The Catechetics of a Spy NovelRead Now
I have been dragging anchor over the past week or two in meeting deadlines for those who check in to the Catechist Café for information or book leads. My last substantive post was the life and times of Lord Acton, which required a good deal of reading and independent research, and frankly wore me out. Facebook, which posts new alerts to Café entries, reminds me that there have been only five posts in 28 days, a considerable reduction from those early days of 2015 when the goal was a heady daily informative piece. Mix in the oppressive Florida heat and the limitations imposed by the Covid-19, and you can see where my inkwell might be going dry.
So I took stock yesterday and went back to the original mission of the Café, to educate and stimulate those veteran ministers of Church life, best represented by the teachers and catechists, and to attract those adults of college education or its equivalent who are searching for identity as present day or former Catholics. When I was in high school, we studied Gresham’s Law, i.e., bad money drives good money out of circulation. The same, unfortunately, is true of Church publications and teaching programs. Enmeshed in politics and culture wars as well as a resurgence of a seventeenth-century trend known as Jansenism, which devalues human energies and learning in the search for God, our Church is not well. The Café was founded as the friendly site to find the middle road in the Kingdom of God.
Plumbing the Catholic experience in study, travel, the arts, and religious experience can take us in many directions and fire up greater personal interest in the Church that many love and many despair of. On Sunday afternoon the Amazon Prime Truck stopped by our house to deliver a book for my wife, Margaret. She is a member of a very stimulating book circle where each member is reviewing separate texts for 2021. Doing her due diligence, Margaret is now the owner of one of this summer’s hottest selling books, currently rated #47 in Amazon’s multi-million bookseller’s empire. I was telling her on Sunday that I need a novel to read, that my brain was “all work and no play.” So, she said, “try this” and she flipped me a hard-cover copy of Daniel Silva’s The Order. [released July 20, 2020]
I had no idea that The Order was Daniel Silva’s eighteenth book based upon the fictitious Jewish art restorer and senior Israeli spy Gabriel Allon. Consequently, I was not prepared for the plotline which involves the mysterious death of a pope [Paul VII, the fictional successor of John Paul II in the story] and the upcoming papal conclave in the Sistine Chapel to elect Paul’s successor. The unfolding of this “who dunnit?” will probably come fairly easily to fans of this genre, though some of the early Amazon reviews from readers suggest that the intelligence master Allon, now approaching middle age with a younger wife and two small children, might be showing his age a bit [read: few catastrophic violent events.] However, a terrorist catastrophe at the Vatican a few years earlier resulted in Allon’s saving the pope’s life and his becoming intimate friends with Pius VII and particularly his personal attendant in the papal residence—in case you were wondering how an Israeli master spy embeds in the preparation of a papal election.
Solving the mysteries, in my opinion, was less compelling than descriptions of the forces at work to seize control of the Catholic Church. I was not overwhelmed by The DaVinci Code  years back because the plot seemed too farfetched. Sad to say, the forces at work in The Order are easy enough to see in real time today with the potential to do real damage. The book takes its name from a religious order gone rogue in the name of “saving” Catholic Western Civilization, in league with the new wave of Western nationalism, the rise of neo-Nazi elements in Europe and the United States, and ultraconservative money. When I read a book like The Order, which millions of Catholics in the United States will do during the dog days of August and Covid isolation, I regret that we overlook the catechetical opportunities that fall into our laps to explain the nature of the Church—its healthy and holy powers and its perpetual Achilles heels.
With that in mind, I cooked up a “catechetical guide” or Q&A drawn from various sections of The Order. If you read the book, or even if you don’t, when your friends come to you with “Catholic questions” you’ll be ready to address them honestly. Also, the issues bandied about in this book are currently being investigated by critical Catholic journalistic circles or have long histories, and I have attached links where helpful.
Have there been suspicious papal deaths in recent history?
In my lifetime the only death with a shadow is that of Pope John Paul I on September 28, 1978, after a reign of 33 days. A variety of papal household contradictions on the circumstances of discovery raised eyebrows, and no autopsy was performed. Conspiracy theorists say he was murdered because he planned an overhaul and reform of the “Vatican Bank” whose practices attracted an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice among other law enforcement agencies. The film “Godfather III” addresses the general corruption of Vatican monies. But Pope John Paul II, upon his election, apparently did not see evidence of personal foul play in the death of his predecessor.
