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Power and secrecy feed conspiracy theories in Vatican City

NCR Staff

Within hours after the Swiss Guards murders in the Vatican on May 4, the whispering began about what had really happened. Did the tragedy spring from a lovers’ triangle gone sour? Perhaps Opus Dei was involved -- it was reported in the Italian press that two of the three dead were members, a claim Opus Dei denied. Some even suggested that one or more of the victims were East German spies. (NCR, June 5.)

Whatever the truth -- and it may well have happened just as the Vatican said it did, in a “fit of madness” -- the skepticism surrounding that explanation illustrates one of the few iron laws of human behavior: Secrecy breeds speculation. The more hush-hush an institution is, the more people will smell something to hide and try to ferret it out. When ferreting fails, they’ll turn to guesswork, and thus are conspiracy theories born.

Curiosity, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Unless the Holy See is more forthcoming, some intrepid journalist will soon publish The Swiss Guards Cover-Up, and people will snatch up copies like powerball tickets.

The Vatican has been down this road before. In that light, this is probably an opportune moment to look back at the greatest Vatican-related conspiracy theories of all time -- the pick, as it were, of the cabalistic litter. But even these “Top 7” represent merely a small sampling of the literally thousands of alleged schemes, plots and scandals that have bubbled up in the Eternal City over the past 2,000 years. They range from total fiction (as far as we know) to matters of historical record, and traipsing through them can be alternately hilarious and horrifying.

Taken together, this litany of real and imagined duplicity illustrates the astonishing readiness of people to believe the Vatican capable of just about anything -- and the Vatican’s equally astounding capacity, all too often, to merit that cynicism.

No. 7: Jesus and family

This one goes all the way back to the beginning, to the events at the heart of Christianity: Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection three days later. According first to Hugh Schonfield in his 1967 book, The Passover Plot, and expanded later into a near-cosmic conspiracy stretching over two millennia by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln in Holy Blood, Holy Grail (Dell, 1982), those events are indeed mysteries, but of the Sherlock Holmes rather than the supernatural sort.

Schonfield conjectured that Jesus faked his death on the cross. In one version of the argument, the wine mixed with a drug offered to Jesus just before the crucifixion (Mt 27:34) was actually a soporific intended to help him simulate death. His followers revived Jesus three days later, and voilá: the Resurrection. Great theater, Schonfield said, but hardly a time-to-change-religions sort of miracle.

How is this plot Vatican-related? Enter Messrs. Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln, who more or less go along with Schonfield, though their central claim is even more startling: Whether or not Jesus expired on the cross, he had at least one assignation with Mary Magdalene, giving her a child and Jesus an heir. After lying low for a while, the “Jesus family” legged it to the Provençal region of France, where they founded the Merovingian dynasty of French warrior-kings, rumored to have gnarly mystical powers.

Following one of history’s great betrayals in the eighth century, when the pope recognized the Carolingian dynasty and dumped the Merovingians, Jesus’ descendants variously founded or co-opted a number of secret organizations, most notably the Knights Templars, and the Priory of Sion, all to a single end: to protect the royal bloodline of Jesus himself. The authors even tracked down someone they claimed to be Jesus’ current living relative, a mousy-looking Frenchman named Pierre Plantard de Saint-Clair, who was mum on whether he’s getting ready to take over the world.

Thus the Baigent group’s great “revelation”: The Holy Grail of medieval legend is actually a coded reference to the Holy Blood of Jesus’ descendants, which knights and other assorted good guys swore to protect and defend. In their sequel, The Messianic Legacy, Baigent and gang actually sound like campaign managers for Plantard, arguing that a “theocratic United States of Europe” under Jesus’ descendant could be a really good thing.

Natch, the pope is the great villain of this story. Ask yourself: Who stands to lose the most if it turns out Jesus’ great-great-great-great grandson is running around today? The Holy Father, of course, since his claim to be head of the church would pale in comparison to a blood connection to the Big Guy. So over the years, various pontiffs have tried in nefarious ways to extinguish the memory of Jesus’ bloodline, but (obviously) with little success -- Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln’s books staking this very claim sold millions of copies in the 1980s.

