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Mess of Pottage

Esau was hungry. Jacob was clever. So famished was the older brother that he promised to surrender his birthright to Jacob in exchange for some of the stew his younger-by-a-few-minutes brother was cooking.

“Look,” he said, “I am on the point of dying. What good is the right as firstborn to me?”As we know (from Genesis 25: 29-34), Jacob was happy to comply. “Thus did Esau treat his right as firstborn with disdain.”

From the standpoint of a purely economic transaction, it makes some sense, although Esau clearly let his hunger get the best of him. But the birthright (bekorah) was his to squander according to the law of primogeniture under which the firstborn son – and only he – had inheritance rights.

Back in 2000, as the Oval Office was about to change hands, “news” emerged that the Clintons had backed up a U-Haul to a White House entrance and were loading it up with stuff from the People’s House. There was some truth in this, although it had to do with private gifts given to the President and First Lady (they ended up repaying the government about $100,000), but there were no public, historical items involved. Those, by law, must stay put and pass on to the next POTUS – in perpetuity.

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Point being: you cannot give away (or take away) what you do not personally and legally possess.

These thoughts are occasioned by the news that Pope Francis gave Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew, Archbishop of Constantinople, a reliquary containing bone fragments of St. Peter [2], uncovered by archaeologists in the 1960s. Bartholomew, who has strong ties to the Vatican, described the pope’s gift as “bold and brave.” It was certainly bold.

But it struck me as odd that the pope would give away such an essential treasure of our Catholic heritage (truly part of the Church’s birthright), and I wondered if he even has the right to do so. So, I asked our favorite and distinguished canon lawyer, Fr. Gerald E. Murray, what, if anything, Church law has to say about it.

“Canon 1190 states that relics may only be alienated with the permission of the Apostolic See,” Fr. Murray told me, “so Pope Francis has the right to do as he did.”

Point taken.

I wonder if it was a prudent thing to do, however, and not least because those relics will now rest not in Constantinople, of course, but in Istanbul, i.e., not in the formerly Christian capital of the East but in the largest city of Muslim Turkey.

ISIS is probably not the only Muslim terror group to announce its intention to one day subdue Rome. Perhaps they hope to turn St. Peter’s Basilica into a mosque. (Don’t get your hopes up about that, Abu Bakr-al Baghdadi!) But once upon a time in the former Constantinople it did happen to another great church, Hagia Sophia, which today would surely be the metropolitan church of Patriarch Bartholomew had not Mehmed the Conqueror turned it into a mosque beginning in 1453. This once great church of Catholicism and then Orthodoxy remained a mosque until 1935, at which point it became a museum in an increasingly secularizing Istanbul.

Just this year, however, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, announced that Hagia Sofia’s use will henceforth revert. “Ayasofya,” he said, using the Turkish word for the structure, “will no longer be called a museum. Its status will change. We will call it a mosque.”

In the early stages of his political career, Mr. Erdogan seemed to model himself on Kemal Atatürk, the Western-leaning modernizer of the Turkish nation, who ruled from 1923 until his death in 1938. But Erdogan’s views, which were once against the radical Islamists, have – as an American politician might say – evolved. As Turks have become more radicalized, so has Erdogan. Turkey may be poised to become every bit as Islamofascist as Iran, if not more so – maybe to the point of becoming another pre-9/11 Afghanistan, although much more powerful and more dangerous.

Of course, dictatorial leaders in the Erdogan/Taliban mold have a way of sowing the seeds of their own destruction, in the aftermath of which things sometimes get better, but more often don’t.

We saw in Iraq what even the brief ascension of al-Qaeda and ISIS meant for the “relics” of Christian civilization there. If Turkey goes sideways, as Iraq did, it will not be a catastrophe like the fire that struck Notre-Dame, where Parisian priests, parishioners, police, and firefighters were able to rescue many of the relics and treasures of the great cathedral. Nothing like that happened on the Nineveh Plain, where – among other losses – the tomb of the prophet Jonah was obliterated. And Jonah is a revered figure in Islam! Islam in its most militant version is, by definition, a religion of iconoclasts.

By all accounts, Pope Francis’ gift to Patriarch Bartholomew was a spontaneous gesture. Certainly, the representatives from Istanbul were surprised by the pope’s largess, which means that – back in Turkey – they had no well-prepared place for the disposition of the relics once they came into the precincts of Eastern Orthodoxy: no well-thought-out plan for how to secure them.

And it’s not, I hope, just another example of my Francis fatigue [3] to suggest that this is another instance of the pope acting in such a way as to suggest that Catholicism is simply one Christian denomination among others, and, perhaps, not even primus inter pares – an odd, perhaps unprecedented position for a Roman Pontiff.

In any case, what’s done is done. And we pray that our Orthodox brethren will derive great blessings from the pope’s gift, that religious freedom will reign in Turkey, and that the pope’s gift will, indeed, turn out to be “brave” and not reckless.

Brad Miner is senior editor of The Catholic Thing, senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute, and Board Secretary of Aid to the Church In Need USA. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is available on audio.