Secrets of the Vatican

Bernard Lecomte,former journalist with the influential catholic daily newspaper La Croix, author of a well regarded biography of Pope Jean-Paul II has just published an interesting book : »Les secrets du Vatican »(Perrin 2009).Lecomte is a fine connoisseur of Vatican intrigue and whispered secrets.

Starting with Pope Benedict XV’s desire to have the papacy regain a role in international affairs and ending with Pope Benedict XVI,the former Panzerkardinal, the author highlights « secrets » from the reigns of each of these eight popes. Conspiracy buffs will delight in reading why the Holy See has no interest in proving the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin but will be disappointed by the revelation of the Third Secret of Fatima, by Lecomte’s explanation of Pope John Paul I’s death ,by his views on the Roberto Calvi affair ( Msgr Marcinkus was not dishonest, merely stupefyingly incompetent in financial matters  and Calvi was likely in the clutches of the Cosa Nostra) and by his belief that the Bulgarian connection in the case of Ali Agça’s attempted assassination of John Paul II is a figment of conspiracy theorists’ imagination.

Students of parliamentary procedure will appreciate how John XXIII and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith battled for control of the committees (and their agendas!) for the preparation of Vatican II, how in the discussions within the all-important Theology Committee the high prelates pushing for the adoption of dogmatic-legalistic view of the Doctrine tried to thwart the biblico-pastoral views of the majority and how ,in fine,the Pope’s discovery of his terminal illness decided him to boldly go where no Pope had gone before in his famous opening speech Gaudet mater ecclesia.

Students of politics will delight in the description of the relationship between Mussolini and Pius XI that resulted in the Lateran Accords granting the independent legal status to Vatican City, in how John Paul II’ s political skills ( and accurate intelligence) allowed him to box in Jaruleski  in the matter of Walesa’s Solidarnórsć having correctly anticipated Gorbatchev’s reactions and will truly appreciate the beauty of John Paul II’s move to neutralize the Opus Dei by canonizing its founder José Maria Escriva de Balaguer in 2002.

That being said what struck me most is what the stories told by the author showed without expressly making the point: how at various critical junctures in history one finds men on the front lines of history and one finds those same men later ascending to the throne of Saint Peter.

For Benedict XV the Russian revolution presented an opportunity. For him, the elimination of the tsars, historical supporters of the Orthodox Church meant that there was an opening to help the Russian Catholics. To help him accomplish his goals of helping Russian Catholics and of restoring the papacy’s role in international affairs, Benedict XV relied on two nuncios Achille Ratti ( Pius XI) in Poland and Eugenio Pacelli (Pius XII) in Berlin. The new Soviet regime was anxious to gain recognition and Benedict XV hoped to dangle the recognition card to secure the future of Catholics in the new Soviet State.

Benedict XV died and on February 6, 1922 Achille Ratti is elected as his successor taking the name Pius XI.In 1924, Pius XI continues the strategy of Benedict XV and sends Nuncio Pacelli, the future Pius XII, to negotiate secretly with Lenin and in 1925 Pius XI secretly reestablishes a catholic hierarchy in the USSR asking Nuncio Pacelli  to secretly ordain 46-year old Jesuit Michel d’Herbigny as a bishop for all the USSR at a secret ceremony in Berlin.

Of all the recent popes none has been more controversial than the erstwhile nuncio to Berlin, Eugenio Pacelli elected in 1939 as Pius XII,following Pius XI « who could see clearly and far » .Pius XI  had the courage to promulgate  encyclicals  condemning the « Action française » (1926),fascism (« Non abbiamo bisogno« 1931 ) ,Nazism (« Mit brennender Sorge » 1937),and communism ( « Divini Redemptoris » 1937).

Pius XII came from a long line of people close to the Holy See: his grandfather founded the Osservatore Romano and his father as dean of the Holy See lawyers negotiated the Lateran Accords. Pius XII was himself an experienced negotiator of concordats (Serbia 1914, Baveria 1924, Prussia 1929, Baden 1929) who after 12 years as nuncio to Berlin thought he could get to some form of concordat with Hitler.

The legalistic training of Pius XII is, according to Lecomte, the reason underlying Pius XII’s silence on the death camps.Lecomte recounts how UK ambassador Osborne gave a complete dossier on the death camps to Msgr Tardini on December 18, 1942 with the message that the UK and US governments suggest the Pope should use it for his Christmas message to the world. Pius XII refused to take sides not wanting to provoke Hitler any further and believed that he, like a judge, had a duty of reserve. Yet, he was not afraid to use the Church’s buildings throughout Rome to shelter the some 5000 Roman Jews threatened by the Nazis.

The infamous Finaly affair-Jewish child baptized as toddler to protect against Nazi extermination kidnapped by nuns to prevent return to natural Jewish parents and relapse into Judaism- saw the nuncio to Paris Angelo Roncalli ,the future John XXIII siding with the errant nuns while the Pope’s assistant Montini ,the future Paul VI tried to find a negotiated solution.

Similarly, the influence of those titans of the Church can be discerned in the experiment with worker-priests in France. None other than Karol Wojtyla, the future John Paul II, visits Marseille in 1947 to study the experiment of Father Loew: to regain traction with the proletariat more and more taken by the Marxist gospel, priests were sent to work as ordinary factory workers without cassock and collar. The future Paul VI approves the publication of an Italian translation of father Loew’s book on the worker-priests experiment.

The very same Paul VI wrestled in 1968 with the problem of contraceptive pills for Catholics. In 1930, Pius XI had authorized the natural Ogino method in Casti Connubii.The issue was whether a chemical method should be approved by the Church. Paul VI appointed a blue-ribbon panel of experts,theologians,medical researchers and –innovation-two catholic couples .The panel recommended the approval of the Pill, no doubt in part influenced by the Canadian wife, Colette Poitvin, who asked the panel’s theologians whether they thought God was more likely to ask a woman « did you love » or « did you take your temperature » ?Yet Paul VI hesitated and was finally swayed by the up-and-coming bishop of Kracow he quickly promoted to cardinal, Karol Wojtyla who had written a book “Love and Responsibility” on the meaning of Christian love. And so Paul VI went against his experts’ advice and issued Humanae vitae condemning the Pill.

Scandalmongers will no doubt be disappointed by Lecomte’s book but historians will be grateful for his lifting the veil of secrecy over many temporal/spiritual issues that confronted those eight most recent Popes.