Saint Louis IX: Racist or Religionist?

The noise this summer atop Art Hill in Forest Park, St. Louis, clamoring that something be done about the bronze cast of Charles Henry Niehaus’s “The Apotheosis of Saint Louis” should be remembered on this feast day of the sainted King of France.

The ignorant anger that has taken the nation in its grip, toppling and defacing memorials that hearken to times of perceived or alleged racial division, has deemed the iconic statue of the crusader king unworthy for modern display. Why? Because Louis was, of course, a racist.

While Louis IX’s history is scant on evidence that he was a racist, it is rife with evidence that he was a religionist. Such discrimination was, and still is, worth fighting for. That is to say, the only “culture war” worth waging is over religion, not race—which makes for a challenge when race has been elevated to something religious.

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A brief look at the life of Saint Louis IX is a lesson in the particular fervor that is growing more necessary in an age of general fury. As Catholics, our protests must truly be peaceful, but that doesn’t mean we cannot oppose the enemies of history, tradition, and our holy Faith with the direct and dire steadfastness of the sword. There is no place for racial animus, but there is not enough place for religious ardor. That’s part of the reason—if not the whole reason—why racism exists to the extent that it does. Love of religion will save our statues, our society, and our sanity; that means conquering the enemies of Christ by our love and the dedication of our lives.

“I love you, my dear son,” Queen Blanche of Castile said to her fourth-eldest child, Louis. “But I would rather see you dead at my feet than that you should ever commit a mortal sin.” Louis, who promptly swore to avoid sin, never did lay dead at his mother’s feet. His three elder siblings and his royal father did, however, and Louis ascended the throne of France at Reims Cathedral at twelve years of age in 1226.

As a young king, Louis IX was absolutely devoted to his Catholic faith and his Catholic kingdom. In an act that certainly gained attention then and would do so now, he condemned the Jewish Talmud for blasphemy and ordered the burning of thousands of copies. Was this a racist act against the Jews? Or an act of religious assertion for the one true Faith? Was Louis anti-Semitic, or pro-Catholic?

It is shocking how the biases of today are so quick to label the characters of antiquity with damning negativity. King Louis did indeed hold a deep prejudice for the Catholic religion and did what he saw fit to preserve and protect the gifts that God had given to His people. If that is bigotry, then it seems we all must be similarly “guilty.” There is a right and a wrong when it comes to reality, both visible and invisible, and Catholics must stand on the right side of the divide, even if it sows division.

King Louis was a religionist, not a racist, determined to enshrine Christ the King over his own kingship—an ambition exemplified in his purchasing the relic of the holy Crown of Thorns from the Latin Emperor of Constantinople and building the magnificent Sainte Chapelle to house it. But lying closest to his heart in his striving for the kingdom of God was the cause of crusade for the deliverance of the Holy Land from Muslim control. In 1248, Louis sailed against the Islamic stronghold in Egypt to pave the way to Jerusalem.

Again, was this an act of “Islamophobia,” or was it an act, if you will, of Catholiphilia? Was King Louis a man who was intolerant of foreign races or false religions? Perhaps these days one is as reprehensible as the other, but if religion can still be recognized as a life-affirming conviction of being and action encompassing a universal purpose of human existence, then it should be respected by the pseudo-religious sentiments that surround Black Lives Matter (BLM) and other political movements that elicit a quasi-religious fanaticism in their followers.

Nevertheless, the worthiness of the defense of the Faith as a cause for war remains. If there is anything worth fighting for, it is religion, not race.

In the words of Adam Wayne, writing of G. K. Chesterton’s beautiful lunatic in the novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill:

Oh, you kings, you kings! … How humane you are, how tender, how considerate! You will make war for a frontier, or the imports of a foreign harbour; you will shed blood for the precise duty on lace, or the salute to an admiral. But for the things that make life itself worthy or miserable—how humane you are! I say here, and I know well what I speak of, there were never any necessary wars but the religious wars. There were never any just wars but the religious wars. There were never any humane wars but the religious wars. For these men were fighting for something that claimed, at least, to be the happiness of a man, the virtue of a man. A Crusader thought, at least, that Islam hurt the soul of every man, king or tinker, that it could really capture.

King Louis made religious war against those he would have called “infidels,” it is true, but it was not because he despised their DNA or the color of their skin. He despised infidelity. He denied their denial of Christ. He was eager to fight to secure supremacy for the Church. He was not an oppressor, but rather a king who wanted to liberate the world from the bonds of sin and error. He fought for the liberty of our Holy Mother Church, that all men might be free beneath her mantle.

The king’s zeal, however, shone brighter than his military prowess. Ravaged by intestinal sickness and heat along the Nile Delta, Louis’s army was vanquished at the Battle of Al Mansurah, and he was taken captive. An extravagant ransom was paid for his release and, dejected over his failed crusade, Louis traveled through Palestine fortifying crusader defenses and seeking solace in prayer and humility. He dressed simply, ate simply, and in simplicity labored for the poor he encountered.

King Louis returned to France when news came of the death of his mother, who had been ruling in his absence. His subjects found him a king even more determined to reign over a Catholic nation through prayer, penance, and politics. He banned usury; he rendered blasphemy punishable with mutilation of the lips; he substituted trial by combat with trial by witnesses; he established the principle of the presumption of innocence in criminal investigations; he documented legal cases as precedents; and he prohibited feudal hostilities. King Louis also made barefoot pilgrimages to the abbey of Saint Denis and served the poor from his table.

Twenty-two years after his failed crusade, Louis set out to redeem himself. He landed his troops in Tunis, but again his army was overwhelmed with dysentery. Louis himself died of the disease while lying on a bed of ashes as an act of penance. His last word was his first desire: “Jerusalem.”

Though Louis never saw the capture of Jerusalem, he did see the Faith embraced and enshrined in France. Catholic historians have called Louis’s reign the closest we have come to the realization of Christendom. King Louis IX found his earthly glory in many unkinglike things, and, thus, he became the first king of France canonized with the glory of the New Jerusalem. This could never have come to pass through the haughtiness of racism, but only from the humility of religion.

Struggling with dysentery, King Louis ordered a hole to be cut in the rear of his armor so that he could march and fight freely. It was an inglorious order to be sure, but Louis IX showed that a king’s glory does not subsist in glorious things which are merely glamorous. Glory often lies in private prayer, in hair shirts, in the sick, in beggars, in the sheer, shameless determination to fight for God in all the filth of dysentery, and even in failure. Even if religion proves the cause of our shame, our public humiliation, let us never renounce it, nor shy away from the defense of those who fight or have fought for the Faith. Even if we fail, our religion must never fail. To be a racist is inhuman, but to be a religionist for the one true religion is human—and holy.

Image: Saint Louis by El Greco]


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