Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Who Are We to Close the Gates of Mercy?

On 23 October 1935 Arthur Flagenheimer, better known as “Dutch Schultz,” was having a working dinner with several of his associates at the Palace Chop House in Newark, New Jersey. Schultz was a notorious gangster who had first come to prominence as “Beer Baron of the Bronx” during Prohibition. With Repeal in 1933, Schultz promptly ensconced himself in the Harlem Numbers Rackets, not only running them more efficiently than the previous crew of free-lance proprietors, but actually concocting a scheme with the accounting genius Otto “Abbadabba” Berman to “fix” the winning numbers every day to insure a low pay-out. The numbers racket was said, at that time, to be grossing over a million dollars a month. The previous year, Schultz had beaten an indictment for trafficking in beer with the simple defence that it would be hypocritical to convict him for a past violation of a law that was now discredited and no longer in force. Three years earlier, Schultz gotten married to a pretty little auburn haired Catholic girl who wore thick glasses, Frances Geis, by whom he now had two children. That evening they were supposed to meet in a nearby hotel where she was waiting with two copies of a novel. Two copies, so that they could read it simultaneously and then talk it over without having to wait.

All was not well with the Schultz empire however. Other gangsters, not doing nearly so well after the loss of their lucrative bootlegging operations, were casting a covetous eye on Schultz’s Harlem turf. Also, a new and ambitious district attorney, Thomas E. Dewey, had recently convened a grand jury to indict Schultz both on tax charges and on extortion charges stemming from a “labor protection” racket Schultz was running against Manhattan restaurants. Schultz’s solution to this incitement was simple — put Dewey on the spot. The proposed assassination of so prominent a government official as Dewey however was simply unheard of, even among such hardened gangsters as Lepke Buchalter and Lucky Luciano. And so the decision was made among the other members of the Lucky Seven Combination (the forerunner to today's “National Syndicate”) to eliminate Schultz before his plan to kill Dewey could bring down the wrath of an otherwise bribed and passive New York Police Department.

Thus it was, that on 23 October 1935 Arthur Flagenheimer was gunned down by a pair of hit men at the Palace Chop House. Gunned down, but not killed. For the shooters had mistaken Berman for Schultz and riddled the accountant’s body with bullets. Schultz himself was caught while in the men’s room (holding his gun, as it were), mistaken for a potential witness, and only shot once by the then fleeing gunman, “Bug” Workman. Schultz caught a single slug in the gut and was able to stagger out of the lavatory before collapsing into a chair. He was immediately rushed to Newark City Hospital where the bullet was removed and his wounds were stitched up. The surgeons did the best they could, but the prognosis was not good for anyone suffering such a wound in those pre-penicillin days. Peritonitis soon set in and with that everyone knew it was only a matter of time, less than a day in this case, before Schultz was a dead man.

Schultz made the best of his time, however. Born to a secular Jewish family, Schultz had become interested in Catholicism after he married his wife. He had, in fact, become something of a pest to his Irish and Italian gangster associates as he was constantly asking them what it was like to be Catholic. Thus, at 2PM on the twenty-forth of October, Father Cornelius McInerney was called for. Hearing that he wished to die a Catholic, the good Father baptized Arthur Flagenheimer before administering Holy Viaticum and Extreme Unction. Shortly afterwards, Schultz lapsed into a delirium where he talked endlessly in a stream-of-consciousness (or semi-consciousness in this case), making cryptic references to his friends, reliving childhood traumas, and spouting bits of pure poetry such as: “This boy hath never wept, nor dashed one thousand kim.” His last words came at 6PM:

Turn your back to me, please, Henry. I am so sick now. The police are getting many complaints. Look out! Yey, Jack; hello Jack. Jack, mama. I want the G-note. Look out for Jimmy Valentine, is an old pal of mine. Come on, Jim, come on Jimmie; oh, thanks. Okay-okay. I am all through; I can’t do another thing. Hymie, won’t you do what I ask you this once? Look out! Mama, mama! Look out for her. Look, you can’t beat him. Police, Mama! Helen, Mother, please take me out. Come on, Rosie. Okay. Hymes would do it; not him. I will settle ... the indictment. Come on, Max, open the soap duckets. Frankie, please come here. Open the door, Dumpey’s door. It is so much, Abe, that .... with the brewery. Come on. Hey, Jimmie! The chimney sweeps. Talk to the sword. Shut up, you got a big mouth! Please help me up, Henny. Max come over here .... French Canadian bean soup ... I want to pay, let them leave me alone ....

