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The President, the Pope, and the Pastor

The Catholic Connections to Lincoln’s Murder

Lincoln Pius IX Chiniquy

  “After twenty years of constant and most difficult research, I come fearlessly today before the American people, to say and prove that the president, Abraham Lincoln, was assassinated by the priests and the Jesuits of Rome.”
— Charles Chiniquy,
Fifty Years in the Church of Rome

Pastor Charles Chiniquy (above right), born in 1809, was a noted French Canadian ex-priest who left the Roman confession after a long struggle with the bishop of Chicago over property (among other issues).

His most important book, Fifty Years in the Church of Rome is powerful, part autobiography, part diatribe, and a scathing indictment of the Roman Catholic Church. The grim picture he paints of greedy bishops and lascivious priests sounds so familiar, it proves that in some respects at least the Church is indeed changeless through the ages.

Charles Chiniquy was a famous and respected priest known as “apostle of temperance to Canada” for his work promoting sobriety. Hence the shock of his leaving was that much greater. No taint of scandal clung to him, despite the efforts of the Catholic hierarchy to discredit him after he left the Roman Church. In his book, he claims he was physically assaulted numerous times, even being stoned on occasion, by papist mobs for speaking out. He ultimately became an independent Catholic bishop and a revered founder of the Community Church movement. Another book he wrote, The Priest, the Woman, and the Confessional, was one of the first revelations in modern times of the problem of sexual solicitation in the confessional.

Chiniquy may have had an ax to grind but he was no raving lunatic. After all, he was a personal friend of Honest Abe’s and owed him his freedom, if not his life. He even visited him several times at the White House.

The future president had saved him from prison and probable death during his legal battles with the minions of the bishop of Chicago in the late 1850s, and Chiniquy said he told Lincoln at the time that that alone was enough to make him a marked man. The evidence Chiniquy gathered for his book was highly circumstantial but intriguing, nonetheless.

The Conspirators and the Church

In the first place, Booth and the other conspirators, Chiniquy claimed, were devout or at least closet Roman Catholics. Priests frequented Mrs. Surratt’s boardinghouse, which served as the plotters’ rendezvous. Indeed, several priests actually lived there.

Her son, John Surrat, escaped the noose (unlike his devout mother), by fleeing to Canada where priests harbored him. When he was finally discovered and returned for trial in 1867, believe it or not, he was serving in the Pope’s guard at the Vatican.

Chiniquy claimed that the Roman Church, because of its autocratic principles, favored the South, and in any case wanted civil war to weaken America and its support of liberty in general. He claimed that Lincoln was well aware of this, and that the hierarchy had fomented conspiracies against him, but did not make it publicly known, lest it “become a war of extermination on both sides.” The false rumors that Lincoln had been born Catholic, Chiniquy said, were spread by the Jesuits to make it appear that Lincoln was an apostate and renegade, and thus deserving of the ultimate fate the Church saved for heretics — death.

Chiniquy claimed that the South would never have dared attack the North without assurances of covert assistance from the Church. He did make some extreme claims, such as that Beauregard was chosen to fire the opening shot at Ft. Sumter because he was Catholic, that the bishop of New York was responsible for the anti-draft riots and the failure of Meade, a Catholic, to pursue Lee after Gettysburg was due to the direct intercession of a Jesuit.

Even more intriguing is the fact, attested by sworn affidavits, that priests at the monastery near the town of St. Joseph in Minnesota, far beyond the reach of train and telegraph, were talking about the killings of both Lincoln and Seward some four hours before the attacks occurred. Chiniquy claimed that the clergy in Minnesota were “intimate friends” of those lurking at Mrs. Surratt’s nest of spies, though he produced no proof of this.

However, in 1864 Pope Pius IX wrote Jefferson Davis a letter that was made public, addressing him as the President of the Confederacy — in effect becoming the only foreign power to recognize the South. Chiniquy claimed that he told Lincoln that this was “a poisoned arrow thrown by the pope at you personally and it will be more than a miracle if it be not your irrevocable warrant of death.”

Why would the Pope favor the South? The papacy had been humiliated, if not humbled, by Napoleon and the excesses of the French Revolution. Pius, though he ascended to the throne as a liberal, became a bitter reactionary. More than once, the French army had to save him from the Italians rebels seeking to reuinte the peninsula.

During his extremely long reign, the Papal States were forever lost and the pope became a prisoner of the Vatican. But having lost his grip on the state, Pius acted ruthlessly to make sure he had total control over the Church, by convening the First Vatican Council and ramrodding through the doctrine of “papal infallibility.” This new dogma, like that of the Immaculate Conception of Mary which he also promulgated, disgusted many, including some bishops who left to form the “Old Catholics.”

In a similar vein, Pius also promulgated the infamous Syllabus of Errors, which condemned secret societies such as the Masons, along with such radical notions as the separation of church and state, freedom of religion and public schools. After bewailing the state of the Church in Europe, he wrote, “Nor are things any better or circumstances calmer in America, where some regions are so hostile to Catholics that their governments seem to deny by their actions the Catholic faith they claim to profess.”

Pius, despite his liberal beginnings, became a true autocrat. Perhaps that was enough to make him fear the democracy and egalitarianism of the American experiment. There was also the dangerous practice, especially in the United States, of congregations themselves owning the property and assets of the Church. This was seen as an attack on the authority of the bishops and by extension, the papacy, and would ultimately be defined as heretical. Thus Pius had reason to dread the growing power of the United States. His support of the Confederacy would not be as much for its victory as for the Union’s defeat.

The Day of Atonement

The one fact that may be most significant is one that all theorists including Chiniquy seem to have ignored completely: April 14, 1865 was not just any Friday, but Good Friday. Perhaps this oversight was because the president’s life lingered until Saturday. To most historians, who see the assassination largely as a crime of opportunity triggered by the fall of the Confederacy, this means nothing; but even if it was, would Booth and his fellow plotters have seen it that way? Would it not be seen as entirely providential and foreordained that the “bloodthirsty tyrant” be slain the very day Christ was crucified? Would it not have given a fanatic even further impetus?

And how, for that matter, did the fact that Lincoln was shot on Good Friday contribute to his later being deified as the “savior” of the country?

As with that other assassination nearly a century later of a “martyred” Catholic president by a “lone gunman”, the truth will never be known. But considering the equally dubious conspiracy theories in regard to Kennedy that seem less implausible as time goes on, it may not be quite so easy to dismiss the Catholic connection to Lincoln’s murder as it once was.

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