Arts & Books Books

Infiltration: an unconvincing tale of the Church’s enemies

This account of ‘infiltration’ is fair-minded but sloppy, says Joseph Shaw

Infiltration: The Plot to Destroy the Catholic Church from Within
By Taylor Marshall
Crisis Publications 224pp, £19.75/$24.95

In 1846, Pope Pius IX condemned schemes aiming at the destruction of the Papal States by Freemasons. In 1851, Mélanie Calvat, the seer of La Salette, sent an account of her visions to the pope, including the prediction that “Rome will lose the Faith”. In 1907, Pope Pius X condemned the heresy of Modernism, which, he said, had infiltrated the Church. In 1917, the Blessed Virgin Mary warned the seers of Fatima about the “errors of Russia”. Can these, and later developments in the history of the Church, be woven into a single narrative, which would pinpoint what really threatens her, and enable her loyal children to defend her more effectively?

The title and opening pages of Taylor Marshall’s book suggest the answer is “yes”. But Marshall signally fails to deliver on this promising start. The white smoke issuing prematurely from the conclave of 1958; the mysterious death of Roberto Calvi, a banker involved in Vatican finances, in 1978; the sudden death of Pope John Paul I in 1979; the contradictory accounts given by Mehmet Ali Ağca, who attempted to kill Pope John Paul II in 1981, about who commissioned him: these and other mysteries are recounted in this book, but rather than linking them to some intriguing conspiracy, Marshall doesn’t even offer readers a firm opinion about what really happened, or why they might be important.

Freemasons, communists, Modernists, and Mafia bankers are not figments of the imagination, and all certainly strove to use the Catholic Church for their own ends in the course of the late 19th and 20th centuries. The difficulties a would-be Dan Brown has is not so much a lack of material, as its confusing abundance. A compelling narrative requires that these groups worked together, but this is extremely implausible. Stalin persecuted the Freemasons, and his successors delayed the implementation in central Europe of the liturgical reforms which followed the Second Vatican Council by up to 20 years, as did the Chinese communists. The Mafia’s liturgical preferences, judging from their gaudy funerals, seem to centre on bling, but their money can corrupt people right across the ideological spectrum.

Perhaps in an attempt to keep things simple, Marshall does not mention some of the most important historical developments of his chosen time frame. The deal between the Holy See and the Soviet Union prior to Vatican II to ensure the presence of Russian Orthodox observers at the Council (which was presumably linked to the Council secretariat mysteriously “losing” a petition by Council Fathers demanding the condemnation of communism, and to Paul VI’s subsequent friendly policy towards the Soviet Bloc), does not appear in the book. The dramatic change of policy by Pope John Paul II, on the other hand, is an important wrinkle in any theory of communist infiltration of the Church, which needs to be explained.

Even more surprising is Marshall’s failure to incorporate into his narrative a serious discussion of clerical sex abuse. Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò appears as an anti-corruption official in the Vatican governorate; his subsequent role exposing sex abuse is limited mainly to the “Who’s Who in this Book” section at the back.

We now know, however, that clerical abuse was a major problem at least as far back as the 1970s, and given the tendency of abusers to form mutually protective networks, there must be a story to tell about the influence of abusers on the governance of the Church over many decades. Marshall notes that the (supposedly conservative) Marcial Maciel was an abuser, as was the (supposedly liberal) Theodore McCarrick. What is more interesting is what they had in common: sexual libertinism coupled with clericalism. These twin traits, in a range of manifestations, are key to understanding what happened to the Catholic Church in the 20th century, and yet they are scarcely touched on.

In defence of the author, we might say that he is too fair-minded to produce a racy conspiracy theory which would explain all the problems in the Church and tie up all the loose ends. But this not to say that his book has been carefully researched and written: it is characterised by sloppy accounts of historical phenomena, inconsistencies and factual errors.

To give a few examples, in 1859 Pius IX did not order his version of the Prayers After Low Mass to be said throughout the Church: only in the Papal States. If, as is suggested, Annibale Bugnini became a Mason in 1963, it is hardly surprising that Pius XII, who died in 1958, had not heard about it. Benedict XVI has not retained the “Fisherman’s Ring” since his resignation. The quotation dubiously attributed to Pius X, about striking Modernists without asking too many questions, is hardly vindicated by a footnote reference to John Cornwall.

What Catholics need today in order to understand the Church and to work effectively for her good, is a careful clarification of the key theological issues, of her recent history, and of the current ecclesial political scene. They will have to seek these things somewhere other than Marshall’s book.

Joseph Shaw is chairman of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales