The name of the stepbrother of William the Conqueror was a palindrome, and the ladies who made the Bayeux Tapestry must have enjoyed embroidering it along with the caption under the scene of Odo at the Battle of Hastings. A year after the Norman Conquest, he became Duke of Kent, assuming vast lands and power, but William had already seen to it that he had been made a bishop at about the age of nineteen. He was serious about his episcopal office—even at Hastings where a servant carried his crozier into the fray. Careful of the canonical prohibition against clerics wielding a sword, he used a heavy club, and with it he threatened those among his troops who were reluctant to run headlong into the hail of arrows. The inscription on the tapestry, which he probably intended for his own cathedral, reads in abbreviated Latin: “Hic Odo Eps [Episcopus] Baculu[m] Tenens Confortat Pueros” which is to say, “Here, Bishop Odo, holding his club, comforts his boys.” In our vernacular, this is not the sort of comfort one wants, but the word originally and essentially means to strengthen. Derived from it are words like fortress and fortitude, the latter being one of the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit. This is the other Comforter that Christ promised, in order to “Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (John 14:16; Ephesians 6:11).
The equivalent for Comforter is Paraclete, or Advocate, which means “a strengthener who stands by the side of another” to plead on his behalf in a court of justice (cf. John 14:26; 15:26; 16:7; 1 John 2:1). This teaching comes from the Beloved Disciple, the object and bestower of singular tenderness. But he was not sentimental, for sentimentalism is sham love without sacrifice. Saint John was strong enough to stand with Our Lady and comfort her at the crucifixion after the older apostles had fled. The Beloved Apostle says in his second letter, and reiterates in his third, that those who are not faithful to the truth should be separated from those who are. “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him in your house or even greet him, for whoever greets him shares in his evil works” (2 John 1:10-11). By so saying, he does not slip into sentimentalism, and he prefigures the dictum of Saint John Paul II in a general audience of November 8, 1978, that “there is no love without justice.” A few years earlier, Archbishop Fulton Sheen phrased it thus: “Justice without love could become tyranny, and love without justice could become toleration of evil.” That pastiche of love claims to feel your pain while inflicting it, and comforts you while destroying you.
Few verses in all literature match Saint Paul’s hymn to love (1 Cor. 13). But to cherry-pick the apostle’s words in order to show God’s mercy, to the exclusion of what he says earlier, is to emasculate his exaltation of sacrificial love: “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. Expel the wicked person from among you” (1 Cor. 5:12). Had Paul demurred from speaking truth to Caesar in the hope of bringing him to a better frame of mind and parading with him on festive days through the Forum, he might have kept his head, at least for a while.
These thoughts came to mind when the governor of Virginia was attacked from all sides for allegations of racism, an offense against human dignity, while his publicly avowed permission to kill babies born as well as unborn has been neuralgically downplayed. Grounds for demanding his resignation were not based on infanticide, but on his sophomoric prancing about in black face. The media overwhelmingly demurred from commenting on the governor’s justification of infanticide, saying one way or another that they did not have enough facts. Such lack did not prevent them from ranting against some racially demeaning yearbook photographs of him with another figure dressed as a Klansman. The media have given that more publicity in a few days than it ever gave a photograph of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger addressing the Ku Klux Klan. This image is said to have been “photoshopped” but Sanger did address a women’s branch of the Klan in Silver Lake, New Jersey, albeit uncomfortably, and she minced no words about her eugenics.
As a pediatric neurologist, Governor Northam spoke with clinical detachment about “comforting” babies who survive abortion: “The infant would be delivered. The infant would be kept comfortable. The infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physician and the mother.” He did not explain what the discussion would include, but, in contemporary America, it certainly would echo the moral desolation and self-inflicted punishment of depraved Babylon: “…they will have no mercy on infants, nor will they look with compassion on children” (Isaiah 13:18). As for medical qualifications, and prescinding from imputations of absolute equivalence, it is sobering to recall that Joseph Mengele had degrees in anthropology and medicine (cum laude) from the Universities of Munich and Frankfurt, and worked as an abortionist in Brazil after the war, as did Vilis Kruze, an SS officer and physician, in Ohio and Hawaii. Abortionists seem to have an international and ageless fraternity of their own.
Governor Northam’s kind of comfort was not that of Bishop Odo prodding his troops, for it was rather in the line of sedation before annihilation, and a nursery version of Otto von Bismarck’s protocol: “Every courtesy as far as the gallows.”
Justin Fairfax, Lieutenant Governor of Virginia, is a former Planned Parenthood official and is even more aggressively pro-infanticide than Northam. For all of their ilk, when it comes to “comfort,” they are like scornful Humpty Dumpty: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.” There are those of intractable moral confusion who would vote for those whose mastery of words removes the adverb “not” from the commandments of God.
Confounding attempts to pigeonhole the abortion scandal as a moral tumult only in the minds of Catholics, there are other voices from different platforms, including John Calvin who was anything but a friend of Catholicism: “…the unborn, though enclosed in the womb of his mother, is already a human being, and it is an almost monstrous crime to rob it of life which it has not yet begun to enjoy. If it seems more horrible to kill a man in his own house than in a field, because a man’s house is his most secure place of refuge, it ought surely to be deemed more atrocious to destroy the unborn in the womb before it has come to light” (Commentary on Exodus 21:22). The moral probity of killing an infant after birth was beneath consideration.
At the ordination of a bishop, a Book of the Gospels is placed on the head of the Bishop-Elect, for he is to be subservient to the Word of God in order to serve the People of God. There have been admirable bishops who edify by the simple clarity of their discipline. Among them is Bishop Thomas Daly who wrote in a pastoral letter of February 1, 2019: “Politicians who reside in the Catholic Diocese of Spokane, and who obstinately persevere in their public support for abortion, should not receive Communion without first being reconciled to Christ and the Church.”
Vacuous comforters may cajole their flocks with congenial platitudes, but there is no strength in this. (Risus abundant in ore stultorum / “Fools are full of laughter.”) There is a long line of those who confuse sycophancy with prophecy, whose operative ambition is their own comfort and the solace of approval by those who are as superficial as they are. “I saw the oppressions that are done under the sun, and the tears of the innocent, and they had no comforter; and they were not able to resist their violence, being destitute of help from any” (Ecclesiastes 4:1).