Of course, all of this is all wild speculation (as far as we know). But Holy Blood, Holy Grail does make gripping reading -- along the way the authors manage to work in the Visigoths, the Cathar heresy, the conquest of the Holy Land, Renaissance artwork and, inevitably, the Nazis, who supposedly went tear-ing around Europe looking for the Grail. And if in a few years you see Pierre Plantard’s smiling face on the new Eurodollar, remember, you heard it here first.

No. 6: The plot to kill Leo X

The Borgias, and especially Alexander VI, get most of the press when it comes to the let-the-good-times-roll spirit of the Renaissance papacy. Truthfully, though, there were a lot of other Catholic dynasties that knew how to have a good time in those days, not least another of the great Italian families, the de’ Medici. In fact, no one knew how to paint Rome red better than Giovanni de’ Medici, a.k.a. Leo X (1513-1521).

At 7, Giovanni had been made an abbot; he was a cardinal by 13 (he still could not beat Benedict IX’s record of becoming pope at 11, however). If the rumors are to be believed, Giovanni was an “adventurous” homosexual. In any event, he took the throne of St. Peter without the usual gaggle of bastard children looking to receive benefices.

What we know about Leo is mostly derived from later historians, many of whom, like Dante, took a dim view of the libertine excesses of this era. In other words, some of what follows may be unreliable -- but it’s a damn good yarn nevertheless. Peter De Rosa, among others, recounts the story in his 1988 account, Vicars of Christ (Crown).

Allegedly Giovanni’s first words upon becoming pope were, “Now I can really enjoy myself.” He wasn’t kidding. He became legendary for offering meals of 65 courses or more, during which nightingales might fly out of pies or naked boys out of puddings. His jester once entertained him by eating 40 eggs at one sitting (proving the wisdom of George Kennedy in “Cool Hand Luke” that “no one can eat 50 eggs”). Hundreds of poems were written in honor of Leo’s favorite pet, a white elephant, which Leo housed in the Belvedere. The Vatican Library actually contains a diary of the elephant’s social engagements.

Leo’s income never did match his expenses, despite the royalties he collected from licensing the operation of Rome’s brothels. He invented offices in the curia that he could auction off -- his predecessor had 650 such offices, while Leo had 2,150. He was also a great patron of the arts.

Perhaps due to Leo’s cash shortfalls, several cardinals accused him of welching on campaign promises of kickbacks to them and plotted to assassinate him. According to one account, the ringleader of the rebellion hit upon an ingenious strategy: His Holiness was being treated for hemorrhoids, and the doctor was amenable to a bribe. The plan was to insert poison directly into the pontiff’s rear end.

The plot backfired when a letter from one conspirator to another was intercepted and relayed to Leo. Under torture, the doctor confessed and was drawn and quartered. Catholic henchmen were prevented under the terms of canon law from dispatching the offending cardinal, so Leo hired a Moor to do the deed. Rumor has it that the assassin used a crimson silk cloth to strangle His Eminence -- on Vatican grounds.

Leo continued living the good life for several more years. Meanwhile, it was during his reign, in November 1517, that Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral.

No. 5: The gunpowder plot

No highlight reel of papal plotting would be complete without the Jesuits, the stormtroopers of the counter-reformation. During the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603), scores of Jesuits were sent into England on secret missions by the pope, often to give succor to the Stuarts, seen as the last best hope of restoring Catholic rule.

These commando-priests would skulk from place to place, hearing confessions, baptizing children and taking part in political intrigue aimed at advancing the Catholic cause. The Jesuits and their crown-appointed pursuers, the poursuivants, played an elaborate game of Spy vs. Spy -- records from both sides are filled with references to invisible ink, fake wigs and techniques to disguise one’s voice.

