DARK HISTORY OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH
THE DEVIL'S CENTURY
Wars, revolutions, genocides, terror campaigns, coups and assassinations: the
twentieth century saw one enormity after another. The Catholic Church was
variously a victim of and a witness to - in some cases arguably an accessory
in - some of the greatest crimes of modern times.
'When the thousand years are ended, Satan will he released from
his prison' - Revelation20:7
Herzegovina, 1981. A country under Communism; a state swallowed up, indeed, in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. A valiant light against Nazi oppression. Marshal Tito had been accorded a certain respect, however grudging, by the people he had ruled over through the post-War years. But Josip Broz - to give him his birth-name - had finally died the year before; his successors had seemed less worthy of their status. For the moment, though, their power remained in place: not until the early 1990s would civil war start to sweep Yugoslavia and the country fall apart in acrimony and bloodshed.
For the Catholic Church - as for the world - the twentieth century seemed a catalogue of tragedy. Marshal Tito's funeral in Belgrade in 1980 marked the end of a time of tyranny - but brought a new one of genocidal violence.
Nestling in the mountains not far from the Croatian border, Medjugorje was a beautiful and peaceful place - deceptively so, for the scene of a notorious massacre four decades before. In 1941, during the Second World War, over a thousand Serbs had been slaughtered by Croats from the fascistic Ustase movement and thrown into mass-graves which then remained unmarked - and yet not unremembered by a people still in pain.
Small wonder, then, that when the Virgin Mary appeared to a group of children here they should have paid particularly close attention to her view of recent history. This, the twentieth century, had, she told them, been the century over which Satan had presided. God had agreed to let him take a turn in charge of the universe as a test for his Church down here on Earth. Hence, from a parochial point of view, the sufferings of a Yugoslavia whose twentieth century had already been all but unbearable - even if in the years to come it was going to get a great deal worse. And hence a global history in which tyrannies of Right and Left had vied in cruelty, terror and violence had almost become the norm.
It should be stressed from the start that the Medjugorje visions have been controversial, even within Catholicism; senior churchmen have expressed grave doubts about the seers' testimony. What cannot seriously be disputed is that the twentieth century was to prove a particularly trying time for the Roman Catholic Church - as it was, indeed, for humanity as a whole.
'For the ten years from 1910 to 1920,' historian Thomas Benjamin has written, 'Mexicans devoted most of their energy to war and destruction.' A damning summary, yet one with which it's difficult to disagree. So violence against the Catholic clergy (and counter-violence committed in the Church's name) have both to be seen in the context of this wider conflagration. The Mexican Revolution was an almost unbelievably bloody and anarchic affair, its violence only very vaguely directed towards a final goal.
As elsewhere in a Hispanic world in which the Church was clearly identified with conservative landowning interests, anticlericalism and political radicalism went hand in hand. The two great rebel leaders, Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, were very different characters, with widely divergent views, but neither had any time for the Catholic Church. Neither did the urban intelligentsia - many of them freemasons - whose self-conscious progressiveness made them contemptuous of a Catholicism that many workers and peasants resented as being parasitical on the poor. Attacks on priests and churches were frequent during the fighting - when the city of Durango was sacked by Pancho Villa's men in 1913, the embroidered mantle from the Blessed Virgin in the cathedral ended up adorning the shoulders of a bandit's mistress. Convents were attacked and nuns were raped; churches were plundered and burned and images desecrated.
When some sort of constitutional rule was restored in 1917, anti-Catholic feeling - far from coming to an end - was institutionalized. The 'Calles Law', while nominally just ensuring the scrupulous separation of Church and State, went a great deal further in
Rumours of the 'Death of God' in the twentieth century turned out to have been exaggerated. People turned out in their joyful thousands in 2001 to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the first vision of the Virgin Mary at Medjugorje, in Bosnia.
circumscribing the rights of the Catholic clergy. (Church property was confiscated; Catholic schools were shut down and convents closed. Even wearing a priestly cassock in public was outlawed.) It also arguably gave tacit 'permission' for cruder and more violent discrimination at grass-roots level. Certainly, that was the message that filtered down to rabble-rousers in city neighbourhoods and small towns. It isn't known how many priests were murdered: only a few dozen were openly lynched, while many hundreds fled the country. By the mid-1920s, though, between official restrictions and popular harassment, in large
Basking in their new-found power, Zapata and his men
prepare for government - and the liberation of a
landlord-ridden, priest-infested country.
For many in Mexico the Church was no more than
the spiritual arm of the ruling class; an enemy which
had to be destroyed.
parts of Mexico there were none left. An attempt by Catholic Cristeros to fight back from 1927 was met with savage violence: 90,000 were to die on both sides during this three-year civil war.
Opium and Opprobrium
In Russia, too, anticlericalism was the default position among a revolutionary caste ever mindful of Marx's view that religion was 'the opium of the people'. Through most of the Soviet republics summoned into existence by the Revolution of 1917, Christianity was represented by the Orthodox Church, but the implications for Catholicism were to be profound in the longer term.
For the first few years at least, the Soviet achievement was an inspiration for downtrodden workers in the West who saw in it the opportunity
Ransacked by Russian Bolsheviks, this tattered, messy and rubble-strewn scene is emblematic of the situation of the Catholic Church in the Soviet sphere. Allowed to eke out an ignominious existence, it could never feel any real autonomy - nor ever, really, that it was in any sense secure.
for real change; and, by the same token, they saw the Church of Rome as instinctively reactionary, a brake on progress towards a better, fairer world. Nor did the Catholic hierarchy disappoint, denouncing all attempts at social or political reform as godless Communism and driving thoughtful men and women into the intellectual embrace of the Bolsheviks.
Flirting with Fascism
For many, in Italy and in the world outside, the Lateran Treaty dragged the Church still deeper into disrepute.
Signed in 1929, it granted the Church its own little sovereign state in the Vatican City while at the same time guaranteeing its political neutrality and accepting the constitutional arrangements prevailing across Italy as a whole. As far as it went this was no great betrayal, perhaps - successive Italian governments had been pressing for something similar; and later administrations have honoured the Treaty to this day. What upset progressive Catholics was the fact that Pope Pius XI had reached this accommodation with Mussolini, the Great Dictator, and was effectively pledging the Church's allegiance to his Fascist state.
In return, Mussolini won concessions: massive compensation for the loss of the old Papal States (over which the Church had been moping and moaning since 1871, when Pius IX had made himself the prisoner of the Vatican). II Duce - despite his own personal
Not quite a pact with the devil, perhaps, but the next best thing in the Italy of the 1920s, Pope Pius XI signs his Concordat with Mussolini. In its obsessive concern with resisting Communism, the Church was to overlook all sorts of offences in its allies.
A cathedral goes up in flames at the climax of Spain's 'Red Terror' of 1936. The Left's suspicions of the Church, as the reactionaries' first line of defence, were by no means entirely unfounded, though they were certainly to some degree self-fulfilling.
scorn - appointed Catholicism the state religion, made criticism of the Church a crime, outlawed divorce and made religious education mandatory in the country's schools. All state legislation was to be reviewed to ensure that it stayed in line with canon law. No one imagined for a moment that Mussolini had undergone a Damascene conversion of any kind. He made no secret of his continuing disdain. But Fascism (till now dismissed as an ideology of thugs) had secured the respectability it had craved, whilst Pius XI declared Mussolini 'a man sent by providence'.
MUSSOLINI DECLARED HE WAS THE LEADER OF ANOTHER HOLY ROMAN EMPIRE; HIS EMPIRE WAS THE 6TH REVIVED, AND THERE WILL BE ONE MORE AT THE END OF THIS AGE - Keith Hunt
The Cross and the Carnage
In Spain, it seemed that providence favoured the overthrow of the elected government and its replacement by a murderous military dictatorship.
So, at least, it must be concluded from the Church's unstinting support for Francisco Franco and his friends. Not that this was such a surprise. Those leaders of the Spanish armed forces who staged an uprising against the elected Republican government in 1936 did so, they said, in defence of traditional Spanish values - among which Catholicism was key. On the Left, this was quite clearly understood: in the summer of 1936 it was the clergy who bore the brunt of the 'Red Terror'. Churches were burned and convents ransacked, and in a matter of weeks some 60,000 people (including 6800 priests) were killed.
