for Christ, causing people to remember, and venerate them.

    Bad Maria! Bad St. Joan!

    (They were also responsible for the Dreyfus affair, I’m sure of it! And who knows whatever dark, and evil conspiracies?)

    (Cue in the spooky music here; the History Channel can do a special on it! “Saints, Sinners and Mussolini!”)

    And that line, “Don’t good girls always end up with bad boys?” Maria Goretti ended up raped and murdered at the hands of her “bad boy”, which is kind’ve tasteless, if that’s what you meant. Or are you implying that the “bad boy” she ended up with was Mussolini, which is just plain weird.

    (I somehow don’t think this is what Thomas Aquinas meant.)

  • Dan

    This is a really weird post.

    Action Francaise cannot be understood, cannot be remotely understood outside of context.

    And that context was a rapid rise in the influence of the left, the radical left, the radical, anti-Christian and anti-Western left. This was the era of the Comintern and the Communists.

    And Saint Pius X had his eyes on the Communists, knowing full well that the fascists were but nationalistic variants upon the main theme of the left, collectivism, statism, secularism and anti-Christianity.

    Action Francaise was a hiccup in history, ——- the influence of the anti-Christian left has proven to be something more, a virus, and whether that virus should prove fatal is still very much up in the air.

    I can’t imagine wasting that much time and effort on Action Francaise and their founder.

  • Max Lindenman

    So anti-Semitism, street violence and the cynical maniupulation of the Church for political ends — “politique d’abord” — are okay in context? Why, Dan, I had no idea you were such a moral relativist.

  • Max Lindenman

    I don’t know what article you read, Rhinestone, but it wasn’t mine.

    And Dan, Thomas Molnar would disagree with you that Action Francaise was a hiccup. He calls Maurras “shaper of an age”:

    I’ll agree with him, as long as he agrees with me that the age was a lousy one.

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    The age was a lousy one—as was the age of Eugenics, beginning at the end of the 19th Century, and lasting until the end of WWII, the Islamic conquests in the Middle-East and India, the Civil War—and so on.

    Humans are what they are; and bad men will always try to twist good things, to their own purposes.

    I don’t really see what it has to do with the saints in general, or St. Joan, and St. Maria Goretti in particular. If want to rail against certain events in history, rail away, but you seem to be wanting to make some overall religious point—the Church is evil, because of men like Maurras, and Mussolini? Some saints are bad, because tyrants used them for their own ends? Venerating the saints is bad? Mankind sucks?

    As for your article, I think I read it better than you’d like.

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    Dan, as you say, the anti-Christian Left is the real danger today—also, the source of the most virulent anti-semetism!

    There is nothing more we can do to help poor Dreyfus—yet those who rail hardest against the evils of anti-semetism seem mostly uninterested in the condition of the Jews today—when the Jews face a world-wide rise in anti-semetism—one that isn’t coming from Action Francaise.

    We can only help those living in our times; we can’t reach backwards, and aid past victims, no matter how much we might want to. Does anybody remember the murdered Fogel family? They were news for about. . three days.

  • jkm

    Whoa, I’m lost. Can we go back to the party? (I do love “it was a regular can-can line there.”)

    Rhinestone and Dan, I don’t see where making observations about the strange pewfellows some saints attract constitutes being anti-Catholic, pro-Communist, or anything else with a prefix. It’s interesting history, and I’m grateful for it. Thoughtful Catholics are not made of sugar, and will not melt when exposed to multiple points of view.

    And on the subject of saints, Rhinestone, can you share your patron’s story? Not one with which I’m familiar.

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    My patron saint is St. Dorothy. (There is no “St. Rhinestone”, to my knowledge; “Rhinestone Suderman” comes from an obscure Science Fiction novel.)

    St. Dorothy was an early Christian martyr, who sent her judge roses and apples from Heaven, so it’s said. I’m sure you can google her more complete story, on the internet.

  • Max Lindenman

    Rhinestone: I hope you and Dan aren’t setting up false dilemmas here. The anti-clerical left and the reactionary Right weren’t the only two shows in town. There was also a committed core of Christian Democrats. They can’t have been too bad, since the Church ended up siding with them, implicitly, when they made peace with the republic.

