Bishop Miler Magrath (Maolmhuire Mag Raith) of Ireland (1523-1622) wrote his own epitaph for the tomb in Cashel in which he was finally laid in his one-hundredth year. The syntax is convoluted as was his life: “Here where I am placed I am not. I am not where I am not. Nor am I in both places, but I am in each.” It was his way of recalling that he managed to be a Catholic bishop and a Protestant bishop at the same time. He started out as a Franciscan friar, schooled in Rome, and soon became bishop of Down and Connor, then Clogher before Cashel, exacting rents from all of them, and adding Waterford, Lismore, Killala, and Achonry to his sees, becoming rich, although his cathedral in Cashel was said to be a pigsty, and few of his people were aware of the existence of God. Although he maintained many Franciscan ties—albeit wearing armor as protection against sullen rent payers—he authorized the hunting down of Papist priests while also warning them ahead of time, operating as a sort of double agent. Amy O’Meara of Toomevara married him, but devoutly refused to eat meat on Fridays and reared their nine children as Catholics. Pope Gregory VIII finally excommunicated him, but Paul V legitimized his children.
Bishop Magrath’s creative rationalizing brings to mind his contemporary in England, Simeon Aleyn, who was unable to maintain the duplicity of practicing two religions at the same time. To retain his living as vicar of the leafy and affluent parish of Bray in Berkshire he switched creeds to accommodate whichever might be the religion “du jour” of the reigning monarch. In his charming book of curiosities, “Worthies of England” (1662), Thomas Fuller wrote: “The vivacious vicar [of Bray] living under King Henry VIII, King Edward VI, Queen Mary, and Queen Elizabeth, was first a Papist, then a Protestant, then a Papist, then a Protestant again. He had seen some martyrs burnt two miles off at Windsor and found this fire too hot for his tender temper. This vicar, being attacked by one for being a turncoat and an inconstant changeling, said, ‘Not so, for I always kept my principle, which is this—to live and die the Vicar of Bray.’” This would inspire a caustic ballad which has from time to time been tailored to fit half a dozen other Churchmen of different periods but with similar qualities of adaptability:
And this is law, I will maintain
Unto my Dying Day, Sir.
That whatsoever King may reign,
I will be the Vicar of Bray, Sir!
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
There is a political parallel to this malleability in the former Vice President, Joe Biden, who has decided to run for the presidency as a Catholic independent of the strictures of Catholicism. As vice president, he officiated at the civil “marriage” of two men in 2016, although he had voted for the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996. When he was exploring a run for the presidency in 2008, Biden famously said: “I will shove my rosary beads down the throat of any Republican who says I am not a Catholic.” The Bishop of Cashel and the Vicar of Bray could not have said it more eloquently.
On June 5, Biden had a campaign spokesman reiterate his long-standing support of the Hyde Amendment, which, having been passed by Congress in 1977, prevented federal funding for abortions save for pregnancies caused by rape, or incest, and considerations of risk to the life of the mother. Such provisions at the time were considered to be pragmatic for attaining passage of the bill. A day after affirming the Hyde Amendment, Biden gave a speech in Atlanta in which he repudiated the Hyde Amendment, while simultaneously insisting that he was not rejecting his previous position on abortion funding, and added that he would make “no apologies for the last position.” His overnight flip-flop brings to mind the agility with which Senator Kerry in 2004 explained his stance on a supplemental appropriation for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan: “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.” That was matched and perhaps surpassed by the leader of the Australian party One Nation, Pauline Hanson, who said in 2018 with reference to tax cut legislation: “I haven’t flip-flopped, I said no originally, then I said yes, then I have said no and I’ve stuck to it.” To assure anyone who might put a cynical gloss on Biden’s reversal, one of his campaign officials, T.J. Ducklo, said, “This is about health care, not politics.”
In a flash of honesty, Bismarck said: “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable—the art of the next best.” No one can survive in public life if he naïvely denies that situations may require compromise and even reversals. I was fortunate to know Congressman Henry Hyde, who counted his amendment his greatest achievement and told interesting stories of what was involved in getting it passed. I also knew Judge Bork, who was slandered by the rancorous attacks of shameless senators, including Biden, who ranted as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee: “It appears to me that you are saying that the government has as much right to control a married couple’s decision about choosing to have a child or not, as that government has a right to control the public utility’s right to pollute the air.” Both Hyde and Bork were aware of the art of the possible, but they also knew that when retractions and contradictions affect matters of life or death, accommodation takes on an ominous character.
In “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” Robert Louis Stevenson wrote of another and very different, indeed opposite, Mr. Hyde, but his cryptic message was that Jekyll and Hyde are the same man, and conscience is the serum that frees one and restrains the other: “I (Dr. Jekyll) was still cursed with my duality of purpose; and as the first edge of my penitence wore off, the lower side of me, so long indulged, so recently chained down, began to growl for licence. Not that I dreamed of resuscitating Hyde; … no, it was in my own person that I was once more tempted to trifle with my conscience….”
Biden was given an honorary doctorate from Trinity College, Dublin, in 2016, enriching his academic laurels which were tenuous after he placed 75 out of 86 in his Syracuse College of Law class, although he claimed to have been in the top half. But if politics is the art of the possible, one must expect artistic liberties. Drawing on, and perhaps exhausting, his information on Shakespeare, Biden said that his mistake regarding school grades, like his propensity for appropriating sources without attribution, is “much ado about nothing.” Academic rankings are not assurances of intelligence; in fact, Mr.—that is, Dr. Biden told a voter during a campaign stop in New Hampshire in 1987: “I think I probably have a much higher I.Q. than you.” Armed with such confidence, Biden has wrestled with his conscience like a Sumo wrestler, thudding against that “aboriginal vicar of Christ” and bouncing off. Free of constricting guilt, and unafraid of the foolish need for consistency which is the hobgoblin of those little minds with I.Q.’s less than his, Biden now presents himself to the public as a prodigy of rejuvenation. With hair thicker and teeth whiter, beyond the skill of frail Mother Nature, and armed with his lethal Rosary, he is ready to lead America like an eager Boy Scout helping an unwilling lady across the wrong street.
The Bourbon Henry of Navarre, baptized Catholic but reared Protestant and the champion of a Huguenot army, became King Henry IV of France by cutting a deal: he would declare himself Catholic. An intemperate Catholic, François Ravaillac, thought that a threatened invasion of the Spanish Netherlands proved the insincerity of Henry’s conversion, and assassinated him in 1610. Although King Henry had said, “Paris vaut une messe”—by his arcane calculation, Paris was worth a Mass—the Church has never canonized him. Less saintly is anyone who calculates that Washington, D.C., is worth more than a Mass.
Editor’s note: Pictured above, former vice president and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks to a crowd at a Democratic National Committee event at Flourish in Atlanta on June 6, 2019, in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo credit: Dustin Chambers/Getty Images)