After Elizabeth died in 1603, Catholics rejoiced as one of their own, James I, took the throne. When he dashed any hopes of bringing back that old-time religion, however, certain loyal sons of the church were driven to more desperate measures. Guy Fawkes, a member of the Catholic landed gentry, and a band of co-conspirators smuggled enough gunpowder into the Parliament building to blow the whole place sky-high, hoping to take down the royal family and key Protestant politicos all at once. November 5th was set as the day, but someone tipped off the intended targets. Fawkes and his band were beheaded.

Ever since, November 5th has been celebrated as a national holiday in England, Guy Fawkes Day. Schoolchildren learn this rhyme:

Though Fawkes and company almost certainly acted alone, it was widely assumed throughout England for centuries to come that the Jesuits and, through them, the pope, were in on the plot. Given all the real schemes that had come and gone, it seemed an eminently reasonable belief.

As a postscript to this story, the theme of Jesuit subversion continued into the reign of James II, who threatened to bring England back into the Catholic fold. When he sired a male heir, it was too much for the Protestant English majority. Rumors began to circulate that the infant was not James’ son at all -- that the Jesuits had impregnated a nun and smuggled the infant into the queen’s bedchambers. In fact, some scholars believe the nursery rhyme “Rockabye, Baby” originated as a derisive reference to this child and its subsequent misfortunes.

Not long afterward, William of Orange arrived to deliver Britain from this “papistical chaos,” and the prospect of a Roman Catholic England evaporated once and (maybe?) for all.

No. 4: Satanism in the Vatican

Though long whispered about on the far Catholic right, the idea of practicing Satanists among high-ranking Vatican officials had its coming-out party, so to speak, in 1996.

First came a statement in that year by Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo, nicknamed the “Zambian witchdoctor” because of his enthusiasm for exorcism, at something called the Fatima 2000 International Congress on World Peace in Rome, sponsored by Fr. Nicholas Gruner’s Fatima Crusade. Milingo, who works at the Vatican as the Special Delegate to the Pastoral Council for the Pastoral Care of Immigrants and Itinerants, claimed to have firsthand knowledge that high-ranking curial officials were, in fact, worshipping the Prince of Darkness.

Also in 1996, Malachi Martin published a novel called Windswept House (Doubleday), which featured in its opening pages a scene of curial prelates installing the Lord of This World on a throne in St. Peter’s under the cover of darkness. Though styled as a work of fiction, Martin clearly implied the substance of his account was on the money.

Some background is in order here. Milingo served as archbishop of the Lusaka diocese in Zambia until he was pressured to step down in 1982, when his passion for traditional African sorcery became too much even for the tastes of his fellow Zambians. You can’t unmake a bishop, of course, so Milingo came to Rome to occupy a Vatican sinecure, with the unstated but obvious expectation that he would go gently into that good night.

The archbishop, however, had other plans. He took upon himself a roving apostolate as an exorcist, moving from one spot in Italy to another. As his legend grew, he began to attract crowds in the thousands, and certain Italian prelates -- such as Cardinal Carlo Martini of Milan, often mentioned as papabile -- have actually banned him from operating in their territory. In 1996, Milingo released an album of his “healing chants” called “Gubudu Gubudu,” which became a best-seller in Italy.

Martin is perhaps slightly more sophisticated if no less wedded to the “devil made them do it” school of Vaticanology. Martin is a former Jesuit, former associate of Cardinal Augustin Bea during Vatican II, and a former junior professor at the Biblical Institute in Rome. Peter Hebblethwaite, writing in NCR in 1987 on the occasion of the publication of Martin’s The Jesuits (Simon & Schuster) -- which alleged that the sons of Ignatius had sold out to the forces of Marxism, among other things -- called Martin a “highly successful con man who kissed the Blarney stone.”

Over the years, Martin has drifted further and further into the realm of paranoia, finding in Milingo a chum inside the Vatican walls. Both men are favorite sons of the Catholic far right. In a curious development, Martin was asked by CNN recently to provide color commentary when John Paul visited Cuba. One can only hope that next CNN will ask one of the Montana Freemen to provide analysis of the FBI.