Can a papal conclave be purchased?
[If you need a refresher on how popes are elected in conclaves, the Encyclopedia Britannica has an excellent brief history here.] From the time of Constantine to that of Napoleon, the election of a pope would have had to meet the approval of the Holy Roman Emperors, who were not above military and other coercive means to get the Bishop of Rome they wanted, for any of a wide range of political reasons. As late as 1939, Mussolini allowed a conclave to elect Pius XII on the grounds that as a lifelong diplomat, Pius XII would not embarrass the Duce’s regime publicly/
The new late twentieth century makeup of the College of Cardinals—with the red hat being conferred upon churchmen of all continents, affluent and starving—certainly enhances the opportunities to purchase influence. The isolated leaders with major public health and economic struggles can be more welcoming to the overtures of senior well-placed churchmen in Rome or elsewhere, cleric or lay, who can do them and their dioceses some good with charitable infusions of cash for a clinic, for example.
From two cases that dominated American newspapers, Bishops Theodore McCarrick  of Washington, and Patrick Bransfield  of Wheeling, West Virginia, we get a picture of what a Church bribe might look like. An interesting point in real life and in the novel is the lack of recipients’ efforts to hide such payments. In The Order, most recipients deposited their seven-figure awards in the Vatican Bank! I must add editorially that Pope Francis has not released the results of the McCarrick and Bransfield investigations as was promised in 2019, which suggests that monetary influence is still in play in many parts of the administrative Church; the names of high ranking churchmen who received payoffs in these two scandals have yet to be revealed.
Why is winning a papal election worth all the trouble?
Two goals top the list: clusters of cardinals may want something to happen, or they may want something not to happen. In the [second] conclave of 1978, many cardinals wanted to break the grip of Italian clergy on the selection process, and they wanted to show solidarity with Catholics behind the Iron Curtain and other totalitarian regimes. Both objectives were met in the election of Karol Wojtyla—a non-Italian Pole whose election so stunned and disturbed the Communist Bloc nations that John Paul II was shot nearly fatally three years after his election.
The ideology of a pope—any pope—affects the world’s stock market and global economy as well as a nation’s internal politics. There are over one billion Catholics throughout the world, enough to shape public opinion. As a very general rule, a papal candidate known to be traditional, predictable, and orderly would be preferred by most world governments; a true radical reformer candidate—anti-war, moral critic of capitalism, green environmentalist, etc.—would probably not be invited to speak at the G20.
What about the candidates? Does their spirituality play a decisive role in how electors might be inclined to vote?
Generally speaking, cardinal electors assume that the men they vote for are no more or no less holy than they themselves are. Given that most Cardinals come up the ladder through Church administration as bishops or curial officials, overall their spiritual identities tend toward Church ministry and management. A papal candidate is expected to be a good communicator and evangelist more than a mystic.
As The Order underscores so well, most voting Cardinals have history—good, controversial, deeply personal, and in some cases, disqualifying. In the NETFLIX film “Two Popes,” Benedict XVI admits to the future Francis I his failure to face the wide network of predatory priests and particularly bishops. Cardinal Bergoglio in turn confesses his failures to protect social reformist priests under his charge from imprisonment and torture at the hands of the right-wing Argentinian government. The Curia has a reputation for intelligence gathering on both personal and administrative missteps of bishops, leading theologians, and papabile [those considered papal front-runners.] I would not be surprised to learn that national intelligence gatherings include papabile in daily “housekeeping” around the time of a conclave.
Voting Cardinals outside of Rome arrive several days before a conclave and are housed together to give them time for prayer, rest, meals, drinks, long walks, and of course scuttlebutt about those perceived by the media and in certain Church cliques as papabile. Although a confidential decorum is expected, the oath of secrecy--and its penalty of excommunication--is not administered until the doors of the Sistine Chapel are locked. However, the voting Cardinals are still free to discuss candidates and vote tallies with each other throughout the conclave.
Do we know what happens inside a papal conclave?
For all the oaths and confiscation of cell phones, there are several narratives of recent conclaves provided and/or confirmed by the participants themselves. A largely forgotten but intriguing read is Peter Hebblethwaite’s The Year of Three Popes  which covers both conclaves of 1978. But much closer to our own time is the compelling The Election of Pope Francis . The author is Gerard O’Connell, a journalist who has covered the Vatican since 1985. He was the TV studio analyst for the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s live coverage of the conclave. O’Connell’s wife, Elisabetta Pique, is the Vatican reporter for the Argentinian newspaper La Nacion. The couple had been friends with Cardinal Bergoglio for years before his election, and O’Connell predicted his election on the CBC. The new Pope Francis called them within a day or so of his election.
Having read O’Connell’s work myself, I have the feeling that the strict secrecy of papal conclaves may be a thing of the past. Conclaves will never be televised, and non-voting observers will not be admitted, but the process might become more transparent, a quality desperately needed in the contemporary Church. A good number of cardinals talked freely to O’Connell, and none of them has been excommunicated to my knowledge. The tallies of each ballot are reported, along with tidbits such as serious considerations of both Cardinals Dolan and O’Malley of the United States as papabile. O’Malley, in fact, tallied as high as fourth in one ballot.
Is planning and lobbying going on right now for the next conclave?
Indeed, there are three books currently on the market laying out pastoral profiles for the next pope, by journalist-authors Russell Shaw, Edward Pentin, and George Weigel. Weigel was Pope John Paul II’s biographer, and from reviews I have read, he would like the next pope to govern in the mold of John, conservatively and traditionally. Weigel’s book created a news story when New York’s Cardinal Dolan sent a copy of Weigel’s book to all 200+ cardinals around the world, an act that in Roman circles would be regarded as an infamia.
One of the most powerful themes of The Order—the “facilitating crisis,” one might argue--is the two millennia persecution of Jews by Catholics and Christians. Is this a fair rendering?
Historically, hatred and persecution of the Jews roots back to two erroneous theological traditions which, while repudiated today by scholars of all reputable religious academies, are still a staple of poorly catechized Christians. The first is early frustrations of Jewish-Christians to convert their temple brethren to belief in Jesus as the new messiah. The destruction of the Jerusalem temple by Rome in 70 A.D. was interpreted as God’s final rejection of his once holy people and their replacement with Christianity.
The second tradition dates to the Gospel of Matthew, written years after the fall of Jerusalem. Consider Chapter 27: 24-25 of Matthew’s account of Jesus’ Passion: When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. "I am innocent of this man's blood," he said. "It is your responsibility!" 25All the people answered, "His blood is on us and on our children!" Christians soon coined the term deicide [“the killing of God”] to brand the entire people of Abraham a despised race.
In the novel, the Jewish spy Gabriel Allon consistently reminds his Catholic clerical friends of the sufferings of his people at the hands of the Church. For example, Allon explains to one cleric that guards and executioners at the notorious Holocaust death camps were likely to be practicing Catholics, to which his listener has no answer. His accusations throughout the book are more than fair; worse, our history of antisemitism is not a major staple of preaching and catechetics today. Catholicism has not yet experienced its “Jewish Lives Matter” moment.
All things considered, could the next papal conclave resemble that of The Order, particularly in terms of fault lines?
Pope Francis appears to be in good health, so the next conclave could be several years off. A few things can be reasonably assumed. The economic impact of the Covid-19 virus has virtually just begun. One example: next week the Covid-19 rental relief program comes to an end in the United States. The gap between rich and poor will be enhanced even in the traditionally affluent countries. In Third World nations the picture would be bleaker.
In many countries, including the United States, the Church has become entangled in the so-called “culture wars,” unwisely in my view. Subsequently the temptation of political parties and establishments and independent Catholic organizations, such as the Knights of Columbus, to exert influence on Church life becomes greater. The nationalist and neo-Nazi movements are discussed at some length in The Order, particularly in Europe. The current anti-Christian acts of terror, such as desecration, along with the perennial rages against Judaism, reflect multiple issues, at least one being the identification of Christianity with colonial oppression.