    And jkm has it right: No halo is transferrable. You can take a saint’s name as your own, you can carry his or her icon before you into battle. But if you happen to be doing dirt, you’re misusing the name, the image or the memory. Joan of Arc couldn’t possibly have understood nationalism in Maurras’ terms; for him to claim her posthumous endorsement was opportunism, plain and simple.

    Canonization is a fascinating process for me because it involves the confluence of these types of earthly agenda. As Fr. Jim Martin pointed out in his last article, many people reject him as a beatus because they reject his stance on liberation theology, or on women’s ordination. I’ll bet the reverse is true, that many of the people who welcome his beatification care less about his personal sanctity than about his reform of the reforms. It just goes to show how easily the saint’s actual character disappears from view.

  • Karen LH

    I like the quirky history posts, and hope you’ll do more during your term as substitute Anchoress.

  • Dan

    I wasn’t aware I countenanced the sins and public disorders you mentioned.

    As for Molnar, I don’t concur with his judgement about the importance of Action Francaise or their founder. Ask a typical European today who Maurras was and they’ll very likely draw a blank. And the numbers wouldn’t be much different were you to ask a typical Frenchman. Now that’s not QED, nothing like that. But for any man said to be something so august as a “shaper of an age,” we should expect something more.

    And that “more” is nowhere evident with Action Francaise, or their founder.

    Street violence? Well that really depends doesn’t it. Violence pouring out into the street trying to preserve the state from falling into the hands of totalitarian and anti-Christian fanatics is one thing, —— violence used to intimidate the otherwise traditional and law abiding quite another. The PURPOSE behind that violence has to be recognized before it can be understood, let alone condemned. For a much more recent example, think of Nicaragua, both the Sandinistas and those stylized the “Contras” availed themselves of violence, but their ends were quite different. The Contras were the largest peasant army ever to rise up in Central America, and they rose up naturally and precisely in opposition to an anti-Catholic, leftist elite who were determined to remake, refashion and rebrand them.

    Does that mean I “excuse” or rationalize Action Francaise, —– of course not. But I’m honest enough to acknowledge to myself and others that if I were alive in that time, in that era, where the Place de La Concorde was often awash with political agitation, ———– there would be no way in Hell I’d be with the left or their fellow travelers. No way in Hell.

    As for a “cynical manipulation of the Church,” ——– that’s not new. That’s not shocking. We see that today from those propounding Liberation Theology. And we saw it elsewhere, Caesaro Papism for instance. It would take a man and a movement a great deal stronger to leave any lasting imprint upon the Roman Church. To be sure, Maurras and his movement may have held the ear of some. But it would be a stretch to suggest anything more.

  • Dan

    And Rhinestone, I’m not saying the left is the main problem today.

    I’m saying that the left was always the main problem, then and now, the 20th century as well as the 21st.

    I don’t see the value in demarcating between the various permutations of the leftist mindset, they were murderous and mendacious then, ———- they’re no less so now.

    Their will to power, their overwhelming insistence upon raw political power, ———– it’s utterly demonic.

  • Brian A Cook

    If liberalism is a demonic force seeking absolute power, then how do you explain abolishing of slavery or freeing Jews from ghettos or allowing women into public life? How do you explain the protests against torture or ethnic cleansing or authoritarian government?

    Max, I want to thank you for pointing out the Dreyfus Affair and the reactionary Catholics who fueled it. I’ve come to believe that it is among the elephants in the room of public Catholicism.

    Anyway, I wouldn’t want to get off-track. May God bring many graces and blessings through Pope John Paul.

  • Mike Walsh

    I had a seminary classmate who once went on a rant about the Medieval “pillar saints”. I found it ironic, for he was a man who regularly made ten-mile runs –torturing himself for the sake of, what –vanity? Simeon Stylites and those like him at least were grasping –however blindly, but all our grasping for holiness is blind– at union with Christ. What I learn from my ex-classmate is that criticism of this saint or that one –judging them for either style or substance– reveals more about us than about them.