Anyway, the nut of the Satanism in the Vatican theory is this: Key curial officials have sold their souls to the Lord of the Flies and believe that the church must cast aside its transcendent preoccupations (read: belief in the afterlife, God and so on) in order to get on with the work of building a one-world government in which human liberty is eradicated and freedom of conscience suppressed. (The irony, of course, is that lots of people think the church was better at suppressing liberty and conscience when it was most hung up on those “transcendent preoccupations.”) These curial apostates are busy subverting John Paul and advancing a one-world vision in conjunction with the European Union, the United Nations and so on. This theory is widely discussed on the Internet and in the pages of publications such as The Fatima Crusader.

Both Martin and Milingo believe John Paul is on the side of the angels, but all bets are off at the next consistory.

No. 3: Dragonovic’s ratline

After World War II, U.S. intelligence agents were anxious to nab certain key personnel from the Axis powers lest they fall into Russian hands. In some cases, we sought scientists. Wernher von Braun, for example, became an American national hero in the 1960s and 1970s for getting us to the moon -- drawing on the expertise he developed in building Nazi Germany’s V-2 rocket program.

In other cases, the United States needed spies. In some instances, in fact, the United States simply “adopted” pre-existing German spy rings with contacts in Eastern Europe and Russia. To keep these valuable assets in business, it was necessary to gloss over a few unpleasantries -- such as the fact that many of them were obvious Nazis whose fingerprints were all over the Holocaust.

That’s a tall order to overlook, especially in a world hungry for justice. To shuttle these guys in and out of Europe, U.S. operatives needed help. Enter the Vatican, in the person of Msgr. Krunoslov Dragonovic, a Croatian priest who conducted refugee work for the Holy See after the war from his office at the Istituto di St. Jeronimos in Rome. It is now clear that many of the “refugees” Dragonovic aided were, in fact, ex-Ustachi -- Croatian fascists who enthusiastically collaborated with the Nazis. Many were wanted by the Allies as war criminals. In fact, the good monsignor himself was arguably a war criminal. A U.S. Justice Department report said he was responsible for the mass deportation of Serbs and Jews from Croatia. The details are recounted by Christopher Simpson in his 1988 book, Blowback (Weidenfeld & Nicholson).

Nevertheless Dragonovic, under the aegis of the Vatican, was able to draw upon the worldwide Catholic Relief Services network to provide false identity papers, letters of transit and modes of transport for his Ustachi buddies and other Nazi contacts. In espionage jargon, such an escape route is known as a “ratline.” Many of his escapees ended up in South America and became the core of far-right paramilitary groups in those nations.

In the course of doing business, U.S. military intelligence agents reached a de facto working agreement with Dragonovic, the terms of which were mutually beneficial: The United States turned a blind eye to the bad guys going down the monsignor’s ratline, and in turn he expedited the flight of figures important to American spymasters.

Dragonovic wasn’t the only Catholic contact who proved useful to American intelligence agents -- the Catholic organization Intermarium, for example, played a key role in smuggling ex-Nazis out of Europe and in setting up exile groups of anti-communists from all the Eastern bloc nations. But it was Dragonovic who conspired with the Americans to pull off the most audacious ratline operation of all, spiriting Klaus Barbie, the so-called “Butcher of Lyons,” off to Argentina.

Barbie, infamous for his brutality as the Gestapo chief of Lyons, France, where he was said to have tortured and murdered hundreds of civilians, fled to Munich toward the end of the war. There he put together spy rings that penetrated French intelligence as well as into Ukraine and Romania. These resources were considered valuable enough that U.S agents snatched Barbie away from British officers seeking to send him to Nuremberg, put him on the U.S. payroll and shielded him from arrest. Later, when things got too hot, Barbie’s handlers turned to Dragonovic to get him out of Europe.

The monsignor was happy to oblige, and presto-chango, Barbie was Klaus Altman of Buenos Aires. More than 30 years passed before Barbie was apprehended in Bolivia and sent to France to stand trial. In the meantime, Barbie is rumored to have had a hand in numerous right-wing and crypto-facist activities in South America.