The continuing absence of Vatican transparency regarding finances is a critical problem. Not only does it scandalize Catholics, but the secrecy obscures the sources of gifts and makes the compromise of all Church business real possibilities. In the Bransfield 2019 report, still not released, the names of ten of the eleven bishops who received gifts were not identified. The eleventh, Archbishop Lori of Baltimore, was the Vatican’s investigator and publicly donated his $10,000 to Catholic Charities.
The Order devotes itself to crimes and politics in the Church; it does not much wander into the spiritual side of religion except to take note of moral guilt. Consequently, it is unclear how the victor of the fictional conclave will address the spiritual hungers of his people, particularly as he himself has history. In real life a new pope will face the “Archimedes Problem.” Archimedes, the Greek inventor of the lever, claimed: “Give me a place to stand and I will move the world.” Every pope must pray that his place to stand was not ill-gotten.
In the introduction to Lord Acton , the renowned English historian Owen Chadwick [p. ix] observes that those who know little of Acton’s life and works are at least familiar with one of Acton’s quotations which remains alive and well in English conversation to this day, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” What is not generally appreciated by Catholics and others is the context of the quote, a letter to the Catholic Archbishop Mandell Creighton in 1887, or seventeen years after Vatican I and the solemn declaration of papal infallibility. Writes Acton:
“I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way against holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility [that is, the later judgment of historians] has to make up for the want of legal responsibility [that is, legal consequences during the rulers' lifetimes]. Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. That is the point at which . . . the end learns to justify the means. You would hang a man of no position, . . . but if what one hears is true, then Elizabeth asked the gaoler to murder Mary, and William III ordered his Scots minister to extirpate a clan. Here are the greater names coupled with the greater crimes. You would spare these criminals, for some mysterious reason. I would hang them, higher than Haman, for reasons of quite obvious justice; still more, still higher, for the sake of historical science….”
This from the pen of a devout Catholic Englishman whose home included a chapel and chaplain for daily Mass. John Emerich Edward Dalberg Action [1834-1902] was possibly England’s most influential Catholic layman of the nineteenth century whose life, works, and particularly his ideas continue to throw much light upon the struggles of the Catholic Church in 2020. If one were to ask the nature of his profession, he would probably answer “historian,” and in fact he did hold the chair of history at Cambridge for the last six years of his life. It would also be fair to call him a political scientist, who learned that trade from a long and close friendship with William Gladstone [1809-1898], the British Prime Minister during the latter decades of Queen Victoria’s reign [r. 1837-1901]. His peers would call him “connected” both by birth and activism. Acton himself would serve six years in the House of Commons early in his career.
But Acton’s personal involvement in Church life and dialogue is what makes him a valuable source of reflection in our own times. He was born in 1834 in Naples, Italy, one of several sites where he maintained homes outside of England. By marriage, the Acton family had deep roots on both sides of the Channel [Bavaria and southern France being favorite retreats over the course of his life.]. His father was wealthy and well placed but died when the future Lord Acton was three. That both father and son were able to succeed to the degree they did is indicative of the slow but real restoration of Protestant tolerance of Catholics after several centuries of persecution begun in Henry VIII’s day. The Acton English homestead was in Aldenham, the site where he would accumulate as many as 70,000 books, a collection that has passed to Cambridge after his death in the twentieth century.
Acton applied to Cambridge in mid-century for his higher education but was refused admission, ironically because of his Catholic faith. This proved to be a blessing in disguise, for his family sent him instead to the University of Munich under the tutelage of the priest-historian Ignaz von Dollinger. Dollinger is a major name in Catholic history primarily for something he did not do—accept the 1870 proclamation of papal infallibility at Vatican I . But that was in the future. The teacher-student relationship blossomed into an intellectual and personal friendship that endured till Dollinger’s death at 91, through several stressful periods including Dollinger’s excommunication.
To grasp Acton’s life, some background in European history itself is vital. The author, Roland Hill, devotes enough description to explain Acton’s role in it, but the nineteenth century in Europe and in the United States is enormously complex. Consider that Acton was born in 1834, as Europe was still recovering from the roller coaster years of the French Revolution and Napoleon, and that he died just a decade before World War I. Acton studied the damages wreaked by uncontrolled popular excesses on the one hand, and the capricious and frequently disastrous actions of uncontrolled despots on the other.