Inevitably, perhaps, the Red Terror was followed by a 'White' one, as Franco's forces exacted their cruel tit-for-tat. Not that they'd needed any such excuse: hatred of the Left was deeply embedded in the
IN THE BOX
A CARNIVAL OF BLASPHEMY
Much less serious than the slaughter of Spanish priests in real terms, but in its way every bit as significant at a symbolic level, was what Archbishop Antonio Montero Moreno has since referred to as the 'martyrdom of objects'. The bodies of priests and nuns were dragged up from crypts, their open coffins piled up in city streets; statues of saints were smashed, disfigured or put together as if to copulate; churches were turned into dance halls and storage depots;
religious vestments were seized and mock-processions held through jeering, spitting crowds. Class and religious resentments went together: typically, affluent conservatives identified with the Church. Rounded up by anarchist gangs, bourgeois believers were forced to utter blasphemies before they were shot, their executioners enjoying the thought that these well-heeled holy joes and Josephines wouldn't be dying in a state of grace.
officer-class, who wore their crucifixes and rosaries as a badge of honour, and who saw the Church as not only the emblem but the spiritual justification for the society they saw themselves as building. 'We shall,' said General Emilio Mola, 'build a great, strong, powerful state that is set to be crowned with a cross.' Where other right-wing dictators of the era attempted
Suffice it to say though that the
Catholic Church - not just in
Spain itself but beyond in Rome -
was to be an important cheerleader
for General Franco.
to absorb religious institutions into those of an all-encompassing (hence 'totalitarian') state, the Caudillo saw the Church as sacred, his administration as its protector. In Spain, in recent years, debate has been raging over whether Franco can truly be characterized as having been a 'Fascist'.
And his conservative cheerleaders are right: technically he wasn't - for what the distinction's worth. The Catholic Church cannot of course be held wholly
Christ and Caesar were too cosy by half in the Spain of General Franco. Here the Caudillo visits Cardinal Federico Tedeschini, the Papal Nuncio. Franco's regime murdered men, women and children in their tens of thousands with the Church's tacit blessing. The whereabouts of over 114,000 victims are still unknown.
responsible for the 'White Terror' and the 200,000-odd deaths it's believed to have brought; neither can the extent of its culpability be easily quantified. Suffice it to say though that the Catholic Church - not just in Spain itself, but beyond in Rome - was to be an important cheerleader for Franco. Not just during the Civil War but in the years after when his murderous regime was otherwise to a large extent excluded from the world community.
The Holy Father and the Fatherland
Friedrich Nietzsche, notoriously, had dismissed Christianity for its 'slave morality'. Turning the other cheek assuredly wasn't Adolf Hitler's style. Like Mussolini, born a Catholic, the future Fuhrer had turned his back on the Church as he grew older and began to conceive his vocation as leader of an all-conquering Aryan Fatherland.
Even for the leader of the Third Reich, though, there were realities that had to be recognized. One was the considerable number of Catholics in Germany, especially in the South. A naturally conservative constituency, they remained wary of Hitler and his National Socialists. Hence Hitler's overtures to Pope Pius XI, who hoped to secure the position of the Church in a changing Germany and find an ally in his opposition to the Communist advance in Europe.
Pius, who four years earlier had signed a similar Concordat with Mussolini, had no hesitation in agreeing to the treaty. The Concordat he signed in 1933 may have been seen by the Pope as nothing more than a diplomatic recognition of political practicalities, but Hitler was able to exhibit it as though it were a sacred blessing.
The Nazis made more uncomfortable bedfellows than the Italian Fascists had, their ugly anti-Semitism soon apparent to the world. In 1937, abashed, the
The future Pope Pius XII, Eugenio Pacelli, was Papal Nuncio in Germany. Here he leaves the Presidential Palace in Berlin. That Pacelli 'went native' with the Nazis is untrue - he disdained their brutish views - yet he never seems to have appreciated the enormity of their crimes.
Pope went so far as to send out an encyclical - a letter to be read in German churches - entitled Mit Brennender Sorge ('With Burning Sorrow'). It contained an outspoken condemnation of the Nazis' attacks upon their country's Jews as well as their efforts to control the activities of the Catholic Church in Germany. So horrified had Pius XI become by Hitler's influence, he'd finally concluded that he was possessed by the devil and had attempted to exorcise him at long-distance.
IN THE BOX
The Church's reputation is for dogmatic certainty (even where such certainty may be ill-advised) but it can be as woolly and ambivalent as any other institution. So it was with its wartime conduct - a dereliction of duty never really redeemed by isolated acts of humanity and courage; so it was in its prewar attitudes to the Jews. Blanket charges of 'anti-Semitism' against the Church are easily enough refuted by specific examples - but then so too are blanket exonerations. While the medieval idea that the Jews should be collectively condemned as the 'killers of Christ' was now no longer being preached, many in the Vatican still saw 'the Jews' as a deadly threat. In 1929, one spokesman, Father Enrico Rosa, drew what he clearly saw as a scrupulous distinction between an unworthy and un-Christian racial anti-Semitism and a 'healthy evaluation of the danger emanating from the Jews'. His fellow - Jesuit Gustav Gundlach teased out his argument a little further the following year. To hate the Jews because they were Jews - and, as such, intrinsically alien and 'other' - was deplorable, he argued. To hate them because they were cosmopolitan in their loyalties and damaging in their influence in the arts, the media, science and finance was quite another thing. The 'Chosen People' of Old Testament times, it seems, were now the vanguard of all that was dangerously modern; the enemies of established Western values.
