The "Siri Thesis" Unravels
The "Siri Thesis" Unravels
- by Inside the Vatican staff
In our confusing times, many otherwise faithful traditional
Catholics have denounced and broken with "conciliar Rome,"
including the "conciliar Popes." But that has not
ended the confusion...
"It has been very well observed that there is no
such thing as an impartial historian. Every man who sets out
to trace the development of life, whether in politics, religion,
or art, is bound to do so with some theory in his mind...
The historian, or the theologian, who is most nearly impartial
is not he who has no view, but he who is aware of other views,
and can give them due consideration." --
Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson, May 1907, paper read before
the Society of St. Thomas of Canterbury, an organization of
Anglican clergy studying the history of Western Christendom.
When the American film director Mel Gibson
distributed his film The Passion of The Christ in
2004, this magazine followed the controversy closely. We devoted
two cover stories to the topic when the controversy over the
film touched the Vatican, after Pope John Paul II agreed to
view the film and offer a brief judgment ("It is as it
was"), suggesting that he found no underlying theological
problem with the film’s portrayal of Christ’s
During those months of controversy, there was considerable
interest in the faith that inspired Gibson’s work --
his fervent Catholicism. It became public knowledge that Gibson
attended Mass every morning while shooting the film -- and
that the Masses he attended were celebrated according to the
old, pre-conciliar Latin rite.
|Left, Cardinal Giuseppe Siri;
right, Pope John XXIII
As is well known, this journal has long argued in defense
of the "old Mass," even calling for its universal
restoration throughout the Roman Catholic Church. Our position
has been based on the principle that the "old Mass,"
celebrated for centuries by Popes and saints, could never
be legitimately suspected of any serious theological defect
-- that to suspect or accuse the "old Mass" of having
a serious theological defect was a theological impossibility
for an orthodox believing Catholic.
This position in defense of the old liturgy, which we continue
to hold, has given us a certain intellectual common ground
with many who, like Gibson, have preferred to attend the "old
But as we have explored the reasons and consequences for
this preference in an ongoing series of conversations with
so-called "traditional Catholics," we have discovered
what many of our readers may already know very well: that
in traditional Catholic circles there are many who have become
so confused, frustrated and embittered by the developments
in Catholicism in the past 40 years, in the period since the
Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), that they have come to
oppose the Council itself, and even the Church hierarchy that
since the Council has almost universally preached that Vatican
II brought a "new springtime" to the Church. This
opposition has, in some quarters, extended even to the Popes
themselves: John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II,
and even Benedict XVI. This opposition, therefore, has taken
these traditional Catholics to the verge of a break with Rome.
If one looks on the Internet, one can quickly find references
to small groups claiming to be Catholic which follow various
self-proclaimed "Popes." There are at least a dozen
or two. Scattered here and there around the word are chapels
and communities which gather around aging traditional priests
to celebrate the traditional Mass, no longer maintaining any
formal connection with Rome.
This is, of course, worrisome. But there are many worrisome
realities in the Church today. Elsewhere in this issue, in
the report of Father John McCloskey, facts are presented which
must cause any thoughtful Catholic to pause and reflect. The
overall picture of the Catholic Church presented is one in
which the Church has suffered severe objective reverses --
lower numbers of Catholics attending Mass, lower numbers of
women entering religious life, lower numbers of Catholics
believing in the Real Presence, and so forth -- during the
past 40 years since the Council.
This does not mean that many good things may not also be
happening, some of them "under the surface."
Nor does it mean that something "worse" might not
have happened had the Second Vatican Council not occurred.
But it does mean that there is an objective basis for many
serious Catholics to feel dismayed and to ask, "What
In other words, given the crisis in the liturgy, in Mass
attendance, in traditional sacramental belief, in the priesthood
(the various scandals), in the episcopate, in the Church’s
seminaries and universities, in the family life of ordinary
Catholics, it is understandable that thoughtful Catholics
should ask, "What went wrong?"
It is not the purpose of this article to offer a comprehensive
answer. It would require the work of many thoughtful scholars
and believers, and perhaps many decades of time, even to begin
to formulate such an answer. But it is our purpose to suggest
that now, 40 years after Vatican II, at the beginning of a
new pontificate, following a pontificate which lasted for
26 years, may perhaps be an opportune time to begin to try
to sort through things and to bring a bit of clarity out of
Confusion has always been and will always be the enemy of
the Church. Precision in language, exact definitions, clarity
of understanding, do not readily allow for confusion. This
is what we need.
In this context, we were intrigued by a small newsletter
which recently arrived in our editorial offices. It was the
December 2005 issue of an 8-page typewritten newsletter entitled
"The War Is Now!", edited by Hutton Gibson, the
father of Mel Gibson the actor and film producer.
In this newsletter, Hutton Gibson gives a fascinating glimpse
into the minds of Catholics who have grown so frustrated and
confused by the shifting "trends" in the post-conciliar
Church that they have latched onto various "conspiracy
theories" to explain what has happened.
