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Artcles > 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 passion.

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.

 Cardinal Giuseppe Siri and Pope John XXIII
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 Mass."

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 caused this?"

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 the confusion.

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 good Pope."

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 of Rome.

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 Siri’s election.

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 on earth.

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 in hand."

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 in fact.

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.

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