The 1933 Concordat had been negotiated by a young and energetic cardinal, Eugenio Pacelli - a lover of Germany and its culture, and a conservative through and through. As Pope Pius XII from 1939, he was to steer the Church through the stormy waters of the Second World War - wrecking its moral reputation, many have suggested, in the process. Pius' characterization - caricaturing, even - as 'Hitler's Pope', is arguably harsh: relations between the two men were seldom cordial and never easy. There is little doubt, though, that Pius saw in Hitler just what the German Fuhrer saw in him: a man with whom - whatever his drawbacks - he could do business.
The Holocaust is rightly remembered as one of the very darkest episodes of modern history, the Church one of many institutions that fell badly short. And this is especially significant, given the moral authority it has historically claimed; the right it has assumed to tell its members - and the wider world - how it should live. Pius XII's defenders have pointed to the good he did - justifiably, up to a point: it's easily forgotten that the young Pacelli had actually been the author of the impassioned plea against racism in Mil Brennender Sorge. And it's been demonstrated too that, as Pope, he organized rescue measures in the Vatican City that led to the saving of a great many Jewish lives. But the good he did was invariably done by stealth. When the world looked to him for leadership he was silent - at best equivocal. An unabashed elitist, he despised National Socialism for its vulgar populism, but doesn't seem to have been as outraged by its morality as he might have been. He wasn't a Nazi; nor could he even be charged of an indifference to the threat it posed - but he was more exercised by the threat represented by Communism in the east.
What can be said of Pius goes for the Church as a whole: it isn't difficult to find ways in which good was done and evil resisted. Many individual priests and nuns performed acts of astounding courage to save Jewish families from death in Germany. And the authorities reacted, rounding up what they saw as their enemies: Dachau alone housed 2600 priests. In Poland, national resistance to the German invaders was largely coordinated by the Catholic clergy. Some 2500 priests in that country were to be executed by the Nazis. Overall, though, the fact remains that the Final Solution was a challenge dismally ducked: the Church has been struggling to reassert its moral authority ever since.
Poland's problem, in the post-War era, wasn't to come from Nazism but from Communism. The Red Army liberated it only to take it under Soviet rule. The Church clung on here, in an excruciatingly uneasy co-existence with a socialist government that wouldn't let it flourish openly yet never felt quite strong enough to stamp it out completely. Important leaders were arrested and imprisoned - thousands tortured. As elsewhere behind the Iron Curtain, a state-sponsored pseudo-Church was created, but the people of Poland were never fooled. Even so, Catholicism struggled to maintain a meaningful presence in the country. Pope John Paul II, born Karol Wojtyla, was many years later to talk of Poland's 'Silent Church' - capable of offering some degree of comfort and continuity, but not to raise its voice in spiritual leadership.
One priest more than any other articulated the aspirations of Poles
for freedom at this time: Jerzy Popieluszko preached each week at
his Warsaw church.
When Poland's people did eventually find their voice, though, it was in response to the pastoral visit of Pope John Paul II himself, who came soon after his election in 1979. They turned out to see him in their hundreds of thousands: in all, it's estimated, a third of the Polish population came to see him celebrate a series of open-air masses. The Communist authorities didn't like it but didn't dare object. That visit seems to have emboldened Poland, helping to inspire the setting-up of Solidarnosc (the 'Solidarity' movement) in 1980.
The Church continued to lend crucial support. After General Jaruzelski's government imposed martial law in December 1981, the workers' meetings with which the Solidarnosc campaign had started were forbidden - but people could still come together to celebrate mass. One priest more than any other articulated the aspirations of Poles for freedom at this time: Jerzy Popieluszko preached each week at his Warsaw church. In 1984, its patience exhausted, the state had its agents stage a car crash for Popieluszko's
The cross has been conceived on the gigantic scale formerly reserved for Soviet war memorials and Lenin statues: Pope John Paul Il's trip to Poland (1979) - the first major engagement of his pontificate - was both a joyful homecoming and a warning to the regime.
