Notre Dame

by Pablo Foster

Notre-Dame the icon of the Catholic Church in France is burning!!! The roof of the Gothic cathedral in Paris, built between 1160 and 1263, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, on the Île de la Cité, noted for its flying buttresses and sculptured facade, is engulfed in fire. As night falls, the burning spire collapses on the roof, causing more damage. 

Six hundred firefighters and rescuers attempt to save the collection of Christian relics: The Crown of Thorns, the Tunic of Saint Louis, artwork, and other religious and cultural treasures.  The president of France, Emmanuel Macron, announces that he wants to rebuild the roof in five years with private donations.   Millionaires and billionaires are promising to contribute large sums of money.  The family of the richest man in France pledges to give 600 million Euros to the rebuilding of Notre-Dame.  It’s not only the rich who are giving but many hardworking people are donating money.

As the pledges of money flow into re-building the grandeur of Notre-Dame, I’m thinking of the debt the Catholic Church owes to those who suffered in its pursuit of wealth and power.  The victims of its policies and behavior across centuries include my ancestors, enslaved Africans, as well as Jews, Muslims, Native Americans, women and children.

In 1232, for example, Pope Gregory IX established the Ecclesiastical Tribunal for the suppression of heresy.  The tribunal was chiefly active in northern Italy and southern France.  It was notorious for the use of torture. Pope Gregory IX ordered the Jewish Talmud to be confiscated.  Those found guilty were turned over to the secular authority to be burned at the stake, or have their tongues cut out.  In 1242, in a plaza on the right bank of the Seine, two blocks from Notre-Dame, soldiers of King Louis IX, known as Saint Louis, dumped thousands of copies of the Talmud raided from the homes of Jews and synagogues onto the pavement of the plaza.  After the soldiers held back the Jews who had gathered, the hill of books was torched.

The monarchy of Spain, in its desire to obtain the wealth of Jews and Muslims, took the advice of Alonso De Hojeda, a prior of the Dominican of Seville, loyal advisor to Queen Isabela, and with the approval of the Pope, established the Ecclesiastical Court in 1478.  The Ecclesiastical Court took action against Judaism and Islam and later against Protestants. It operated with great severity until suppressed in the early 19th century, but not before the streets of Spain were stained by the blood of Jews, Muslims, and anyone who opposed the monarchy.  Even the converted did not escape the terror of the infamous Inquisition.

When Christopher Columbus sailed the mighty ocean looking for spices, wealth and a route to India, he carried representatives of the church on board. They were given instructions to convert the natives.  If those natives refused, the conquistadores were to enslave them, take their land, and property. Those who rebelled, such as Taino chief Hatuey, were burned at the stake in the name of “the father, the son, and the holy ghost.”

Once the indigenous peoples were slaughtered, pacified, or converted to Christianity, Bartolomé De La Casas, a Spanish Dominican friar, historian, and reformer, advocated for the enslavement of the “strong” Africans, who were not Christians.  The Pope blessed the idea and the church became a conspirator in the enslavement of Africans.  The French Catholic Church benefitted from the enslaved Africans in Haiti and other colonies controlled by the French government.    

During the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939) the Catholic Church was a member of General Francisco Franco’s fascist alliance.  It is estimated that between 60,000 to 400,000 people died under Franco’s 36-year brutal dictatorship.

Fast forward to during WW II, the Catholic Church, including the French Catholic hierarchy, had a comfortable relationship with the Nazis. The Pope followed a policy of silence when it came to the Nazi’s war atrocities. One summer day in 1942, not too far from Notre-Dame, in the same plaza where the hill of the Talmud was set on fire, thirteen thousand Parisian Jews, including four thousand children, were put on trains to be sent to concentration camps to be gassed.  What did the church do?  It turned its back. After the war, the church, along with many others participated in assisting war criminals escape via the network called “The Ratline.” One of the many criminals assisted by the French Diocese was Paul Touvier. Mr. Touvier was head of intelligence of a paramilitary group in Lyon, France that collaborated with the “Butcher of Lyon,” Klaus Barbie in killing French Jews and members of the resistance.  Paul Touvier was known as the “Hangman of Lyon” or the “French Barbie.”  The French Catholic Church kept him hidden for 45 years in its monasteries.

The help provided to Nazi criminals was not done only by the French Diocese.  In Rome, the Vatican helped Gestapo Hauptsturmfuhrer Eric Priebke who took part in the massacre of 335 Italian citizens at the Ardeatine Caves. The massacre was in reprisal for the bomb blast set up by the partisans at Via Rasella, which killed 33 ethnic German speaking Italian policemen. All that was required of Priebke by the church was for him to be baptized as a Roman Catholic. 

With the approval of the Pope, Croatian Monsignor Krunoslav Draganovic helped Klaus Barbie get to South America. Bishop Alois “Luigi” Hudal, the rector of an Austro-German church, helped two of the most wanted war criminals escape: Franz Stangl and Adolf Eichmann.   

Franz Stangl was the Nazi commanding officer of a concentration camp located 60 miles northeast of Warsaw close to a village called Treblinka.  He was responsible for the murder of 800,000 Jews and others.  Adolf Eichmann, a German-Austrian Nazi, was in charge of the logistics of the mass deportation of millions of Jews, Communists, Roma, and others to Auschwitz in occupied Poland.

Today, the Catholic Church continues to hide its history.  It denies, protects, and assists priests who have molested children, it continues campaigning against abortion and reproductive rights for women around the world, and it promotes homophobia.

The Catholic Church has a debt to pay to the victims of its greed and corruption.  It can start by paying reparations to its victims and descendants with the money it is getting for Notre-Dame. That is how the Catholic Church can begin to atone for its past sins.  If the Church squanders such an opportunity, could anyone blame its victims, both living, or dead for uttering, “Burn Baby Burn!!!”

~~~Pablo Foster is a Physician Assistant and union activist. He lives in the Bronx.

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