The Catholic Right

The Catholic Right

Andrew Brown for Andrew Yates

Not many people know that Pope Paul VI was kidnapped by three communist cardinals and replaced by an imposter surgically altered to resemble the late pontiff — largely because it isn’t true. But the story is devoutly believed by some American Roman Catholics who feels themselves betrayed and disenfranchised by the reforms of the Second Vatican Council; others are convinced that the Virgin Mary has foretold a series of terrible chastisements for the world if it does not repent. This underworld where Catholicism shades into cults is the subject of a book to be published next month: the Smoke of Satan, by an American sociologist, Michael Cuneo.

These people are not just loopy: they are surprisingly powerful. Traditionalist Catholics have allied with fundamentalist Protestants to form the motor of the anti-abortion movement in the United States. Their cable station, the Eternal Word Television Network, run by a hatchet-faced 76-year-old nun named Mother Angelica, has over 40m subscribers, and is attempting to expand to this country. It is also the base from which Dana, the Catholic pop singer now running for president of Ireland, has built her popularity.

They are the ones prepared to stand on the pavements outside abortion clinics in an effort to shut them down. They are also the bane of almost all Catholic bishops because of their readiness to denounce to Rome heresy wherever they see it — and they see it in most protest and bishops, and almost all Catholic intellectuals.

Michael Cuneo has travelled widely among the three main tribes of Catholic dissenters. He has spoken with the fanatical anti-abortionists: "Recent studies have shown that half of all American women have had pre-marital sexual intercourse, and that two thirds have had sexual intercourse outside marriage. What does this tell us? Most of all, it tells us that two thirds of American women are fornicating sluts" says one of these, Joseph Scheidler.

Cuneo has talked with the more mainstream conservatives, who believe that the Pope has been betrayed by the Catholic intelligentsia, and by all those bishops and priests who have refused to stress unduly the Catholic ban on birth control. These are the backbone of Mother Angelica’s station. They are also the people who write stern editorials in magazines with a circulation of 10,000 telling the Pope to sharpen up his act. Beyond them, moing progressively further from orthodoxy and even sanity, stretch the other two tribes of dissident Catholicism: the conspiracy theorists and believers in a special revelations form the Virgin Mary.

The followers of Mary are surprisingly influential. The sympathies of Pope John Paul II have clearly been with those Catholics who felt the Second Vatican Council went too far in dissolving traditional beliefs and practices. He is right behind the movements campaigning against contraception and Western feminism. He has made Marian devotion a centrepiece of his theology: indeed he believes that the Virgin Mary saved him in 1981 from being killed an assassin's bullet, which he later presented to her shrine at Fatima, in Portugal.

The cult of Fatima is the focus of one of the Catholic movements which most closely approaches the ravings of the millenarian Protestant fundamentalists. But while Protestants who believe that Russia is about to precipitate the end of the world do so on the basis of biblical prophecies, the Catholic fundamentalists have more up-to-date information: the Virgin Mary told them. At least, she told Sr. Lucia, now an elderly Portuguese nun, who had been one of the three children to see her at Fatima in 1916; and Sister Lucia passed on two of her messages in 1941. One was a vision of hell; the other a demand that the Pope consecrate Russia to her Immaculate Heart. A third message was placed, unread, in an envelope by Sr Lucia's bishop, and has only since been read by Popes. This became the "third secret of Fatima", the Catholic equivalent of fantasies about the Knights Templar or the protocols of the Elders of Zion.

As Cuneo records it "Fatima was regarded by many American Catholics in the Fifties and Sixties as the West's best hope of neutralising the military might of the Soviet Union and halting the spread of communism. If Catholics everywhere were faithful to Fatima, the reasoning went., Russia would be converted and a period of miraculous peace would descend on the earth."

An enterprising priest named Nicholas Gruner started to perpetuate conspiracy theories about Fatima in pages of a pious quarterly magazine, the Fatima Crusader. The circulation rose as a result from 8,000 to 400,000 readers, all agog to hear the full details of the Vatican-Moscow pact, supposedly entered into between Pope John XXIII and Nikita Khruschev. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Gruner, like his Protestant counterparts, found little real difficulty in explaining that communism had somehow survived this as a threat, and switching the focus of his fears onto abortion, aids, crime, drug addiction and so forth. Even when Sister Lucia herself announced that the Pope had done exactly what the Virgin wanted him to, Gruner simply announced that she had been brainwashed, or perhaps replaced by an imposter. His magazine continued to thrive. Cuneo remarks that the Fatima believers did not want "logical consistency or historical plausibility, but rather the promise and anticipation of miraculous intervention."

This is perhaps what explains the survival of these forms of Catholicism and even their strength as the millennium approaches. They prosper because they are irrational. The Second Vatican Council, which all these groups in their different ways reject, was partly an attempt to come to terms with the rationality of the modern, post-enlightenment world. But there are still large numbers of people to whom this was a dreadful mistake. What was inspiring about Catholicism was its refusal to compromise with the hideous modern world; when Evelyn Waugh took this position, he could produce great art. Mother Angelica can at least rise to great camp.

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