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The Beltway Healing

IN THE EARLY HOURS of March 10, 1824, Ann Mattingly, the sister of the mayor of Washington, D.C., lay on her sick bed, consumed with cancer. Her back was ulcerated. She had an incessant cough that sometimes gave way to fits so violent that they were “followed by puking large quantities of corrupted blood.” The smell her body gave off was so horrible that her family members found it “extremely unpleasant and offensive to the smell to pass by her door.”

We know these miserable facts about Mrs. Mattingly’s illness from sworn affidavits. But Mrs. Mattingly was not the victim of a crime; rather, she was the recipient of a miracle. For at 2 a.m. on that early morning, Father Stephen Dubuisson began a special Mass at nearby St. Patrick’s church. The strange time for Mass was intended to coincide with a Mass being said by a German faith-healer, Prince Alexander Leopold Hohenlohe-Waldenburg-Schillingsfurst, who had sent instructions and special prayers as a cure. At 3:30 a.m., hoping to guarantee that there was no discrepancy in the timing and that the prayers from Washington would coincide with the prayers from Bamberg, Father Anthony Kohlmann began a second Mass at the chapel at Georgetown College. Father Dubuisson arrived at the Mattingly home first, prayed the words Prince Hohenlohe had sent, and administered holy communion to Mrs. Mattingly. She was instantly healed from all of her afflictions. She rose from her sickbed. The sores on her back healed. Mrs. Mattingly went on to live a happy, healthy, and pious life for thirty-one more years.

The miracle was not Prince Hohenlohe’s first. His most famous miracle had occurred three years earlier when, with the assistance of a simple, holy farmer, he affected the cure of Princess Mathilde von Schwartzenberg who was severely crippled, and had been unable to walk since childhood. Hohenlohe was soon beset upon by hordes of followers seeking his curative powers, and news of his miraculous gifts reached America, which is how Father Dubuisson thought to enlist his aid.

The tale of this miracle, and the reactions to it, is the subject of this book. There is much to be said for history books penned by English professors. At a time when academic historians seem to be committed to prose that is deadly dull, Nancy Lusignan Schultz, a professor of English, lets the story emerge as a good yarn, not a big yawn. And, while she places the story in its historical context, from the German mysticism of Hohenlohe to the latent anti-Catholicism of antebellum America, she avoids many of the pitfalls of contemporary historiography. Her text is not filled with bizarre metrics or psychobabble. This is a highly readable and informative book.

At the center of the story is a religious fact, a miracle, which came at a time when religious facts, especially miracles, were viewed with suspicion. This was the age of Enlightenment rationalism, which questioned religious dogmas per se and was especially critical of supernatural claims. Thomas Jefferson had famously re-written the New Testament, removing all references to miracles he deemed “unbelievable” and leaving only the ethical claims that came from the mouth of Jesus. Of course, there is a problem with reducing Jesus of Nazareth to an ethical teacher. It never occurred to a highly rational man like Jefferson to consult the ethical teachings of other first century itinerant Jewish rabbis, many of whom had also been executed by the Romans (and are recalled during the martyrology on Yom Kippur). To the early Christians, and Christians ever since, the ethical teachings of Jesus find their sanction in the fact of his resurrection, not because of their inherent worthiness. The people who knew Jesus best put him to death, after all. There is no reason to pay attention to anything he said or taught unless you believe the dogmatic claim that he was the Son of God.

Religious facts are not like empirical facts. By definition, the faithful soul who believes in a religious fact discerns in that fact not only an historical event, but the authorship of a God who transcends history. Religious facts are only accessible to those whose imagination entertains the preconception that God acts in human history. Of course, we all operate with pre-conceived ideas in interpreting our world: when the Scottish chanteuse Susan Boyle first strutted onto the stage of the show “Britain’s Got Talent” to sing her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream,” the emotional power of the audience’s reaction stemmed not only from the merits of the performance, which was fine but hardly earth-shattering. The power came from the pre-conception that a woman so frumpy should not have a voice so angelic. Similarly, the eyes of faith can discern grace in suffering, miracles where others see none, and imagine the world as seized with the divine. You may doubt miracles or believe in them, but there is no denying the power of the religious imagination.

Mrs. Mattingly and the priests who attended her did believe the dogmatic claim that Jesus was the Son of God. And the letter Prince Hohenlohe had sent to Mrs. Mattingly invited her to focus on her faith. “Be then animated with a strong faith, which excludes all doubts and hesitation, with a truly filial unlimited confidence in the promises of a Father, whose goodness and mercy are infinite as his omnipotence,” the prince wrote. The words of the Prince mimic the words of Jesus: “Arise, your faith has healed you.”

The religious authorities of the Catholic Church in the United States did not deny that a miracle had taken place. They harbored no rationalistic suspicion of a religious fact. But, they were deeply divided about how to react to that fact. Father Dubuisson sent a note to his superior at Georgetown: “Miracle! Reverend and Dear Father Superior, Mrs. Mattingly was suddenly relieved from all pains this morning at 4:15 about seven minutes after receiving communion ... Lord Jesus! Thy name be glorified.” The bells at Georgetown rang out the news that morning.

