Uncivil Religion: January 6, 2021

The Infant of Prague and the Catholic Presence on January 6

The presence of this statue, a replica of the Infant Jesus of Prague, is a pertinent example of the Catholic presence at the insurrection and a helpful image through which to talk about the Catholic involvement in the Trump movement more broadly. Trump-supporting Catholics do not come from one subgroup of American Catholicism, and some Catholics would not consider other Catholic Trump supporters “real Catholics” at all. The Infant Jesus of Prague is an ideal symbol precisely because it has not been politicized, retaining a flexibility that patches over internal divisions within American Catholicism.

In trying to understand Christian support for Trump and Trumpism, the majority of the attention from journalists and academics has focused on so-called evangelicals. Indeed, white evangelicals made up a substantial portion of Trump supporters in both 2016 and 2020, but 64% of white Catholics supported Trump in 2016 (likely winning the election for Trump in key states), and 57% voted for him in 2020 against Catholic candidate Joe Biden. Also, like evangelicals, Catholic Trump voters are a varied group that scholars and the media have struggled to name and discuss. Some choose the term conservative Catholics, which highlights political conservatism alongside Catholic affiliation, but this fails to capture the large amount of swing votes from Democratic presidential candidates to Trump in 2016 as well as Catholics voting for Democrats down the ballot. Others talk about traditionalist Catholics, who are more explicitly antimodern, favor the traditional Latin mass, and have historically tended toward right-wing politics. Catholic media perceived an uptick in traditionalists in the twenty-first century, sometimes using the descriptors “extreme traditionalist,” “dissident traditionalist,” and most recently “radical traditionalist,” which has taken off on social media with the popular hashtag and meme word #radtrad. “Trads” and especially "RadTrads'' have been reduced by some to alt-right Catholics, but this assumption has been complicated by a growing and overlapping traditionalist Catholic subculture that reacts against modernity from a leftist perspective. #Tradinista, for example, combines socialism with Catholic social teaching and traditional liturgy. Complicating this further, there are Catholic groups who have a tenuous relationship to the Roman Catholic Church (e.g., Society of Saint Pius X) and others who have separated from it entirely (e.g. Congregation of Mary Immaculate Queen), generally called sedevacantists for denying the validity of the pope (i.e., the “vacant seat” of the Holy See). At other Trump rallies we have seen the sedevacantist symbol (the coat of arms used by the Church between the death or renunciation of a pope and the election of a new one) on flags or banners. For example, the Dominican nuns from Hartfield, Michigan whose presence at a Trump rally made headlines in October of 2020, are not in communion with the Roman Catholic Church, and their website features a photo of their chapel, which includes an American flag and a flag bearing the arms of the Holy See under sede vacante. Some of these groups and individual Trump supporters are responding to global Catholic conversations and internal issues while others might be influenced more through dialogue with American Protestant groups. Formed through digital rhetoric and media, reactionary political discourse, and the development of right-wing Catholic institutions and networks (e.g., CatholicVote.Org, the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, the Catholic League), the Catholic participation in the Trump movement is not clear-cut. There is no profile for the “Trump Catholic.” 

The Infant Jesus of Prague, however, is a beloved and recognizable piece of popular Catholic piety across these varied communities. The original statue, most likely made in sixteenth-century Spain (it is said that the statue was a gift from the popular saint Teresa of Ávila), made its way to Prague in 1556 through the Spanish Duchess Marie Manriquez de Lara. Her daughter later gifted the statue to the Carmelite order at the church of Our Lady Victorious in Prague, where it sits today. Devotion includes praying to the Infant Jesus for healing, blessings, protection (especially for children) and (among the Irish especially) good weather on your wedding day. This and other Christ child images and artifacts celebrate the incarnation, or the doctrine that God became flesh, and are venerated between Christmas and the Feast of the Presentation in the Temple on February 2. While the official liturgical feast day of the Infant Jesus of Prague is January 14, some observe it on January 3 (the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus) and others venerate the Christ child throughout the month of January. It is not surprising, then, that on January 6, the Feast of Epiphany (an important feast day and one of the ten holy days of obligation for Catholics), the Infant Jesus of Prague would be a convenient artifact to have on hand.

The Infant Jesus is no stranger to battle. During the Thirty Years War, Carmelite novitiates had to flee the monastery in 1630, and when one of the monks, Father Cyril, returned seven years later, he found the statue behind the main altar in a pile of rubbish, and the hands of the statue had broken. It was at this time that the Infant is said to have appeared to Father Cyril and told him, “Have pity on Me, and I will have pity on you. Give Me My hands, and I will give you peace. The more you honor Me, the more I will bless you.” The last sentence has become the foundation of world-wide devotion to The Infant Jesus of Prague and is often inscribed on the statuettes inside many Catholic churches and homes. Eventually, Father Cyril was able to have new hands made for the Infant Jesus, and after that the Infant is said to have performed healings and miracles as his popularity grew well beyond Prague. Due to Nazi and then communist control of Prague from 19391989, veneration at the church itself was fairly quiet (the Infant’s home in Prague might evoke, for some, memories of the Prague Uprising of 1945 or the Prague Spring of 1968, reacting against Nazi and communist leadership, respectively). Today, veneration of the Infant in Prague continues, especially by the Carmelite Sisters, who dress the statue in various royal robes, but the Infant is also venerated around the globe at local shrines and replicas. There are three shrines to the Infant Jesus of Prague in the U.S. (including the National Shrine in Prague, Oklahoma), and a porcelain statue of the Infant was donated to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC in 1960. Pope Benedict XVI granted a Canonical Coronation to the Infant in 2009.

Whether any of these associations led to its presence at the insurrection on January 6 is not clear from this image alone. Ultimately, though, the Infant Jesus of Prague is a very useful image for drawing boundaries and creating affinities. It is instantly recognizable to a good portion of Catholics but not many others, so it is able to create difference while also allying with other Christians in this movement. It is flexible and neutral enough to be used by sedevacantist groups and mainstream Catholics alike, avoiding the internal boundaries within the broader label of “Catholic.” The figure has not been politicized as some other saints have (e.g., Saint Giana Beretta Molla, the “pro-life saint”) in order to authorize particular policies. To non-Christians, the image might evoke vaguely Christian associations, aligning Catholics alongside Protestant Christians in the Trump movement. In sum, Infant Jesus allowed Catholics to contribute to the Christian character of the insurrection, but with a distinctive Catholic flavor.

Lauren Horn Griffin is a full-time Instructor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. Her first book, Fabricating Founders: History, Rhetoric, and the Arrival of Christianity in England (Brill 2022), focuses on the uses of Christian origin narratives in the early modern period. Her current research has extended this analysis to contemporary religious communities and digital media.

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