Thursday, February 21, 2013

Into the unknown

When I was a freshman at Notre Dame I resided in Zahm Hall, named for John Augustine Zahm (1851-1921), a member of the Roman Catholic order of priests (Congregation of Holy Cross) who founded and run the university. He taught physics and chemistry, and spoke and wrote forcefully on what he believed to be an unnecessary tension between Catholic doctrine and evolutionary science. He was in that respect part of the so-called Modernist movement, which sought to drag the Church kicking and screaming into the 20th century. The Vatican told him to desist in 1898. He desisted.

Not so long go, I was invited to give the annual Zahm Lecture at the University of Portland, another Holy Cross school. On that occasion I did a bit of reading about Zahm, mostly Holy Cross hagiography. He seemed a remarkable man. Prominent among his acclaimed accomplishments was a personal friendship with Teddy Roosevelt, to who he suggested a post-presidential journey of exploration in the Amazon, a proposition Roosevelt not only embraced, but amplified in scope and daring.

Now, I have just read Candice Millard's 2005 account of that expedition, The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey, during which Roosevelt sought to follow an unnamed and unexplored river from its headwaters in the Brazilian uplands to its presumed eventual confluence with the Amazon or one of its known tributaries. In Millard's account of the expedition, Zahm, comes off a racist and obnoxious self-promoter. Even before the exploring party –- which was now co-led by the experienced Brazilian explorer C├índido Rondon -– had completed their months-long overland trek to the point of embarkation on the river, Zahm was sent packing. Apparently, no one in the party, Americans or Brazilians, leaders or porters could stand him.

The decisive moment came (according to Millard's source) when Zahm suggested that he be carried in a sedan chair by four porters, while everyone else, Roosevelt and Rondon included, walked. "Indians are meant to carry priests," Zahm reportedly said to his friend Roosevelt, which seems to have dampened the friendship.

Whether that incident occurred as reported, I have no way of knowing. But it brings us to Garry Wills' newest book, Why Priests?, and to the significant events about to take place in Rome. More tomorrow.