There is no evidence that Pius XII was specifically aware of any of these goings-on. Nonetheless, the pope had to be aware of the general picture: Ex-Nazis were using Vatican offices to flee Europe. Why would he tolerate it?

One word: anti-communism. The Vatican all along regarded the atheistic Soviet Union, not Nazi Germany, as the ultimate global threat. In the years prior to World War II, that analysis had closely aligned the Vatican with a number of conservative Christian Democratic and clerical-fascist parties in Eastern Europe. Those governments that extended the quickest welcome to the Nazis were almost invariably Catholic -- Slovakia under Monsignor Jozef Tiso, for example, and Croatia under Ante Pavelic. Indeed, the basic Catholic calculus of most of the 20th century was to the effect that an anti-communist is a friend of the church.

As for Dragonovic, he maintained a healthy sideline in currency smuggling in addition to his refugee work, at least according to three priests who testified against him in a 1960 Italian trial. The Croatian exile press reported in 1967 that Dragonovic was kidnapped and taken to Tito’s Yugoslavia, where he was executed -- but other accounts had him living peacefully in Zagreb, Croatia, until he died of natural causes in 1983.

No. 2: The Templars and Friday the 13th

In its day, the Knights Templars were something like a cross between Opus Dei and the U.S. Marines. It was the most spectacularly successful Catholic order of the medieval period. It also fell victim to one of the most audacious plots in church history.

The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon was formed in the early 1100s, during the time of the first crusade, as a band of knights who took oaths to protect pilgrimage sites along the route to the Holy Land. Because the group was born on Mount Sion, the site of Solomon’s temple, they became known as Knights Templars, or just the Templars.

Basically the group’s origins were military -- these were out-of-work mercenaries looking for something to do after kicking the Saracens out of Jerusalem. Over time, however, the Templars evolved into a quasi-mystical, highly secretive body given special protection by the pope, with both lay and clerical members (ring any bells, Opus Dei fans?). At one point they planned to take over the island of Cyprus (much like the Hospitaller knights eventually did with Malta), but as the crusades petered out the Templars instead filtered back into Europe. There they established “temples” and became an important political force. They also became, at least by reputation, incredibly rich.

Enter Philip the Fair of France. In 1306, Philip had two problems. First, he saw the Templars as a potential military threat, especially since the shrewd Edward I of England had brought them into his campaign against Scotland. Second, Philip was broke. He saw destroying the Templars as the key to solving both problems.

Philip’s advantage was that he ruled smack dab in the middle of the “Babylonian captivity” of the papacy, its 70-odd year exile in Avigon, France. Pope Clement V, if not exactly Philip’s bosom buddy, at least knew where his bread was buttered and was willing to play ball. Clement wasn’t shy about turning a good dollar himself, since at the time he was doing a nice trade in indulgences.

So, Philip and Clement got together and decided to bushwhack the Templars -- no mean feat, given the order’s international reach and its vast resources. The conspirators knew a highly coordinated, all-at-once strike was the key. Philip arranged a dress rehearsal by having all the Jews in France arrested on the same day -- in a telling witness to the anti-Semitism of the time, Philip figured this action would go without much notice, and he was right.

With all the plans in place, Philip gave the order, and on Friday the 13th of October, 1307, every Templar in France was taken into the king’s custody -- the origin, by the way, of the superstition that Friday the 13th is an unlucky day.

It certainly was for the Templars. Clement V charged them with heresy and permitted them to be tortured to extract confessions -- quite a turnabout, since the rules of the Inquisition specifically exempted members of papal orders from being put on the rack. As far as what the heresy was, all sorts of wild tales were adduced -- that Templars spit on the crucifix during their rituals, that they worshipped a demon named Baphomet, that they practiced witchcraft, that homosexuality among members was approved, even that during the initiation rite new members were required to kiss the presiding officer in an obscene place.

Most of this, if not all, was pure fiction. The Templars were admittedly odd ducks, but by the 1300s it was largely a social club. It didn’t matter, though -- the accusations served their purpose, and the Templars were condemned, their gold and real estate in France largely split up between the crown and the Holy See. Hundreds of members were roasted or hanged.

