The Second Vatican Council marks a hiatus in the history of the Roman Catholic Church. The first document to be formally approved by the Council, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, opened the door for the liturgical use of local languages in the place of Latin. What was believed at the time to be a strictly limited departure in pastoral contexts, led only a few years later to a completely new Rite of the Mass. At the same time, for all the protestations of fidelity to Tradition, shifts in theology led to the propagation of new conceptions of the Church and of the Christian Faith. For some, the Council brought reforms long overdue. For others, it unleashed an unconscionable revolution.
In fact, the busy, idealistic work of coming up to date, the aggiornamento called for by Pope John XXIII, had a precursor in the anti-Catholic secret societies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Much as shadows cast on a wall by a fire relate only dimly to the objects whose shadows they are, but reveal their existence nonetheless, the changes that came to the Church during and after the Council recall the principles and methods developed and used by those societies. This can be seen from one of the conspiracies known to us from that time, the ‘Permanent Instruction of the Alta Vendita.’
The Alta Vendita
Alta Vendita, meaning ‘high market place,’ was the term used by an Italian secret society, the Carbonari, meaning ‘charcoal burners,’ for a coordinating body at its head whose existence was probably unknown to most of the rank and file. A dangerous craft, which kept men in solitude deep in the woods for long periods, charcoal burning was easily associated with dissent and subversion. In most cases, the connection of the secret society to charcoal would have extended no further than using the vocabulary of the craft to hide their conspiratorial activities.
While it is likely that the Carbonari originated with the Illuminati of Bavaria, they emerged into visibility only at the close of the eighteenth century, when the French revolutionary wars had spread to the Italian peninsula. Committed to the ideals of 1789, the Carbonari conspirators were opposed to absolutist rule, as they were to foreign rule on Italian soil. An early objective was the overthrow of the Bonapartist King of Naples, Joachim Murat. The Carbonari aspired to a unified and enfranchised Italy, which they saw as the key to the transformation of Europe, and eventually of all of humanity, into a universal fraternal republic.
Conspiracy of subversion
The Permanent Instruction, which can be dated to the period immediately after the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815), announced a new long-term objective for the Carbonari: the seizure of the power of the Papacy by converting the Church from within to Carbonari principles. The preferred method was for agents of the conspiracy to pose as benevolent educators with orthodox Catholic beliefs. Playing on the truths generally known and accepted by idealistic minds, whether Catholic or not, the human passions, particularly patriotism, were to be excited in support of those forms of life the conspirators wished to see imposed on the coming times. Of particular interest were devout Catholic families which were nourishing vocations to the priesthood. By mentoring young men who would later become priests, the conspirators could exert an influence on the future elite of the Church. Eventually, a Pope would emerge who would be tolerant of such interim objectives as the establishment of constitutional forms of government and the creation of republican nation states.
The Permanent Instruction was circulated to the leadership of the different lodges of the Carbonari over the signature of Nubius, a code-name used by the supreme leader. Allegedly a high-ranking diplomat of noble descent, the figure of Nubius may have been one of the masks worn by Filippo Buonarroti (1761-1837), a man steeped in conspiracy, whom one biographer describes as the very first to make a lifelong profession out of revolution. Buonarroti was indeed a leader of the Carbonari, as he was of many other secret societies, often without them knowing it. If, as has been mooted, the Permanent Instruction was divulged to the Church by Nubius himself, who had lost out in a power struggle, it would strengthen the association of Nubius with Buonarroti. The latter, around 1833, had been forced to withdraw from his leadership role in favour of Giuseppe Mazzini, the founder of ‘Young Italy,’ whom he detested. Against this thesis, one may advance Buonarroti’s oft-stated conviction that revolution in France rather than Italy would provide the key to the utopian future.
A Pope for the conspirators
In proposing a historical model for the kind of Pope the conspirators wished to see on the papal throne, the Permanent Instruction makes an interesting comparison between Popes Alexander VI and Clement XIV. The notoriously corrupt Alexander VI would have been of no use to the conspiracy because he did not err in religious matters. Clement XIV, however, a man widely admired for his personal virtue, was a Pope according to conspiratorial requirements. As the Instruction puts it, Clement had been willing to dilute the Papal power by sharing it with his secular ministers, and because of his tolerance for non-believers, he had surrendered to the opponents of the Church. For Nubius, the conciliatory approach adopted by Pope Clement towards advances in secular knowledge and the rights asserted by secular powers was the kind of religious error on which the anti-Catholic conspiracy could thrive.
After 1815, the Pope still ruled as an absolute monarch in his territories, the Papal States. Yet, the power of the Papacy that Nubius wished to see undermined was primarily of a moral kind. The tolerance of a Pope for what was hostile to his moral authority would be destructively effective all by itself. That tolerance would eventually weaken the Papal authority and bring it to an end, but in a way that seemed natural and inevitable. Indeed, there may be no other means for the power of moral authority to be broken than to persuade him or her who possesses it to renounce it by themselves.
