By Rolando André López Torres
Novelist, animal rights activist, provocateur, gay and vegan, the Colombian Fernando Vallejo, now a naturalized citizen of México, in 2013 received the Rómulo Gallegos Prize, one of the most prestigious literary awards in the world of Hispanic letters. The hallmarks of his prose: streams of first-person paragraphs that veer seamlessly between personal reflection, narration and observation (be it philosophical, social or otherwise), all peppered with crass images: fecal matter, taboo words and subjects, anything pestilent—these are the materia prima of Vallejo’s verbal pyrotechnics. His prose is loud and in-your-face; if you flinch, that’s a good thing.
Said hallmarks are all in full display in The Whore of Babylon (2007), a book that isn’t as much a critique of the Catholic Church as it is a bloodthirsty (and nearly blood-drawing) verbal assault against it. To wit, the book’s very first sentence: a catalogue of pejorative names for the Church, all of which, to varying degrees, have their basis in historical realities. Just to give you perspective on this: the article you are currently reading began with a sentence that named its subject seven times before getting to the predicate; Vallejo’s first sentence names its subject ninety-six times:
The whore, the great whore, the greatest whore, the sanctimonious, the simoniacal, the inquisitress, the torturer, the falsifier, the assassin; ugly, crazy, bad; she who is behind the Court of the Holy Office and the Index of Prohibited Books, the Crusades and the night of Saint Bartholomew; she who sacked Constantinople and bathed Jerusalem in blood; who exterminated the Albigensians and the twenty thousand inhabitants of Beziers; who swept away the indigenous cultures of America; who burned Segarelli in Parma, Juan Huz in Constanza, and Giordano Bruno in Rome; the detractor of science, the enemy of the truth, the counterfeiter of history; the persecutor of Jews, the burner at the stake, the burner of heretics and witches; the thief of widows, the seller of indulgences; the one who invented CrazyChrist the Rabid and PeterRock the Fool; she who promises the bland kingdom of heaven and threatens with the eternal fires of hell; she who gags the free world and puts a stranglehold on the freedom of the soul; she who represses the other religions wherever she’s in charge and then calls for freedom of religion wherever she’s not; she who has never loved animals, nor ever had compassion for them; she the obscurantist, the impostor, the liar, the slanderous, the libelous…
All right, if you want to read all of them, get the book. We’re going to skip a few and get to the predicate:
… that Whore of Babylon, with its bimillenary impunity, has outstanding accounts with me since my childhood and I am here to charge her.1
It’s clear why José Saramago called the book an “authentic, demolishing takedown.”2 This is not as much a demythologization or even a humanization of Catholicism; it is a debasing of it—or rather, a laying bare of what is already debased about Catholicism, which is a kind of humanization, like the way your mother would become human to you if you caught her masturbating to child pornography.
Speaking of Catholicism, the excerpt above is notable for the absence of the term “Catholic Church”; this, of course, is purposeful. Vallejo never uses the appellation “Catholic Church” in the entire book; instead, he refers to it primarily as “The Whore.” Merciless inquisitor that he is, Vallejo denies the Church even the mercy of calling it by its own given name, as did Javert to Jean Valjean, who only asked to be called by his name and not 24601, his prisoner number. In both cases, the message is the same: What you name yourself doesn’t matter to me. To me, you are only The Guilty Party.
This packs a twofold rhetorical punch. First, there’s the shock factor of using one of humanity’s basest insults as the name for one of its most magniloquent institutions. Second, and much more importantly, there is the historical significance that the word whore has for Christianity. In the Book of Revelation, the Whore of Babylon is the personification of all that is evil and abominable. In thus invoking the image, Vallejo uses the Church’s own instrument against it.
But the key to the brilliance of this rhetorical move lies in that he’s not the first to perform it; in calling the Church “The Whore,” he’s actually invoking the Albigensians, a 13th century Christian sect that, witnessing the dissolute lifestyle of their Church’s popes, initiated a reform movement to return Christianity to the roots of the Gospel, focusing on a life of poverty. Their claim was that in marrying itself to the elites, the Church was mutating itself into the Whore of Babylon. Eventually, Pope Innocent III called the Albigensian Crusade, a sordid affair which culminated with such atrocities as the slaughter of 20,000 Albigensian (and Catholic!) villagers in the town of Bezier and, ultimately, the erasure of the Albigensians from existence. Many historians view the Albigensian Crusade as the first great genocide in the history of Western civilization.
All of which makes Vallejo wish that the Romans had done away with Christians before Christians had the chance to do away with anyone. Had this been the case, “we wouldn’t have had any Amalrics, Innocents, or Middle Ages! How happy the world would be today without the ominous shadow of Christ! But no, the Holy Spirit, who shits out tongues of fire, had other plans.”3 I’m not exactly sure how one genocide could be better than another, but then again, it’s in moments like these that one gets the sense that Vallejo’s inhabiting some kind of persona, purposefully pushing limits just to push them, à la Kanye West.
Which all makes for fun verbal pyrotechnics. Yet the book’s greater achievement, in my view, is that it lays bare the sacred secret to all the great atheisms by turning to one of the first great critics of Christianity, Porphyry of Tyre, a fourth-century Neoplatonic philosopher. We know he was great because even though we no longer have the original manuscript of Adversus Christianos, his own treatise against Christianity, he is so extensively quoted by all the prominent Christian philosophers of his time (who did so to refute him) that these in-text citations essentially constitute a text in and of themselves. Having read him extensively, Vallejo cues us in on what he believes to be the key to Porphyry’s genius—and what I believe to be the key to atheism:
The way I see it, the weapon that Porphyry discovered has a demolishing effect: it denies those Jewish and Christian charlatans the possibility of classifying their inconsequences, contradictions, immoralities, incongruences, and stupidities as allegories, mysteries, or paradoxes. No: immorality is immorality and stupidity is stupidity, full stop.4
Here’s the key: the choice between belief and unbelief does not depend on knowledge of information; it depends on what you look for in that information, on the temperament of your hermeneutic, or interpretive lens; that is, you can choose whether to view something as mystery or as mere contradiction. When you label something as contradictory, you seal all possible inquiry into it; when you label it as mystery, you do the opposite, you open up the inquiry. For Vallejo, there is nothing mysterious about the Church—only nonsense. His is thus a hermeneutic of contempt.
It goes the other way as well, though: should you decide to look at a particular phenomenon through the (admittedly more generous) hermeneutic of mystery, you will find mystery—that is, an opening up of questions—in what another might find no question worth answering.
Just as all atheisms depend, ultimately, on some version of the hermeneutic of contempt, so does the Christian sensibility ultimately come down to the hermeneutic of mystery. Those very things that Vallejo singles out for their contradictory nature throughout the book are precisely the things that theologians are drawn to: the fact that Peter, the same one whom Jesus called Satan, is the one chosen to be the leader of the Church; that Jesus’ existence is difficult to historically ascertain; that the doctrine of the Incarnation is both logically convoluted and ultimately non-sensical; that the gospels portray contradictory narratives of Jesus; that the transition from the Old to the New Testament leaves the question of the place of the Jewish heritage within Christianity in, at best, an ambiguous position; that the history of Christianity seems to be more replete with sinners than with saints; that God himself is the most salient question mark of this whole story; and many more. Yet for the one who has embraced the hermeneutic of mystery, whether Christian or not, all of these gaps and seeming dead ends have an endless allure. The end of contempt’s claim is the beginning of mystery’s question.
Vallejo, Fernando. La Puta de Babilonia. Spain: Seix Barral, 2007.
Diário de Notícias. O Papa Bento XVI parece-me um hipócrita. October 25, 2009.
1 Vallejo, La Puta de Babilonia, p. 1-2. Translation mine.
2 O Papa Bento XVI parece-me um hipócrita., 2009.
3 Ibid., p. 7
4 Ibid., p. 147
Rolando André López Torres lives in Boston, Massachusetts, where he teaches World Religions at Cristo Rey Boston High School. He holds a degree in English Writing from Loyola University New Orleans.