As a postscript, Philip had the grandmaster of the Templars, Jacques DeMolay, trotted out for public display near the end of this affair, ostensibly for the purpose of admitting his order’s guilt. DeMolay, however, used the occasion to protest the Templars’ innocence. Philip promptly had him burned, but not before DeMolay allegedly managed to pronounce a curse upon Philip and Clement, inviting them to join him before God in judgment. Philip and Clement were both dead within the year.

No. 1: The Vatican Bank, the Gorilla and the Shark

This is the mother of all Vatican conspiracies. On one level, it’s a tale of international finance gone wrong. During the 1960s and 1970s, the Vatican Bank (formally called the Institute for the Works of Religion, known by its Latin acronym IOR) got involved with two Italian financiers -- Michele Sindona and Roberto Calvi. Sindona was among the richest men in Italy, and Calvi was his protégé. Both at different times acted as chief financial adviser to the Vatican Bank, then under the direction of American Archbishop Paul Marcinkus.

Marcinkus, who grew up in Al Capone’s hometown of Cicero, Ill., had acted as a bodyguard for Paul VI -- earning the nickname “the Gorilla,” both for his bulk (Marcinkus is 6’4”) and his ferocious devotion to the pontiff. Out of gratitude, Paul assigned Marcinkus to the Vatican Bank, despite his total lack of financial experience. Sindona -- who had been a friend of Paul’s when he was Cardinal Montini of Milan -- solved that problem by acting as Marcinkus’ tutor.

Some teacher. In 1974, Sindona (known as “the Shark” in the pre-Greg Norman days) was arrested as his financial empire collapsed, taking down the Franklin Bank in the United States and a host of banks in Europe. It was clear to everyone involved that Sindona had exploited his ties to the Vatican to dupe investors into backing his schemes. While he fought extradition to Italy, American police charged him with almost a hundred counts of fraud.

Out on $3 million bail in 1979, Sindona claimed to have been kidnapped and smuggled back into Italy, only to subsequently admit he had faked the whole thing. In a bizarre sidelight, Sindona later said his purpose for returning to Italy was to induce Sicily to secede and to present itself to America as the 51st state. In any event, Sindona was extradited to Italy in 1984 and imprisoned there.

Meanwhile Calvi had problems of his own. The centerpiece of his empire was the Banco Ambrosiano in Milan, once a sleepy little bank set up specifically for Catholics -- at one time, depositors had to produce a baptismal certificate to open an account. Calvi built it into one of Italy’s largest banks, in the process making himself rich. He accomplished this by setting up a series of offshore shell companies and conning other banks into lending them billions, which they in turn used to buy shares in Banco Ambrosiano, thus driving the bank’s value sky-high. Problem was, Calvi had no productive assets with which to repay the loans.

Why would anyone in their right mind loan Calvi dough? Because he could boast letters from the Vatican Bank that said the Holy See owned the shell companies, thus lending a pontifical seal of approval to Calvi’s request. Later, after Ambrosiano’s collapse, the Vatican denied any ownership role. In 1984 the Vatican put up $240 million to partially pay off Ambrosiano debts said to be nearly $1.3 billion but denied any “moral or legal” culpability. Marcinkus said in a 1990 interview that the Vatican “should never have made that payment” and that the Italians “should look at their own banking system.”

These financial shenanigans -- all part of the legal record in the United States and Italy -- barely scratch the surface of what has been rumored and conjectured to have actually gone on. For one thing, it’s alleged that both Sindona and Calvi had deep connections to the Sicilian Mafia, and that Calvi was funneling substantial amounts of Mafia money into those offshore companies. Italian prosecutors have charged that the Vatican Bank played a role in laundering that money, charges that the Vatican has denied. The Holy See has steadfastly refused to cooperate in Italian investigations.

Four confessed ex-Mafia members facing trial in Italy also stated in 1994 that Marcinkus had funneled mob money, which he denied. Marcinkus stepped down from the IOR in 1990 after living as a virtual prisoner in the Vatican for much of 1983-88 (John Paul II shielded him from arrest by Italian authorities). Today Marcinkus lives in retirement in Sun City, Ariz.

