Governor Pliny and Governor Cuomo

Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus was governor of Bithynia–Pontus in present day Turkey from 111 to 113 AD.  That capped a long career during which he served as judge, staff officer, knight, senator, quaestor, tribune, praetor, prefect, consul, propraetor and augur. He was popularly known as Pliny the Younger because his uncle, the naturalist and military commander, adopted him. He had been with his uncle when he died at the eruption of Vesuvius, rescuing some of the people fleeing Pompeii. Given his acrobatic balance in dancing to the tune of very different emperors: Vespasian, Titus, Domitian Nerva, and Trajan, he reminds one of Talleyrand whom he actually surpassed in erudition as a writer of Greek verse and orator in the line of Cicero.  Talleyrand would have admired his cynicism, as when he decried Domitian as soon as he died, having long extolled him. It is curious, but not atypical of the Italian Renaissance, that this torturer of Christians should be honored with a statue on the façade of the cathedral in his native town of Como.

A growing body of Christians was unsettling the pagan establishment in Bithynia.  Pliny wrote Trajan a famous epistle beginning with the flattery he had mastered:

It is my constant method to apply myself to you for the resolution of all my doubts; for who can better govern my dilatory way of proceeding or instruct my ignorance? I have never been present at the examination of the Christians by others, on which account I am unacquainted with what uses to be inquired into, and what, and how far they used to be punished; nor are my doubts small, whether there be not a distinction to be made between the ages of the accused and whether tender youth ought to have the same punishment with strong men? Whether there be not room for pardon upon repentance? or whether it may not be an advantage to one that had been a Christian, that he has forsaken Christianity? Whether the bare name, without any crimes besides, or the crimes adhering to that name, to be punished? In the meantime, I have taken this course about those who have been brought before me as Christians. I asked them whether they were Christians or not? If they confessed that they were Christians, I asked them again, and a third time, intermixing threatenings with the questions. If they persevered in their confession, I ordered them to be executed; for I did not doubt but, let their confession be of any sort whatsoever, this positiveness and inflexible obstinacy deserved to be punished. There have been some of this mad sect whom I took notice of in particular as Roman citizens, that they might be sent to that city.

Pliny deemed these people superstitious because “they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god.” Superstition was not a crime, and it was rife in the Empire, but these Christians refused to worship the gods of the land and would rather die than worship the Emperor himself.  There were not a few Christians who got cold feet and obliged Pliny: “A libel was sent to me, though without an author, containing many names [of persons accused]. These denied that they were Christians now, or ever had been. They called upon the gods, and supplicated to your image, which I caused to be brought to me for that purpose, with frankincense and wine; they also cursed Christ; none of which things, it is said, can any of those that are ready Christians be compelled to do; so I thought fit to let them go. Others of them that were named in the libel, said they were Christians, but presently denied it again; that indeed they had been Christians, but had ceased to be so, some three years, some many more; and one there was that said he had not been so these twenty years. All these worshipped your image, and the images of our gods; these also cursed Christ.” Trajan wrote back saying that Pliny had followed proper procedure, but to be fair according to Roman justice, the “spirit of our age” required that the governor should only persecute those who refused to cease being Christians.

 

Governor Andrew Cuomo recently declared on a radio program in Albany that those who uphold, by implication, Christian moral standards, and refuse to go along with state legislation on such matters as abortion and the redefinition of marriage, have “no place in the state of New York.” If this also applies to dead New Yorkers, perhaps he should exhume the remains of pro-life feminists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  He did not threaten to throw anyone to wild beasts, but the tone of the governor of the Empire State was decidedly imperious, and the threat of having to move west of Hudson River might be unsettling to even the most devout Catholics.  As Cuomo has publicly flaunted his concubinage with the cook Sandra Lee, it cannot be said that he is inconsistent in his moral prescriptions. If hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue, he is the very opposite of a hypocrite, for he would rather insist that virtue pay tribute to vice.  It is unlikely that a statue of Governor Cuomo will ever adorn the Albany cathedral like the one of Pliny at the cathedral of Como, but in that cathedral on the day after his inauguration in 2011, Bishop Howard Hubbard preached: “Ultimate victory over forces that are seemingly insurmountable is really possible.” According to the New York Daily News: “The divorced son of former Gov. Mario Cuomo, who was once chastised by Catholic leaders for his support of abortion rights, calmly received Holy Communion. Lee walked in line for Communion with him.” Immediately after the Mass, Cuomo the Younger said that the bishop’s words were “inspirational” and then ordered ethics training for employees in his office, to be given by the Public Integrity Commission. One supposes that such training includes eradicating the superstitious cult of Christianity.

Attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville, but more probably the words of Joseph de Maistre, is the oft-repeated warning,  “In a democracy, people get the government they deserve.” New York now has the highest abortion rate in the nation, and Governor Cuomo promotes abortion even in the third trimester when a baby can feel pain, and apparently more so than the governor himself. In a state whose population supposedly is 38 percent Catholic he enjoys a 52 percent approval record, and received 61 percent of the nominal Catholic vote. Catholics fragile in spirit who symbolically offered incense to Caesar by voting for such present leaders, were either ignorant (and ignorance unlike stupidity can be cured) or selfish in placing small material interests above moral standards.

Trajan was a comparatively humane man by the standards of the day, but he seems to have been inflated with his successes against the Scythians and Dacians, and became more bloated with pride when he decided to march on Armenia.  According to tradition, en route to Armenia, Trajan stopped in Antioch where the bishop Ignatius was brought before him. Trajan was perplexed that such a gentle man would not water down his faith in order to cooperate with the state.  He ordered Ignatius to get out of Bythinia. Before arriving in Rome where he was tossed to the lions by imperial decree, St. Ignatius wrote:  “Do not err, my brethren. Those that corrupt families shall not inherit the kingdom of God. If, then, those who do this as respects the flesh have suffered death, how much more shall this be the case with any one who corrupts by wicked doctrine the faith of God, for which Jesus Christ was crucified! Such a one becoming defiled [in this way], shall go away into everlasting fire and so shall every one that hearkens unto him.”

St. Ignatius was second in succession to St. Peter as bishop of Antioch, after the death of Bishop Evodius, and he may have been appointed by the Prince of the Apostles himself.  He was a student of Christ’s most beloved apostle John.  So what Ignatius wrote resounds with the authority Christ gave to Peter, and resonates with the beat of the heart John could hear at the Last Supper.

Fr. George W. Rutler

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Fr. George W. Rutler is pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. He is the author of many books including Principalities and Powers: Spiritual Combat 1942-1943 (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press) and Hints of Heaven (Sophia Institute Press). His latest books are He Spoke To Us (Ignatius, 2016); The Stories of Hymns (EWTN Publishing, 2017); and Calm in Chaos (Ignatius, 2018).

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