Victor Hugo wrote in the better part of the 19th century. He was prolific in Romanticism and ahead of his time for Realism. The balance of his unique dual perspective sharpened a blade that cut through modern religion, even when his novels were medievalist. Mind you, the Roman Catholic Church, of which Hugo was a devoted member for most of his life, had very little difference in belief and practice in the 19th century than it did in the 16th century. The only major difference being that Hugo could cause scandal without imprisonment or execution. I suppose that is a significant improvement.

Hugo’s most attractive feature was his consistent realism and insight. His anti-clergy perspectives showed a tremendous passion and devotion to God. He highlighted that humanity’s greatest weakness is its inability to be humane. He emphasized repeatedly the need for everyone to demystify the clerical position and worship with honesty and directness. When everyone of my generation was consumed with Ayn Rand, I found myself in love with Hugo. The message was stronger (and the writing was better). Compassion is the only salvation of humanity. Without compassion, there is no way for the soul to accept Christ.

In many ways, Hugo helped the Roman Catholic Church by revealing the vulnerability of the clergy and making them more accessible to the layman. Any action that creates a forum to ask questions and have a forum for further teaching is beneficial. After all, it was this need that forged the Anglican creation of the Book of Common Prayer.

The Roman Catholic Church was not a fan of Victor Hugo. I’m not sure the Roman Catholic Church was a fan of much in those days. He suffered the criticism for many years and did not allow it to hinder the reverence of his work. The relevancy of his perspective is poignant and important. The characters suffer consistently. The fleeting moments of relief and happiness that they experience are always shadowed with a constant sadness and oppression. Yet these are not all tragedies.

In Notre Dame de Paris, Quasimodo and Esmeralda die. Phoebus is doomed to live an unhappy marriage. If you are rooting for these characters to live happily ever after, you will not be happy with what happens in this novel. If you see that the selfishness and interference of love, the oppression and control of beauty, and the ignorance and hatred of difference will lead everyone to ruin… you might get the message. Hugo speaks of an urban war in Notre Dame de Paris, one in which an archdeacon cannot overcome his sinful humanity to live as a man of God. In turn he succumbs to his primal urges and ends up waging war against beauty… because he loves it, he aims to destroy it just to control it. And, yes, even an Archdeacon is vulnerable… even the most esteemed.

So Hugo takes us into the Spanish Inquisition for Torquemada, where he shows us more of how vulnerable and selfish humanity can be, how scripture can be abused, and how murder can become acceptable. It is now on the hands of the entire Roman Catholic Church and Queen of Spain, which is historically accurate.

Torquemada makes me think of the kill-the-gays bill in Uganda and the treatment of gay people in the US. There is no place for these actions. To demand that people be killed for perceived “sinful” acts. To demand that people be denied equal rights and inalienable rights for perceived “sinful” acts. To proclaim as if it is a matter of US law that gay people are eternally damned. This is not Republicanism and it strictly prohibits the American ideal of freethought. If you can get a copy of Torquemada in English to read, I recommend it. The parallels are stunning.

After you’re done, consider that Hugo wrote about that time in history to reveal in the repulsion and inhumanity that we are capable of doing to each other. He wrote about it to help educate that this evil exists and that we have the control to not act that way. Then see how history just keeps repeating itself.


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