Pope John Paul II makes a point to General Wojciech Jaruzelski. But Poland's Prime Minister was not convinced. Even so, throughout the 1980s, Catholicism remained an inspiration for patriotic Poles fighting to free their country from Communist oppression.
benefit. He escaped unhurt, but was seized and abducted a few days later. He was beaten to death, his body abandoned by the side of a reservoir, a martyr for Catholicism - and his country.
The Latin Masses
If the fight against Communism had brought out the best in the Catholic Church in Poland, the same could hardly be said of what had happened in South America. Since the 1970s, the Church had allied itself strongly with some of the most unpleasant regimes in the world in Augusto Pinochet's Chile and the Generals' Argentina. Like the United States establishment, the Church had viewed the region with mounting concern for many years - since Fidel Castro's Cuban Revolution of 1959, indeed.
Latin America's poor and dispossessed masses had seemed 'naturally' to be the property of the Church - a vast and unquestioningly obedient congregation. That they might now be seizing the opportunity to liberate themselves caused consternation. In the paranoia of the Cold War era, any sign of popular unrest was viewed with trepidation; any stirrings of student radicalism denounced as communistic. Even as priests in Poland risked their lives for freedom, the Church in Argentina and Chile was turning a blind eye while suspected activists were abducted, tortured and killed, their bodies dumped by roadsides or dropped from helicopters far out at sea. In Chile in 1973, the democratically elected government of the Marxist Salvador Allende had been overthrown in a bloody
The image of Father Jerzy Popietuszko is carried in procession through the streets of Warsaw in celebration of his beatification on 6 June 2010. Patriotism and piety have gone together in a Poland whose Catholic religion was repressed along with its people under Communism.
coup by the country's military, led by General Augusto Pinochet.
Three years later in Argentina, fearing a similar drift into disorder and Marxist revolution, the leading generals seized power. In both countries, the military set to work stamping out any sign of resistance, snatching up dissidents from their homes and from city streets. Most were never to be seen again: in Argentina alone, these desaparecidos ('disappeared ones') numbered getting on for 30,000. Estimates for those killed and missing in Pinochet's Chile are only slightly less.
'The disappeared cry out for Justice!' And so did their suffering mothers and other relations through the long and bitter years of Argentina's 'Dirty War'. Many priests were sympathetic - some were 'disappeared' by the Generals' thugs themselves - but the hierarchy tended to side with the right-wing regime.
Welcome as it was in many ways, the election of the Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Francis in 2013 called attention to a time many in the Church had been trying to forget. As so often in the Church's history, a great many priests, nuns and ordinary Catholics had acquitted themselves with commitment and courage on behalf of their people: once again, though, it seemed that the hierarchy had let them down. The part played by the American CIA in supporting General Pinochet's coup in 1973 has been much publicized. Less well known is the support he received from the Catholic Church. In the days following the coup - a time in which over 3000 civilians were murdered - the Chilean Episcopal Conference asked the people to assist the government in its 'difficult task of restoring national order and the economic life of the country, so seriously affected'. In Argentina too, senior churchmen lent the military junta at least their tacit support, although many priests and nuns fought hard for freedom and justice at parish level. Unsurprisingly, the role of the future Pope Francis has been hotly contested since his appointment, although claims that he collaborated with the dictatorship, betraying his own priests, remain unsubstantiated.
Liberation Theology may have been a bastard creed, at it inspired real heroism in many of its adherents. As first outlined by the Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutierrez, the 'Theology of Liberation' demanded a radically-overhauled Catholicism which would work to bring bout change in this world, not just happiness in the next. No longer would it be the 'opium of the people': it would be a formula for revolutionary transformation of society. Many thousands of priests, nuns and lay Catholics heard Gutierrez's Gospel and were inspired.
Many were to die for their beliefs. In Colombia, Camilo Torres, announcing that 'if Christ were alive day, he would be a guerrilla,' enlisted with his
La Moneda, Santiago, was bombed by the Chilean air force in the military coup which brought General Pinochet to power in 1973. The country's elected Marxist President, Salvador Allende, who committed suicide inside his palace, had been deeply distrusted both by the United States and by the Church.
country's Marxist National Liberation Army, in whose service he was killed during his first action in 1966. Archbishop Oscar Romero, who from his pulpit led popular opposition to El Salvador's oppressive military regime, was assassinated at the altar as he said mass one day in 1980. Clerics were also well represented among the Sandinistas who came to power in Nicaragua in the 1980s, including the priest and poet Ernesto Cardenal.