Hoping to find a better middle way, there was a slow but consistent drift toward national unification in several regions, notably Italy, which existed as several autonomous kingdoms including the Papal States. A generic term for this era is the rise of nationalism, often along the lines of ethnic unity and history. When Garibaldi rallied the peoples of the Italian peninsula into one sovereign state, his intentions included absorbing the Papal States, land which held a practical and especially a religious significance for popes who had considered their sovereignty as religious and temporal since about 800 A.D. The national unification of Italy, with its critical implications for Catholic theology of the papacy, became an all-consuming issue for Catholics throughout the Western World, not least of all in Acton’s England.
Having been trained by Dollinger in Munich, Acton returned to his home in Aldenham and bowed to pressure to serve six undistinguished years in Parliament, eager to get on with his greater calling as a scholar, researcher, book collector, and most of all, a facilitator of discourse and ideas among men of letters, particularly but not exclusively Catholics. Given that he was independently wealthy, highly competent, and a known devout Catholic, his periodic journal the Rambler, could tolerate a broader range of views than more orthodox Catholic periodicals. Bishop John Newman [now a saint], a clerical convert to Roman Catholicism, was one of the Rambler’s most famous contributors as well as its editor for a time, and his famous Rambler contribution, “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine” [July, 1859] is required reading in higher religious education.
In the 1850’s Dollinger had introduced Acton to the renewal of the discipline of history that was sweeping Western Europe at that time. Scholars such as Leopold von Ranke [1795-1886] were revisiting the methodology of history, or historiography. [When you ignore a Facebook photo or report because there is no source provided, you are practicing sound basic historiography.] In the 1800’s the practice of history was evolving from a narrative of the names, dates, and places we all hated to memorize in high school into interpretations and judgments of past events with implications for present day life. If you look back at Acton’s letter to Archbishop Creighton above, you can see that Acton’s understanding of the “historian’s science” is restoration of just balance, calling to task past kings and popes for abuse of power. In a sense, the maturing Acton was defining for himself a philosophy of history as an act of public service for present day good order and morality.
It was Acton’s relentless search of books and documents on the history of the Church that led him to serious doubts about the wisdom of a declaration of papal infallibility. Ironically, Acton’s work was significantly enriched when he was granted access to secret Vatican archives through an intervention to Pope Pius IX [r. 1846-1878], who had met Acton and Dollinger in a private audience earlier in their careers. Convinced of his duty, Acton used his journal writings and exchanges with both English and European laymen and bishops to gather opposition to the solemn declaration of papal infallibility as a doctrine of the Church. One pressing reason for his urgency was the proposed doctrine’s threat, as he saw it, to freedom of conscience, a principle being embraced by progressive nations including his own England. Prime Minister Gladstone, though not a Catholic, shared Acton’s concern of a severe limitation on human thought and exchange. Gladstone was also concerned that papal claims to unfettered supremacy would seriously damage relations with the Church of England and the Orthodox. Interestingly, Acton was a correspondent with the Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his wife. Lee explained to Acton that he personally abhorred slavery but fought the war for the protection of freedom of conscience, understood by Lee as states rights and by Acton as an oppression of conscience by an intrusive federal government, i.e., the Union. Acton, of course, was not an English outlier on the subject; the British contemplated military support of the Confederacy until its defeat at Gettysburg in 1863.
Acton and his followers were at odds with the “Ultramontanes,” [literally, those beyond the mountains, specifically the Alps] who argued for retention of a powerful Roman centralized Church buttressed by the formal declaration of infallibility. Hill describes the battle leading up to the Council Vatican I [1869-1870], including the debates within England. The author concludes that Acton’s [and Dollinger’s] struggles to ward off an infallibility decree were, at the end, Quixotic. Most bishops may have questioned the need for such a profound declaration, but their respect for Pius IX remained strong. Acton and his family hosted a steady stream of bishops at a rented apartment in Rome for dinners and lobbying, but the control of the agenda of the Council by the Roman Curia and the instincts of bishops not to defy a sitting successor of Peter carried the day. Only two bishops voted against infallibility, one of them from a former Confederate state, Arkansas.
