Apparently the canonization of Pope Paul VI may culminate this year. He was pontiff from 1963 to 1978, presiding over the latter part of the Second Vatican Council and issuing Humanae Vitae, which defended Catholic opposition to artificial contraception.
Less recalled is his role across 30 years in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State under Pope Pius XII, which included his apparent collaboration with the CIA in covertly opposing the Communists in Italy’s dicey 1948 election. A new biography of CIA legend James Angleton, an Episcopalian whose mother was Catholic, recounts he reportedly was close to and met regularly with the future Pope, then Monsignor Giovanni Montini, to synchronize support for Italy’s Christian Democratic Party. (The Matt Damon character in the 2006 film The Good Shepherd is partly based on Angleton.)
It was widely feared Italian Communism, backed by the Soviet Union, could prevail in post-WWII Italy, which was impoverished, chaotic and still recovering from Fascist rule. The Christian Democrats, who hearkened to Catholic social teaching, were the best hope for a democratic, pro-Western and free market Italy that could prosper. A Communist Italy would have been a huge addition to Stalin’s growing slave empire behind the Iron Curtain. At the same time Greece’s royalist government was in virtual civil war with a communist insurrection. The new Truman Doctrine in 1947 announced USA support for Greece and Turkey in their resistance to Soviet expansionism.
American support for Italy’s Christian Democrats was not so public, and possibly millions of dollars were channeled to them, sometimes cooperatively with the Catholic Church. Mythology recalls satchels of lira transmitted quietly. The new Angleton biography claims Monsignor Montini was given control of a CIA subsidized slush fund at the Vatican Bank for campaign purposes.
With or without CIA help, the Christian Democrats won a big victory in 1948 and governed Italy for the rest of the Cold War, with the opposition Communists remaining unacceptable to still mostly Catholic Italy. To the extent future Pope Pope Paul VI assisted this campaign in 1948 and afterwards to keep Italy democratic, good for him. Presumably his role will not be cited in his canonization, any more than Pope John Paul II’s collaboration with the Reagan Administration against Polish and East European Communism was cited in his canonization. But their opposition to totalitarian enslavement of their native lands, respectively Italy and Poland, and beyond, further exemplifies their service to God and humanity.
IRD emeritus board member George Weigel notes that when the Catholic Church self-protectively tried to reach accommodations with vicious dictatorships, the results were shameful, whether with Italy’s Fascists, the Third Reich, or East European Communism. Now he warns against an apparent Vatican accommodation of China’s repressive regime, which seeks to preempt the Catholic Church in China.
Christian political witness has always been more heroic when it sided against tyranny and in favor of lawful freedom not just for Christians but for all people. In 1948 that entailed future Pope Paul VI secretly collaborating with James Angleton and the CIA against Italian Communism and for Christian Democracy. We can be grateful.