It is perhaps no great surprise that Nubius, this enemy of Christianity, had such an exalted respect for the moral authority of the Pope. Because the Papal teaching could shape the minds of the millions of Catholics all over the world, the Church was an example of the political entity which the conspirators, using different principles, and following different purposes, wished to see established. They would have denied it, but their universal fraternal community was an analogue, though a much distorted one, of the Roman Catholic Church.
The process of subversion
One can easily see where the process of subversion might lead. Key positions in the Roman Curia and in the important dioceses of the Church would be staffed by individuals who sincerely believed that many secular innovations, even if they were not of Christian origin, were in the spirit of Scripture and Tradition. Scholars and theologians who could make an orthodox case for the adoption by the Church of those innovations would be encouraged in their work. At the same time, the understanding of what it means to be Catholic would be sufficiently widened so that the natural and moral sciences of the secular world would, in all but name, emerge as a third source of Divine Revelation. What had been learned from Scripture and Tradition would then require an interpretive recalibration so that it could harmonise with the new knowledge.
In this way, by building on the commonalities between Catholic believers and non-believers of presumed good will, forms of life and expression would be established within the Church which embodied the spirit of unbelief. What the Church once deemed true of one of its more celebrated members, the Knights Templar, would become true of the Church as a whole. Believing that it was serving Christ, or skilfully pretending to, the Church would in fact serve Antichrist. The difference between 1307 and 2007 or 2037 would lie in the lack of a superordinate institutional authority with the wisdom to discern and the power to intervene.
Pope Pius IX
The exigencies faced by the Catholic Church in the 1840s provide circumstantial evidence for a process of subversion that may have come close to success. On the death of Pope Gregory XVI in 1846, a short conclave elected the unpolitical, liberal-leaning and pastorally-minded Pope Pius IX. Confronted with revolutionary activity in the Papal States and with persuasive demands for the introduction of constitutional government, Pius, in a conciliatory first act as Pope, declared an amnesty for political prisoners. Immediately, the new Pope was hailed as a beacon of progressive genius by populist movements which were steered by the secret societies. Mazzini himself wrote to the Pope begging him to unite Italy and to take the lead in ushering in a new era of liberty.
It appears that at this very early point in his Pontificate, Pius was preparing for a path of liberalism and tolerance in the spirit of the Permanent Instruction. In 1848, however, when revolutionary fervour took hold across Europe, Pope Pius broke with his Masonic advisors and refused to commit the armies of the Papal States to a patriotic war with Austria. With the Pope’s volte face, a ‘Catholic way of revolution’ was lost. Shortly afterwards, during the opening of the Chamber of Deputies in Rome, Pellegrino Rossi, the Pope’s prime minister, was stabbed in the neck on the steps of the Palazzo della Cancelleria. Some believe that Rossi had been condemned to death by his compatriots in the secret societies for his failure to secure the Papacy for the revolutionary cause. The subsequent course of the long Pontificate of Pius IX was notably hostile to liberalism, in politics as in theology, and intransigent in the assertion of Papal supremacy .
The machinations of 1848, however, would have constituted a departure from the strategy set out in the Permanent Instruction. A ‘Catholic way of revolution,’ in harnessing the Papacy to a mass movement and to the limited political goals of the day, would necessarily have gone beyond the subversion of clerical minds and the creation of a climate of tolerance for liberalism in the Church. Had the Pope followed the call of Mazzini, Garibaldi and others, and had joined in the revolution, it is likely that the Papacy would have been fundamentally altered. Its moral authority, which the original conspirators had hoped to preserve, might have been compromised too soon for their purposes. The temptation faced by Pius IX in 1848 thus reflects more accurately those precipitative minds which had been opposed to Nubius.
The authenticity of the Permanent Instruction
To take seriously the Permanent Instruction of the Alta Vendita, one needs to be reasonably satisfied as to its authenticity. A desciption of how it came to light may help towards making a judgment. Our knowledge of the Instruction is owed to the pen of one man, Jacques Crétineau-Joly (1803-1875), a well-regarded journalist and historian of a decidedly anti-liberal persuasion. By his own account, Crétineau-Joly was summoned to Rome in 1846 by the then Secretary of State, Cardinal Lambruschini, who entrusted to him a collection of papers dealing with the anti-Catholic activities of the secret societies. These papers, which had been in the possession of Lambruschini’s predecessor, Cardinal Bernetti, appeared to have been compiled from the Vatican Archives and from recent police reports. Lambruschini charged Crétineau-Joly with the task of writing a history of the war being waged against the Church by the secret societies. After many vicissitudes, Crétineau-Joly completed his task with the publication of l’Eglise Romaine en face de la Révolution (Paris, 1859). In this influential work, the Permanent Instruction of the Alta Vendita was published for the first time, though in a French translation.
