One of my favorite books that I have never finished reading is Romanism: A Menace to the Nation, by Jeremiah Crowley, a Catholic priest. Published in 1912, the book has a thick purple cover with embossed gold lettering. Glued into a recess on the front is a drawing of Pope Pius X; beneath it are the lines “Our Lord God the Pope” and “King of Heaven, Earth, and Hell.” The title page describes the book as “a searchlight upon the papal system”; it contains “startling charges against individuals in the hierarchy made and filed by the author and a score of prominent priests with photographic proofs and illustrations. “

The promotional words promise a lurid read—at least lurid by the standards of a long lifetime ago. It was just the kind of book that would appeal to a populace suspicious of Catholicism and worried about the large influx of immigrants from Catholic portions of Europe. (My maternal grandparents had immigrated just four years prior to the publication of Romanism. They were the kind of people—makers of the sign of the cross—who worried “real” Americans.)

What intrigues me most about Crowley's book is the frontispiece. The photograph shows him in a formal stance: full left profile, leaning against a table, a scroll in his right hand. His wavy hair is largely gray, his coat well tailored. Part of an elegant watch chain is visible. His facial lines are rounded, not angular, belying his age but not his weight. Halfway through the text he explains, “This book contains my photograph, and I state now that my height is six feet and three inches, and my weight is 250 pounds.” At the time of publication Crowley was 51.

He was born in Ireland, ordained to the priesthood, and ended up imprisoned by her majesty's government for reasons that, on a cursory reading, are unclear but probably justifiable. He left for America, settling in Chicago, where he was assigned to regular parish work, but he fell afoul of the hierarchy when he and other priests opposed the appointment of a new bishop, or so he says. He ended up excommunicated, but the excommunication may have been rescinded.

It was just the kind of book that would appeal to a populace suspicious of Catholicism and worried about the large influx of immigrants from Catholic portions of Europe.

I haven't read enough of the book to understand even his version of the story. What is clear, though, is that by 1906 he was lecturing against the parochial school system and alleged corruption in the clergy, focusing most of his attacks on the archdiocese of Chicago.

What kind of a man was this who stares off a page printed so long ago? What was his real story? Perhaps the photograph gives a clue. What strikes me is the softness of his features and the finery of his clothes. Crowley seems not to have been an ascetic. This is confirmed by an appeal he makes. “If I am to succeed,” he says, referring to his public campaign, “I must have something more than kind wishes. I must have money! My opponents have wealth which runs into the millions. I cannot get needed publicity for the truth without money. How can I get money? The sale of a few million copies of my book would yield enough to secure a publicity of truth which will shake the Catholic world as with an earthquake.”

Ten pages later he laments, “The American clergy, high and low, exhibit an insatiable desire for money. They seek and obtain it in the sacred name of religion—for God and Holy Mother Church! Many of the means they employ to secure it are not only questionable but criminal.” How many readers in 1912 saw the irony here? The clergy are rapacious, but Crowley wants only the proceeds from the sale of “a few million copies” of his book.

His words remind me of an episode recounted by Archbishop Fulton Sheen. At a retreat for priests, one of the clerics complained loudly and publicly about the Church's wealth. He insisted the Church sell off its artworks, cash in its investments, and give the proceeds to the poor. After the session the priest came up to the archbishop and repeated his remonstrances.

Archbishop Sheen eyed him and asked, “How much did you steal?”

“What?” said the priest, indignant. “How much did you steal?” repeated the archbishop.

The priest protested.

Again the archbishop asked, “How much did you steal?” At length the priest admitted he had been taking money from the collection basket, his rationale being that, since the Church wasn't a good steward of its wealth, he could put the money to better use than the hierarchy could.

I wonder whether there was some of this in Crowley, a man who protested too much. Someday, I would like to spend a few days in the archives of the Archdiocese of Chicago, seeing if a coherent story could be pieced together. What happened to Jeremiah Crowley? Does anyone still live who may have known him in his old age, if he reached old age? Was he ever reconciled to the Church, or did he end his years as a front man for anti-Catholic forces unwilling to show their own faces? I hope someday to find out.

Karl Keating is the founding director of Catholic Answers.