The Church was not impressed. Even when its own nuns were raped and murdered by right-wing death squads in El Salvador, it seemed more concerned about the risk of Communist contamination in the Church. Pope John Paul II's experiences of life in Poland almost certainly helped to shape his sceptical reaction to Liberation Theology, despite his own well-documented
Born in Lima, in 1928, Gustavo Gutierrez grew up to become a Dominican friar - and founder of 'Liberation Theology'. So central was Christ's command to help the poor, Gutierrez argued, that his disciples had a duty to fight for revolution.
Nuns seek in vain to save the life of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. An ally of the poor, he had been gunned down by members of a right-wing death squad while saying mass.
concern for social justice. (In September 2013, Pope Francis raised eyebrows by giving the aged Gustavo Gutierrez, by now 85, an audience. Was Liberation Theology about to get a second chance?)
Bank of Brothers
Early in the morning of 18 June 1982, the body of a man was found hanging from scaffolding underneath an arch of London's Blackfriars Bridge. Squeezed into his pockets with eight bricks for weight was $14,000 in three different currencies: this had been no ordinary suicide - if that was even what it was. The dead man was soon identified as an Italian, Roberto Calvi, chairman of the Banco Ambrosiano who had gone missing from his home in Milan some days before.
IN THE BOX
The history of South and Central America in the second half of the twentieth century was - to put it mildly - messy and unpleasant. Discussion has tended to focus on the role of the United States, and more specifically the secret activities of the CIA in what was seen as 'America's Backyard'. In Central America particularly, the interests of US business were seen as paramount: the Free World had to be made safe for United Fruit. Yet other organizations had much at stake as well - none more than the Roman Catholic Church, which looked to Latin America as a secure heartland of belief.
When we read of US support for the monstrous regime of Rafael Trujillo, who terrorized the Dominican Republic for 30 years from 1930 to 1961, we shouldn't forget the vital support he was given by the Church. At a time when even the US was losing faith in their sometime puppet, his Concordat with the Vatican (1954) came to his rescue, giving him the one shred of diplomatic legitimacy he had. That same year, while the CIA was parachuting arms with Soviet markings into Guatemala to smear Jacobo Arbenz's reforming government, New York's Cardinal Francis Spellman was burning up the wires to Archbishop Mariano Rossell Arellano in the country. A pastoral letter, read out in all the churches (to a largely illiterate population) urged Guatemalans to 'rise up as one man against this enemy of God and country'. In Nicaragua, the Somozas - Anastasio ('Our Son o a bitch'), Luis and Anastasio Jr - all had the backing of the USA, and the Church. So did the murderous Contra Front after the Somoza tyranny was overthrown. In Honduras, Costa Rica - you name the country - the Church saw cruel conservative regimes as preferable to even moderately reforming ones. If Camilo Torres' claim that Christ would have been a leftist guerrilla must be questionable, it hardly seems likely that he would have joined a right-wing death-squad or a military junta.
In the days that followed, as police became increasingly suspicious that Calvi had been murdered, financial investigators found huge discrepancies in the Banco Ambrosiano's accounts. Accusations of malpractice had been flying around for years - Calvi himself had been convicted of illegally exporting currency and sentenced to four years' imprisonment, although he had been given his freedom while he waited to appeal. There were major fraud charges pending against him too. The day before his disappearance, his secretary had leapt from her fourth-floor office window, leaving a note alleging that her boss's crimes had brought the Banco Ambrosiano down. It was certainly in deep trouble, its management collectively dismissed by Italy's finance ministry, who had established their own committee to handle its affairs.
Roberto Calvi served as President of the Banco Ambrosiano, Milan, until his suicide in 1982. His death drew unwelcome attention to the Vatican's extraordinarily intricate financial arrangements and exposed an unholy tangle of curious connections and secret deals.
John Paul I lies in state in the Clementine Chapel of St Peter's after the shortest papal reign of recent times. Inevitably, his death - after only 33 days in office - gave rise to rumour and speculation of the most lurid sort.
Calvi wasn't the first crooked financier, and he wouldn't be the last, but his was no ordinary story of corruption. As the chairman of the Banco Ambrosiano, he had become known as 'God's Banker', mainly because the Vatican Bank had owned a substantial shareholding. He had also been a prominent member of P2 - a masonic lodge that was rumoured to control the commanding heights of the Italian economy and media. (That P2 members jokily referred to themselves as the frati neri or 'black friars' - like the bridge - was said by some to have been a sign that his murder had been the work of his brother masons.)
