Fallen Order : Intrigue, Heresy, and Scandal in the Rome of Galileo and Caravaggio
Fallen Order: Intrigue, Heresy and Scandal in the Rome of Galileo and Caravaggio by Karen Liebreich presents the findings of her exhaustive research into the founding, flourishing, and eventual suppression of the Piarists, a priestly order dedicated to education of poor children founded in 1592 by St. Joseph Calasanz (a man who has, ironically, since been beatified as the patron saint of Catholic schools.) Calasanz is a man very likely worthy of much of the honor bestowed upon him with one major flaw - a flaw that still plagues the Roman Catholic Church today - placing the reputation of the Order, and by extension of the Church, above consideration for the well-being of children. This is not simply the story of a good but weak man whose noble intentions become mired in the self-serving attitudes of his fellow clergy, it is a tale that instead speaks to a larger, more sinister long-term conspiracy which to this day characterizes the Church and tarnishes the reputation it so obviously holds so dear.
The author’s research, which includes what must have involved an unimaginable number of hours pouring through disparate sources of material accessible only through great persistence, is impressive. The story of Calasanz’, and the Piarist Order’s, rise and fall is presented in a fashion that thankfully lacks the dryness common to most accountings of historical intrigue where there is a fair amount of interpersonal detail. Instead, through long quotes taken mostly from personal correspondence (Calasanz was, apparently, an obsessive letter writer) the reader is treated to a surprisingly cohesive and detailed story told, in large part, through the words of the actual participants. These include letters and reports from the beleaguered Calasanz, to the self-absorbed Father Stefano Cherubini, the man who would eventually take Calasanz’ place at the head of the order after a lifetime of pedophilia and the protection of a powerful political family, to the fanatical Father Mario Sozzi, whose personal weakness and thirst for power led to the destruction of the Order, to the close-minded Assessor Francesco Albizzi, the man most directly responsible for setting the institutional wheels in motion for undoing what good the Piarist order had managed to do over time. The author’s assertions are compelling, and given that the players’ words themselves are the tools by which the author puts forth the evidence there is never a moment when the reader can reasonably step back and entertain doubts about the material presented. The self-serving nature of the Church as an entity and its individual members at the turn of the 17th century is laid bare, and the patterns of behavior that disgrace our headlines in the present are given a new, even more disheartening aspect as the parallels are inexorably drawn and we discover that the issue can no longer be simply laid at the feet of a few misguided individuals.
I give the author credit for neither soft-stepping the grotesque truth nor allowing her righteous indignation to get the better of her message. Her tone is scholarly and even-tempered throughout the narration, despite the tragic absurdity her words, and the words of Calasanz and company, make clear. There are moments of confusion - Liebreich is occasionally inconsistent in how she refers to people, which complicates the reader’s job as he is already dealing with a vast array of lengthy exotic sounding names and titles. There are additionally many points in the story when the actions of the participants seem thoroughly illogical and are glossed over by the author, perhaps because she too finds them inexplicable and may only have had a chronology of events to go by. The author’s writing style is also not what I would call "literary" by any stretch - she is frequently terse when tying the action together, and while technically this isn’t a wholly bad thing in a historical examination, it does chisel away at the "story" aspect of this "history" and ultimately affects readability. These minor faults however are easy to bypass given the honest and intelligent fashion with which Liebreich brings this unfortunate story to light, and fans some of the worst fears of our time. It is perhaps the last chapter that is the most startling - an timeline of recent events with details not completely followed through by the media showing that this reprehensible page in history is in fact far from being past. It is a story that needs to be read by anyone associated with the Catholic Church, for its message is one that we can no longer afford to ignore.
by Karen Liebreich
Grove Press, 336 pages, 7 pages of illustrations/photographs, $14.00