At 8:20, Frances Flagenheimer was summoned to his bed side. She asked, “Arthur, this is Frances.” When there was no response she began sobbing and had to be led away. Arthur Flagenheimer was pronounced dead at 8:35 on 24 October 1935, some twenty hours after he had been shot.

The fact that so notorious a bootlegger, gambler, extortionist, labor racketeer, and most probably murderer ended his days as a member in good standing of the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church immediately set off a fire-storm of controversy. This issue was addressed by the Reverend John A. Toomey, S.J. in the Jesuit weekly America:

Yesterday there were thousands of people saying “If a guy like that can go to heaven there won’t be anybody in hell.” To these thousand, glaring contradictions appeared to be involved. Here the Catholic Church, which has always impressed upon her children a horror of even the slightest sin; which had ceaselessly warned them concerning the danger of presuming on the chances of a death-bed conversion, which had ever inculcated high ideals in asceticism, in selflessness, in heroic virtue; here was the Catholic Church welcoming into her fold a man who through his entire life had represented everything which the Church abhorred and condemned.

“Dutch Schultz” with the angels! “Dutch Schultz” whose beer-trucks once rumbled over the Bronx, whose gorillas blustered through the sidewalks! “Dutch Schultz” associating with the holy saints in Heaven!

He to get the same reward as valiant souls who have clung to the Faith through a ceaseless hurricane of trial and temptation. It seemed more than unjust. It seemed ridiculous, preposterous, almost laughable.

But it may not be so laughable after all. There were a number of things not taken into account by the judges. One little thing they missed completely was the fact that there is just One in the entire universe Who is capable of accurately judging the complex skein of a man’s life. The influence of bad example, of environment in general: of heredity; the lack of religious training; the exact strength of temptations. That One is God Almighty. No one else can even begin to do the job.

Another element that appeared to be fumbled was the interesting truth that the time of mercy for sinners does not expire until the moment of death; that there is no crime and no series of crime which God will not forgive, this side of eternity, to the truly contrite of heart.

The dynamic power of Divine Grace to move the most obdurate heart to repentance was also omitted from the consideration. Indeed, the intimate and essential connection of grace with final salvation is widely overlooked.

Other important bits of evidence were neglected as the clamorous verdict was reached: for example, the fact that nothing happens in this world without the permission of God. The reason “Schultz” was not killed instantly was because it was God’s will that he be not killed instantly, and so he was conscious the morning after, and able to receive the grace of conversion, a grace that comes from God.

If “Schultz’s” conversion was sincere, it means that God gave him a last chance to save his soul, and that “Dutch” took advantage of the offer. It does not mean that God, or His Church, condoned the evil life of “Schultz” but that God judged he should be given another opportunity to save his soul.

After all, Heaven belongs to God. If he wants “Dutch Schultz” to be there, it is difficult to see what we can do about it. Perhaps, instead of worrying about “Schultz” a somewhat more profitable occupation for us would be to do a little more worrying about our own salvation — to make sure we get there ourselves. We may not be given the opportunity for a death-bed repentance. Relatively few are given that chance.

And whether we meet “Schultz” in Heaven or not, there is one individual we are certain to encounter there; a gentleman who was in more or less the same line as “Schultz” — the Thief who, as he was dying on Calvary, asked the Man on the next Cross for forgiveness and who head that Man say: “This day though shalt be with Me in Paradise.”

A similar piece was written by the Right Reverend Monsignor John L. Belford in the Monitor:

I must object to these cries of shame from Catholics and non-Catholics who thought it crime to administer the sacraments of the church to a man who had been all his life not only a stranger to religion but a particularly vile and violent criminal.

Was Dutch Schultz worse than the penitent thief? He was a criminal. He seemed unworthy of the least consideration. Perhaps he was. But who will close the gates of mercy? The fact that he received the sacraments is no guarantee that he received God’s forgiveness.

If he was not really penitent, the priest’s absolution had no effect. Yet the priest did the right when he baptized or absolved him. The dying man said he was sorry he had offended God; he declared he would do all in his power to avoid sin in the future and to repair the harm he had done. If he meant this, God ratified the action of the minister.

But remember, the sinner contract two debts; the deft of guilt and the debt of pain. God can forgive the former and insist on payment of the latter. He could forgive Schultz and yet keep him in purgatory until the end of time to atone, so far as man can atone, for his wickedness.

I was godless when I first read these words, yet their eminent sensibility struck me. These were not the mindless rantings of religious bigots, but the clear reasoning of intellectually honest men. It is hard to say just how or when the love of God was put upon my heart, but once it was there, it was this kind of coherent, sensible theology that drew me with magnetic force the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.

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