What happened to Calvi isn't clear, and where a lack of clarity exists conspiracy theory thrives: speculation on the case has embraced everything from mafia money-laundering to channelling CIA funding to the Nicaraguan Contras. Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, head of the Vatican Bank (or, in full, the 'Institute for the Works of Religion'), took a down-to-earth approach to this worldliest of duties: 'You can't run the Church on Hail Mary's', he observed. What Our Lady would have thought of his friendships (and, said his accusers, business dealings) with convicted fraudsters and international gangsters we can only guess.
Was Pope John Paul I a collateral casualty of these shenanigans? Within 33 days of taking office he was dead. (Amazingly enough, that doesn't make his appointment by any means the shortest papal reign in history: in fact it comes in at number 11 in a table topped by Urban VII, whose reign in September 1590 had lasted only 13 days.) By the Vatican's own account his passing was just 'one of those things' - he was hardly the first man in his sixties to have had a heart attack. But speculation was inevitable: the peculiar combination of power, wealth and secrecy in the highest reaches of the Church make its affairs attractive to conspiracy theorists at the best of times - add in
IN THE BOX
FROM P2 TO PORN
The Catholic Church has supped with so many devils down the centuries that one more won't make much difference, perhaps. Even so, it's curious to find such close and complex links between Catholic officials and Propaganda Due or 'P2', given the Church's longstanding opposition to freemasonry. (Since 1738, soon after the founding of the first Grand Lodges in Enlightenment Europe, the Church has banned its members from involvement in freemasonry.) Still, the converse should have been true as well. Born of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, the 'Craft' had traditionally taken a contemptuous attitude towards the Church and its teachings. Instead, its members had espoused a 'deist' view in which a 'Grand Architect' had designed the universe.
Given the number of scandals, political and financial, in which the lodge's Venerable Master Licio Gelli was found to have been involved, it is hard to see him as a searcher of mystic truth. If the financier had any aim beyond that of enriching himself and his friends, it seems to have been the resurrection of
Fascism in Italy - or at very least the extirpation of Communism in the country. This of course was an aim he shared both with the Catholic Church and the CIA, and with both organizations he seems to have maintained mysterious contacts down the years.
Gelli himself has withdrawn from the frontline of Italian politics in recent years: his plan for Italy's 'democratic rebirth' has been in good hands with Silvio Berlusconi, he has told the press. In backing Berlusconi's rise, the Church showed impressive tolerance in turning a blind eye to his TV empire's recipe of softcore imagery and right-wing propaganda. Its patience only snapped when the media mogul proved to have been getting too close to (allegedly under-age) girls himself at the 'bunga-bunga parties' to which he treated his friends.
Pope John Paul II isn't sure he sees the joke he's supposed to share with Silvio Berlusconi. The Polish Pope had denounced the output of the billionaire media mogul's TV stations as a 'curse', but favoured the devil he knew over his liberal opponents.
Scores were killed by a bomb in the Bologna Massacre of 1980.
No one would suggest that the outrage was the work of the Church.
But had senior Vatican officials allowed themselves to become
too closely involved with those right-wing extremists who were responsible?
freemasonry and the recipe is irresistible. It would only take the addition of the CIA and KGB to make the mix complete - and both these elements have been added by investigative writers in the years since.
Of course, the fact that conspiracy theories nourish doesn't mean that there are no conspiracies, and what might loosely be described as the 'P2 Affair' had been a conspiracy and a half. While claims that the late Pope had paid the price for trying to break the hold of freemasons within his hierarchy or for seeking to stamp out corruption remain unproven, they can hardly be so easily dismissed. That there were illicit goings-on seems certain - even if their details have been difficult to delineate - while one would hesitate to say that certain elements would have stopped at murder. Prominent P2 members had kept coming up in investigations into the neo-fascist group that organized the Bologna Massacre in 1980 - a station bombing which left 85 people dead.
II Papa and the Manias
It hardly helped that the Vatican was so cagy in the days immediately following John Paul's death, even prevaricating over who had found the body - he had died in bed. The fear of salacious innuendo apparently prevented their revealing that his death had been discovered by his female housekeeper, Sister Vincenza Taffarel - a nun who had been brought in, cynics leered, at the request of the late Pope himself.
From 'cherchez la femme' to 'cherchez the feminist': some excitable commentators suggested that the Pope had fallen foul of traditionalists in his Church with his remark that 'God is Father, and, even more, He is Mother'. Most of those who read these words took them to mean, first, that God's love transcends mortal sex-roles, and, second, that he has a 'mother's' gentleness, but some took it to represent the embrace of a revolutionary new gynotheology, replacing God with a Goddess. John Paul didn't live long enough to spell his meaning out.