One hint of mafia involvement in the affair may be that Sindona and Calvi both died under mysterious circumstances. Sindona died in an Italian prison in 1986 after drinking a cup of coffee laced with strychnine, yelling “They have poisoned me.” Despite that, an Italian judge ruled his death a suicide.

Calvi was found hanging under Blackfriars Bridge in London in 1982. Though his death was also initially ruled a suicide, many speculate Calvi was murdered by Mafiosi irritated at losses of millions in mob money. Investigators believe that the aging, corpulent Calvi would have been unable to hang himself in the manner in which he was found -- even stuntmen have been unable to re-create the act. Moreover, if he had died from hanging he would have fallen at least three feet, but the body showed no signs of cartilage or tissue damage. Just this past June 25, an Italian judge ordered that Calvi’s body be exhumed to settle the question once and for all.

Also lurking in the shadows of the affair is the infamous P-2, or “propaganda due,” Italian Freemasons under Grandmaster Licio Gelli. P-2 cut a wide swath through the upper echelons of Italian society, claiming politicians, financiers, even curial officials as members. Gelli -- whose international tentacles reached as far as Argentina, where he had been instrumental in bringing Juan Peron to power -- was widely seen as an éminence grise of the Italian political scene for most of the Cold War era.

Gelli was up to his neck in Calvi and Sindona’s schemes. Indeed, many have suggested that Gelli might have had a role in Calvi’s murder. When the British police cut Calvi’s body down, they found his suit had been stuffed with 12 pounds of bricks, a traditional symbol of masonry. In an exclusive 1982 interview with NCR’s Arthur Jones, Sindona asserted a long-standing connection with Gelli, including having introduced Calvi to Gelli. Calvi, he said, subsequently became a P-2 member.

Through the P-2 anti-communist connection, there were rumors that Banco Ambrosiano dollars went to far-right newspapers in South America, even that the money was used to finance Exocet missiles for Argentina in the Falkland Islands War with England. None has been definitively proven or refuted.

In the nexus uniting Sindona, Calvi, Marcinkus and Gelli lies the most explosive claim connected to the Vatican Bank: that Albino Luciani, the “smiling pope” of 33 days who took the name of John Paul I, was murdered because he intended to close down the Vatican Bank and expose the P-2 infiltration of the church. That argument was made in the 1984 book In God’s Name (Bantam Books) by British journalist David Yallop. No less an eminence than Andrew Greeley contributed a blurb saying that under “present conditions” it was “possible to think a pope could have been murdered.”

If today few would defend Yallop’s thesis, it is true, at the very least, that the Vatican handled John Paul I’s death clumsily. At first it claimed the pope’s secretary found the body, but later admitted that it was a nun who (gasp!) had gone to the pope’s quarters unescorted. No autopsy was ever performed, and to this day no cause of death has been established.

As a final postscript to illustrate the cloak-and-dagger absurdity of this story, a Czech bishop, Pavel Hnilica, was indicted by an Italian court in 1992 for paying $2.8 million to buy the briefcase Calvi was carrying just before he died. Hnilica bought the briefcase from a business associate of Calvi, Flavio Carboni, who had been looking to sell it to the highest bidder. It was rumored to contain papers documenting the Vatican’s role in Calvi’s activities, and was under subpoena by Italian authorities. Hnilica, a longtime Roman resident with close Vatican ties, said he was acting on his own, though no one has satisfactorily explained where he dug up the $2.8 million to close the deal.

The Vatican has always maintained that this affair has been exaggerated, distorted and subject to the wildest speculation. That is no doubt so. But even on the most innocent interpretation, the fact remains that the pope’s own banker involved the Holy See in illegal and immoral activities in the pursuit of earthly riches, and the Vatican subsequently deceived, inveigled and obfuscated about what had gone on.

Not a pretty picture. And once again, the harder the Vatican tried to keep the picture pretty, the taller the conspiracy tales grew.

National Catholic Reporter, July 31, 1998