The elder Gibson argues that one of the more elaborate of
these conspiracy theories, called the "Siri thesis,"
simply isn’t true and must be discarded.
The "Siri thesis" argues that the rather conservative
cardinal archbishop of Genoa, Giuseppe Siri, was actually
elected Pope in 1958, but that his election was suppressed,
leading to the election of Angelo Roncalli, who became John
XXIII, called the Council, rehabilitated Giovanni Battista
Montini, who became Paul VI, thus ushering in the entire "post-Pius
XII" era in the Church.
The "Siri thesis" emerged among traditionalist
Catholics who came to believe that "something went wrong"
in the Church after the 1958 conclave, after the death of
Pope Pius XII, who was therefore viewed as the "last
Believers in this "thesis" are therefore a species
of "sede vacantist" which might be denominated
"sede impeditist," that is, those who believe
that the past five popes are "antipopes" and that
Siri remained the "true Pope" until his death in
1989, but was "impeded" from serving as the bishop
The "Siri thesis" is built upon one key point:
the issue of the "white smoke" that appeared for
a brief time on October 26, 1958, before changing to black.
The thesis is that Siri was elected on that occasion, that
the smoke was white to signal his election, but that the color
changed to black when the conclave annulled or overturned
A key piece of evidence for this theory has been an article
written by Silvio Negro for the evening edition of Corriere
della Sera (Milan, Italy) for October 27, 1958.
But, according to the elder Gibson, the Negro article has
been misunderstood by the proponents of the "Siri thesis."
Negro narrates a story from the 1939 conclave, when the smoke
was also a confusing mixture of white and black, until the
secretary of the conclave, one Monsignor Santoro, sent a note
to Vatican Radio to advise that, so matter what color the
smoke seemed, it was white, and that Eugenio Pacelli had been
elected Pope Pius XII.
In the elder Gibson’s December newsletter, however,
this "Siri thesis" is denounced as false, built
on shoddy scholarship and inadequate fact checking.
The proponents of the "Siri thesis," perhaps due
to limited familiarity with the Italian language, had misunderstood
Negro’s article, and concluded that he was writing about
the 1958 conclave. Thus, for proponents of the "Siri
thesis," Monsignor Santoro sent out a note from the 1958
conclave to say that, no matter what the color of the smoke,
a Pope had been elected. As the elder Gibson notes in his
December newsletter, however, there was one problem: Santoro
was not the secretary of the 1958 conclave at all, but of
the 1939 conclave. The entire "Siri thesis" was
based on a simple misreading of an Italian newspaper article.
This "Siri thesis" is not the only one being circulated
in traditionalist circles to explain the modern woes of the
Church, but it has come to be believed by hundreds, perhaps
thousands of people around the world, Inside the Vatican
has been told by sources in the traditionalist movement.
The elder Gibson and some of his associates have confirmed
to Inside the Vatican that the "Siri thesis"
the elder Gibson "debunks" in his December 2005
newsletter still has adherents in virtually every country
We find this announcement by the elder Gibson interesting
because it reveals two important things: (1) how people who
are perplexed by change (in this case, some traditional Catholics),
may grasp at untenable theories in order to explain disturbing
realities; and yet (2) how an openness to sifting theories
to ascertain their conformity to historical truth can persist
even in these same traditionalist Catholic circles.
As one associate of the elder Gibson expressed it to us:
"If the truth about our current confusion is ever to
be clarified and understood, the necessary first step must
be for those suspicious of Rome and of recent pontiffs to
commit themselves to seeking the truth even if it goes against
deeply-held positions arrived at without all the evidence
Thus, the "Siri thesis" has been dismantled by
"insiders," members of that very traditional Catholic
milieu which had been favorable to the idea in principle.
This reveals that, despite their understandable confusion
about the situation of the Church in the early 21st century
and their continuing dissatisfaction with the Church’s
leadership in Rome, these traditional Catholics have considerable
good will, that is, they are committed to seeking the truth,
not "conspiracy theories" without any foundation
As one traditional Catholic involved in this controversy
wrote in January to Inside the Vatican: "Love
of the truth as evidenced by Mr. Hutton Gibson and others
is based upon advice given by St. Anselm to his disciple:
‘You must not so cling to what we have said, as to abide
by it obstinately, when others with more weighty arguments
succeed in overthrowing ours and establishing opinions against
them,’ and further, ‘If there is anything that
calls for correction I do not refuse the correction.’"
If this is the perspective of the most radical of the Catholic
traditionalists, there seems room for guarded optimism about
the possibility of coming to some sort of meeting of the minds
over the questions which most trouble Catholic traditionalists,
involving the changes in the Church’s liturgy and in
her rites of ordination of priests and consecration of bishops.
In this new pontificate, the time may have come for traditional
Catholics and "conciliar Rome" to "reason together"
to find a way forward in a complex and confusing world.
Inside The Vatican (ISSN 1068-8579) is a Catholic news magazine, published monthly except July
and September, with occasional special supplements.