In the Firing Line
John Paul I's successor, Poland's Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, paid him the compliment of taking his name as John Paul II. By contrast, his was to be one of the longest ever papacies. It was very nearly cut abruptly short, however, when, while riding in his 'popemobile' through a crowded St Peter's Square, on 13 May 1981, he was shot by Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turkish gunman. The Pope was critically injured but managed to survive.
John Paul II had become a figurehead for the
freedom struggle throughout the Iron Curtain countries.
Ali Agca had a longstanding record as a member of Turkey's ultra-nationalist 'Grey Wolves' group - a quasi-fascist organization with a well-proven readiness to resort to murder when required. Despite his right-wing credentials, Agca's testimony to investigators after his arrest pointed to the involvement of the Bulgarian secret police, and hence in turn to that of their masters in the Soviet KGB, whose interest in seeing the Pope killed or incapacitated was all too clear. John Paul II had become a figurehead for the freedom struggle in his native Poland in particular, and in the Iron Curtain countries more generally.
John Paul subsequently went to see his would-be killer in prison, where he spoke to him 'as a brother', freely forgiving him for his attack. A plot by Islamic terrorists to deploy a suicide-bomber dressed as a priest against the Pope during a visit to the Philippines in 1995 was foiled when the plan was uncovered a few days before. Had it gone ahead, it was to have been followed up with the mass-hijacking of airliners en route from Asia to the United States - with a crash-attack on the CIA's Virginia headquarters rather like those against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11.
John Paul II visited his would-be-assassin Mehmet Ali Agca in prison in Rome.
IN THE BOX
John Paul II's anti-Communist credentials were unimpeachable, one might have thought. His small-c conservatism was also well attested. He was far more indulgent towards those who hankered after the old Latin liturgy of the 'Tridentine Mass' than either of his predecessors had been.
For some, though, he hadn't gone far enough. Followers of the French reactionary rebel Marcel Lefebvre weren't happy that he hadn't done more to rehabilitate their hero. Reviving the Tridentine Mass at the Econe Seminary he had founded near Fribourg, Switzerland, Lefebvre had started ordaining priests. Given that he had effectively established his own church-within-the-Church, it wasn't hard to see why the Vatican had been irked or why even a sympathetic pope like John Paul II might have felt unable to give him more support.
Feelings ran high among the dissidents, and one the Spanish priest Juan Maria Fernandez y Krohn went for the Pope with a bayonet during a visit to Portugal in 1982. In the event he failed to kill John Paul II. Afterwards he told his prosecutors that he had acted to save the Church: he believed that the Pope was a Soviet secret agent.
Ultra-traditionalist French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre offered a real challenge, even to conservative leaders like John Paul II.
TO BE CONTINUED
WE SEE THE DIRTY DEALINGS WITH NATIONS, WHEN A CHURCH BECOMES POLITICAL AS WELL AS THEOLOGICAL. A NUMBER OF BOOKS HAVE BEEN WRITTEN, IN THE LAST 40 YEARS, GOING IN-DEPTH WITH THE POLITICAL SIDE OF THE ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH. SINCE CONSTANTINE'S CONVERSION TO ROME'S THEOLOGY (312 OR SO A.D.) MAKING IT THE RELIGION OF THE EMPIRE, THE ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH HAS AT VARIOUS TIMES AND IN VARIOUS WAY, HOOKED ARM IN ARM WITH VARIOUS NATIONS. TRUE SOME PRIESTS AND NUNS HAVE FOUGHT AGAINST THE IDEOLOGY OF SOME NATIONS, AND HAVE GIVEN UP THEIR LIVES. INDIVIDUAL SINCERITY AGAINST OUT AND OUT EVIL, HAS ALWAYS BEEN THERE IN THE ROMAN CHURCH; INDIVIDUALS AND THEIR ACTIONS AGAINST UNRIGHTEOUSNESS ON A LOCAL LEVEL CAN NOT BE STOPPED BY THOSE HIGHER UP THE LADDER OF POWER. CERTAINLY RESPECT AND HONOR MUST BE GIVEN TO THEM. MANY PRIESTS AND NUNS HAVE BEEN OF A "GOOD HEART" TOWARDS THE PEOPLE THEY SERVED, AND HAD THE RIGHT MIND-SET TOWARDS WICKEDNESS AND UNRIGHTEOUSNESS AROUND THEM.