Knowledge of the Permanent Instruction was spread more widely by two later works, The War of Anti-Christ and Christian Civilization (Dublin, London, New York, 1885) by Monsignor George F. Dillon and Le problème de l’heure présente: antagonisme de deux civilisations (Paris, Lille, 1904) by Monsignor Henri Delassus. Like Cretineau-Joly’s before him, Msgr. Dillon’s book was published with the full approbation of the Church. The colophon contains the nihil obstat and the imprimatur from the Archdiocese of Dublin, together with letters of recommendation from the very highest levels of the Church, including the reigning Pope, Leo XIII. It seems that Pope Leo even arranged for an Italian translation at his own expense. Dillon included an English translation of the French version of the Permanent Instruction given by Crétineau-Joly. Crétineau-Joly’s French version was again republished by Delassus, who also had the approbation of the highest levels of the Church. His book is prefaced by an unusually effusive imprimatur from the Archbishop of Cambrai and by a letter of endorsement from the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Merry del Val. The versions of the Permanent Instruction which are available in Italian today seem to derive from Crétineau-Joly, either directly, or through Dillon and Delassus.
The question of verification
The phalanx of official approval which accompanied these books is sometimes understood by Catholic Traditionalists as an authentication of the Permanent Instruction which possesses some kind of notarial force. It is implied that approval would never have been given if the high officials of the Church had not fully satisfied themselves that the document was genuine. While this may be true, an imprimatur is no more than a statement that the contents of a book are not harmful to the Catholic faith and morals. It does not have the purpose of authenticating a document. As to the additional letters of approval, they are general in scope and pertain in each case to the whole book, not specifically to the few pages given to the Permanent Instruction. The only first-hand reading of the Instruction comes from Crétineau-Joly. Given the nature of the times, it is not unlikely that what had been provided to him had been procured by torture in the dungeons of the Papal States. Undeclared scriptorial work by police agents, by Papal bureaucrats, or by Crétineau-Joly himself, cannot be ruled out. What can be said with certainty, however, is that the Church of the day believed itself to be under attack in the way described in the Instruction, and wished the Faithful to be warned.
It is worth noting that each of the three authors central to the spread of the Permanent Instruction, Crétineau-Joly, Dillon and Delassus, places it in the same broad historical context: History is considered the showplace of a war between Atheism and Christianity driven principally by Freemasonry, whose universalist philantropy based on Deism and Natural Religion, erroneous to begin with, has been corrupted still further by the Illuminati of Bavaria. Freemasonry itself is believed to be Jewish in essence. In this, the authors continue a line of reasoning which seeks an explanation for the international influence of the French Revolution, and for the Hermetic and Kabbalistic symbolism used by the secret societies they saw behind it, in an alleged Jewish plot for world domination. Delassus, in particular, because of his membership of the Sodalitium Pianum, an anti-Modernist secret society of priests, looks forward to the unchristian practices of later pro-Nazi clerics. The Sodalitium Pianum employed the unsavoury techniques of spying and anonymous denunciation.
Papal authority today
We can only conclude that the documentary authenticity of the Permanent Instruction cannot be verified. The Instruction retains, however, a halo of truth. To go by the recent history of the Church, the plot it describes, or some later version of it, may well have succeeded. In a radio address in 1962, shortly before the opening of the Second Vatican Council, in which he called to mind the supremacy of his Papal office, Pope John XXIII referred to the Latin Christian poet, Prudentius, rather than cite from Scripture, which he could easily have done. Prudentius liked to sing of Rome as the mystical centre of Christendom due to the sustaining presence of Saints Peter and Paul, not so much on account of their normative teaching, but because they had been martyred there.
It may well be that Pope John wished to disentangle the moral authority of the Petrine Office from the old concept of Supremacy. It may well be that the historical accretions of universal power had come to seem a hindrance to the charism of unity. Whatever the inspiration, what has emerged from the Second Vatican Council is a Church to gladden the heart of Nubius. An uneasy collegiality holds sway by which authority is supposedly exercised by the Pope and all the bishops together, though they may not be of one mind on important matters. The moral authority that remains with the Church, and it is very little, either shores up pronouncements indistinguishable in spirit from those of any other seemingly benevolent power, or it is ignored.
Whether it originated from police interrogations, from the febrile imaginations of anti-semitic journalists and priests, or from the murky thoughts of Nubius, whoever he might have been, the Permanent Instruction of the Alta Vendita anticipated to a high degree what has since become of the Roman Catholic Church.