Dollinger, a priest, suffered much greater fallout for his opposition. Ordered to swear fealty to the new doctrine, he refused, was relieved of clerical duty, and eventually excommunicated. He became the organizing factor for an international schismatic Catholic Church [the “Old Catholic Church”] which was identical to the Roman Catholic Church except for its denial of a monarchical papacy. It is hard to know the degree of Dollinger’s actual sentiment and involvement with this movement, which exists to this day, but the Vatican justly identified him with it, and Dollinger was never reconciled to the Church. He was anointed on his deathbed by an Old Catholic cleric.
Acton, a married Catholic layman with five children, was never significantly disciplined by the Church and never truly lost his church or civil standing. As a layman, he was never summoned to swear an oath of fealty to the Council’s decree. And while excommunication was threatened by his longtime English foe, the Ultramontanist Cardinal Manning, it was hard for the auditors of the Index of Forbidden Books in the Roman Curia to sanction the thousands of journal articles, public letters, lectures, etc. that Acton would continue till his death in 1903. For the rest of his life Acton believed that the infallibility pronouncement was a mistake, and he did not hesitate to say so until his death, but he did not follow Dollinger’s radicalism and continued fidelity to the sacraments and a daily prayer regimen. In a recently discovered correspondence, his wife Maria writes to a close friend that, after intercourse, Acton got on his knees and prayed that they had conceived a child. Evidently his prayers were heard from time to time, though Maria found it peculiar. This was, after all, Victorian England.
Dollinger, despite his troubles, and others of Acton’s friends began to wonder what Acton’s literary legacy would be, given that he was now well into his 50’s. Given all his research, his contributions to journals, his book acquisitions, and his personal dinners and travels with learned men across England and Europe, he had never written a substantive book. His estate devalued to the point that the American industrialist Andrew Carnegie, at Gladstone’s request, purchased Acton’s collection of 70,00 books, keeping Acton solvent until he received two prestigious offers. The first was Queen Victoria’s appointment to the Regius Chair of History at Cambridge, a remarkable turn of events in that the university had rejected his application four decades earlier because of his Catholicism. Acton and the Queen were good friends stemming from the former’s past services at Buckingham Palace.
Acton was 61 when he received this honor, but his rich dining and utter lack of exercise produced a serious condition of gout which likely shortened his life. There is sadness in that Acton was born for Cambridge life, immensely popular among students and peers alike; he added informal seminars to his routine for those students eager to engage in historical studies careers. Alas, he had arrived there at the twilight of his life. A second recognition of respect was Cambridge’s invitation to edit the master Cambridge World History series, a complicated project which taxed his diminishing strength. He died in 1902 at the age of 68, at his Bavarian residence where he had gone for some hope of convalescence. The author notes that the Bavarian burial site is so overgrown that it is nearly impossible to find, as of 2000.
Acton was eulogized profusely by friend and foe alike. The year 1903 saw a resurgence of Ultramontane energies which spared no efforts to decry Acton’s suspicions of excessive Church authority and paint him into a corner with the expelled Dollinger. But those who knew him well understood that he was a complex lay Catholic who as a political thinker embraced the English liberal positions of self-determination [as with Ireland], freedom of conscience, and concern over the economic inequities of the industrial age. On the other hand, he was a most traditional Catholic who drew strength from such works as Thomas a Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ. He serves well as a template for loving the Church by reforming the Church and laying the groundwork for lay activism in the post Vatican II era.
Acton’s understanding of history was almost prophetic in the Biblical sense, passing moral judgments on the actions of the major figures of history to correct them, with the end purpose of protecting human liberty and freedom. Acton’s relentless hard judgments on past figures led even Dollinger to tell him he was starting to sound like an old shrew. The consensus recurring criticism of Acton’s philosophy of history, manifested again in his lengthy quote at the opening of this post, is the inconsistency of denying moral righteousness and authority to kings and popes while awarding moral infallibility, so to speak, to historians.
Acton, were he alive today, would have much to say about America’s struggle over the interpretations of its history and the way it is celebrated or denounced. At the very least, he probably would have saved some of those Robert E. Lee statues for his garden at Aldenham.
There is a fine 30 minute presentation about Acton on YouTube.
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