Archbishop Ambrose Marechal of Baltimore, who had jurisdiction over Washington in those days, acknowledged that some people might be drawn to the Catholic faith on account of the miracle. But his dominant concern was that “supernatural facts” could “excite in the mind of the people, very strong sentiments,” and that “it is the duty of secondary pastors and a portion of mine to moderate and guide the popular emotion how laudable however it may be in its source and principles.” Marechal asked that expressions of gratitude be confined to the family and parish, that anything given to the newspapers should be governed by prudence, that affidavits be secured, especially from Protestants and respectable Catholics, and that all documentation should be sent to him. The archbishop did not want the miracle to become a public spectacle. Despite his advice, however, a miracle is a miracle, and the news of it spread even to Europe.

Marechal’s concern was understandable and even prescient. But here Schultz makes her only notable misstep. She attributes the reticence of Marechal and other clerics to what some Catholic historians have dubbed the “Maryland tradition.” This school of Catholic historiography posits a strain in early American Catholicism that was imbued, rather than bedeviled, by the Enlightenment. Historians such as Joseph Cinnici and Thomas Spalding argue that many of the most distinctively Catholic practices, such as devotion to the Virgin Mary and the saints, as well as belief in miracles, were downplayed by the exponents of the Maryland tradition and only became pronounced in American Catholic practice when immigrants brought their more folkloric expressions of Catholic faith to the United States.

Schultz can be forgiven, seeing as the exponents of the Maryland tradition are the dominant group among Catholic historians. But they are wrong. There are many sermons about the Virgin Mary that have come to us from the late colonial and early republican era. Corpus Christi processions were common, celebrating one of the core differences between Catholicism and Protestantism, a belief in the real presence of Christ in the consecrated bread at Mass. And the first United States bishop, John Carroll, was certainly a loyal patriot, and embraced the Constitutional separation of Church and State, not least because in a culture dominated by Protestantism, any official ecclesiastic establishment was likely to be more hostile than not. Still, Carroll’s ideas about human reason had more in common with Thomas Aquinas than with Thomas Jefferson. Indeed, when Carroll built the first cathedral in the new nation, he dedicated it to the Virgin Mary under the title of the Assumption. This dogma of the Church, which held that Mary was assumed into heaven body and soul, had not even been solemnly defined at the time, but was held as a popular devotion among the Catholic faithful. In short, the evidence for a Catholic Enlightenment is tenuous at best.

The more proximate reason for the concern that the Mattingly miracle not gain widespread public attention was latent anti-Catholicism, and Schultz provides ample evidence to justify the concern. The miracle touched a chord among anti-Catholic bigots. The National Advertiser headlined its editorial about the miracle, “Humbug.” In the Saratoga Sentinel, a false report claimed that Mrs. Mattingly’s ailments had returned shortly after the supposed miracle. The Washington Theological Repertory gave the most damning report, claiming that “men of reading, reflection, and sense will laugh at their [the Catholics’] pretensions: and feel indignant that in this age and country, an attempt should be made to impose upon the credulity of the people, by a branch of that body which forged and riveted, and are now trying to rivet again, the chains of ignorance and superstition under which the people of Europe have so long been groaning.”

The reference to Europe was also prescient in its way: soon, hundreds of thousands of Catholic immigrants would come to America and ignite a wave of anti-Catholic bigotry, but the seeds of anti-Catholic nativism were present before the immigrant onslaught. Anti-Catholicism was deeply intertwined with the thinking of the Founders. John Adams’s first publication was a rant against ecclesiastic law. Prominent preachers such as Jonathon Mayhew enflamed anti-British feeling by warning of the Popish tendencies of the British Parliament. The First Continental Congress sent an open letter to the people of Great Britain that denounced the Quebec Act of 1774, which granted legal toleration to the Catholics of that province. The letter, adopted by the Congress, described Catholicism as “a Religion that has deluged your Island in blood, and dispersed impiety, bigotry, persecution, murder, and rebellion, through every part of the world.” Newt Gingrich, who has recently become a Catholic, should be a bit more careful about praising the religioisity of the Founders.

In June, 1824, Mrs. Mattingly’s brother, Mayor Carberry, lost his bid for re-election after the southern journal Mount Zion Missionary editorialized that “Republicanism and Catholicism bear no affinity in any one single relation, nor can they ever cordially unite in character.” Several newspapers linked his defeat to the widespread disbelief in the miracle. The mayor’s defeat notwithstanding, the debate about the miracle went on throughout the summer but, in the nature of the thing, it was never resolved. And the debate about the compatibility of Catholicism with American political life was unresolved until the election of John F. Kennedy to the presidency.

Kennedy, of course, squeaked across the finish line in 1960 only after he went to the Houston Ministerial Convention and, in a sense, took Archbishop Marechal’s advice. He said his faith was private, and attempted to shield that faith from public scrutiny by assuring the assembled Protestant ministers that it would not intrude upon his public duties. But Catholicism is an obstinately public faith, and just so, its relationship with contemporary liberalism remains uneasy. There are no politicians of other faiths, with the possible exception of Mormons, whose faith is so much a part of the discussion surrounding their candidacy. The tension between a public faith and a culture that requires faith be kept private was at the heart of the different reactions to Mrs. Mattingly’s miracle and that tension is as unresolved today as it was in 1824.

Michael Sean Winters writes the blog “Distinctly Catholic” at the National Catholic Reporter. His biography of the Rev. Jerry Falwell will be published in January 2012 by Harper One.