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paranoid theory of the week :: was pope john paul i murdered?

pope john paul i
well, it seems like everyone in north america has gone crazy for all things pope, so there's no point in me fighting it.

this week, we're looking at the rumours surrounding the death of albino luciani, who became pope john paul i. he was a reluctant pope who had initially told those close to him that he would decline if elected, but who ultimately decided to take the position out of a sense of obligation. history has distorted his legacy somewhat, painting him as a naive country pastor overwhelmed by the demands of the papacy and the political machinations of the vatican and as a radical who sought to reform the church and who may have made powerful enemies as a result.

the truth is a little more complicated: luciani wanted to make the papacy more "human" and more accessible to the layperson, which meant that he often used popular, rather than philosophical, references in his speeches. the chief reason that he was selected was because of his warmth and ability to connect with the common person, so it is hardly a surprise that this was his approach. he graduated magna cum laude with a phd in 1947. he was not an intellectual lightweight.

his reputation as a reformer comes mainly because of the conservatism of his successor. although luciani was dedicated to the modernisation of the church in line with the principles outlined in the second vatican council [usually referred to as just "vatican ii"], his positions on issues like divorce, women in the priesthood and abortion were very conservative and he advocated disciplinary measures for priests who spoke out in favour of left wing causes while he was cardinal of venice. his reputation as a radical most likely stems from his time as a bishop, when he advocated for wealthy western countries to dedicate 1% of their annual budgets to the developing world as an obligatory acknowledgement of the harm that they were inflicting in order to make money. that is a pretty strong statement, but it's not like, even as pope, he would have had the power to force such a thing.

when john paul i died only 33 days into his papacy, the questions of what he might have accomplished became wide open. that and the sudden nature of his death provided plenty of fodder for conspiracy theorists who felt that there was more than met the eye.

john paul in the company of jean-marie cardinal villot
the theory ::
pope john paul i was murdered and the crime was covered up by highly placed sources at the vatican.

the origin ::
the italian press, who smelled a rat within hours of the pope's death.

the believers :: 
british crime writer david yallop was one of the first to write in detail about the case and his book in god's name is still considered the, er, bible of john paul conspiracy studies. robert hutchinson wrote a book on a related topic called their kingdom come: inside the secret world of opus dei, about a group within the catholic church. his contention is that there were a number of officials who opposed the work of opus dei who died unexpectedly from heart attacks that might actually have been poisonings. his opinion is that john paul i could have been one of those dispatched opponents. the italian press has never backed off the idea that there was something amiss in the death. rebellious priest georges de nantes spent a great deal of time assembling evidence against the vatican. from a very different sphere, mark e. smith, the vocalist for the fall, wrote a play about the papal murder conspiracy called hey, luciani.

the bad guys ::
opus dei, the masonic p2 lodge, the mafia, higher ups from the vatican bank, vatican secretary of state jean-marie villot and/ or cardinal john patrick cody of chicago.

the evidence ::
there is a reason why the italian press seized on the idea of a conspiracy almost immediately after the pope's death. everything about his death from the discovery of the body to who was contacted and what became of the papal corpse was handled in a fashion that could at best be called bizarre. and the more people began to look into it, the more bizarre it got.

although it's been disputed, it seems relatively safe to assume that the body was discovered by sister vincenza, a nun who had been in his service for more than two decades, since he was bishop of vittorio venezia. she alerted his two secretaries, who immediately called on cardinal jean-marie villot, who lived in the vatican apartments as well. villot took charge of events and immediately established himself as one of the most suspicious characters in conspiracy history.

he insisted that no one speak about what had happened until he gave the ok, then set about calling the vatican mortuary and arranging the have the body embalmed. before a doctor had even officially pronounced him dead. villot did finally send for the vatican doctor who confirmed that, yes, the pope had died and said that it was, in his opinion, because of a heart attack. myocardial infarction is the default setting when it comes to determining cause of death. in the absence of evidence pointing to anything else, it's assumed that the person died of a heart attack. so the doctor's diagnosis should be taken with a grain of salt: it's just his way of saying that he didn't see evidence of anything else. it's not like he had a chance in the time he was there in the pope's bedroom to do a detailed examination.

archbishop paul marcinkus and pope john paul ii
one of the papal secretaries was uneasy enough about the proceedings that he called john paul's personal doctor in venice, despite the order from villot that no one was to be contacted except by him. the doctor was shocked, because he had recently given the pope a clean bill of health and told the secretary he was driving to the vatican that day.

the doctor might as well have taken his time, because once the body had been removed, villot ordered the papal apartments to be cleaned. by the end of the day, none of john paul i's possessions remained there. granted, he'd only been there a little over a month and he wasn't laden with possessions, but it was still an extremely quick clean out of a nineteen-room residence. in most places, villot could have been charged with a crime for disturbing the scene before a proper pathologist had determined the cause of death. however, the vatican is a separate state with its own [mostly ceremonial] police force and villot outranked the police. the italian police can investigate crimes within the city, but they must be invited. i'm guessing you've figured out that no one invited them.

villot did apparently take care of a little of the clean-up himself: he took a bottle of pills that the pope had been taking to help with chronic low blood pressure. he also took the pope's glasses, slippers and the papers from his desk. why on earth would he do that? it's one of those bizarre things things that begs for a conspiracy to start. the papers are actually understandable- he didn't want people looking through the former pope's private documents. the glasses and slippers seem like they could have been ghastly souvenirs. the pills are probably the most suspicious item, because they were removed prior to the arrival of the doctor. since the doctor had no idea of the pope's medical history, it would have been difficult for him to make a diagnosis under any circumstances. removing medication used to treat low blood pressure effectively deprived the doctor of the only meaningful evidence in the room. without it, the doctor never had the chance to consider that people with chronically low blood pressure aren't prone to heart attacks.

among those who take a dark view of villot's behaviour, it has been alleged that the pope's slippers had traces of vomit on them, which might have pointed to poisoning rather than a heart attack as the cause of death. david yallop claimed that the pope was holding papers that implicated high ranking officials in the vatican in a financial scandal, whereby the vatican bank was essentially laundering money for the mafia. that is our first hint of motive and we'll see more about that shortly, but it does seem just a little convenient that the man died holding in his hands the very papers that made him a target for assassination. i'll let that one slide for now.

having cleared the apartment and had a doctor who'd never dealt with the man before diagnose a heart attack as the cause of death, villot moved quickly to have the body taken care of. he and the other cardinals refused to sanction an autopsy that would have settled the cause of death once and for all, because they said that it was forbidden to conduct an autopsy on the pope. it isn't, and at least two previous popes had had autopsies performed. if villot had been reading from a script where he was playing the villain, he could hardly have done more to attract suspicion. but so far, we can only convict him of strange behaviour.

and that brings us to the question of motive. there are a number of theories, but by far the most prominent is yallop's: that the pope was killed because he was about to drop the hammer on corrupt members of the church for their financial dealings with the mafia. in particular, an archbishop named paul marcinkus, who ran the vatican bank, may have had reasons to fear john paul i. marcinkus had close ties with some financiers linked to the mafia, including michele sindona, who ended up going to jail for twenty-five years for fraud and other crimes, and roberto calvi, chairman of the italian banco ambrosiano, who ended up hanging from a bridge in london under suspicious circumstances in 1982.

marcinkus and any other corrupt members of the vatican may have had good reason to fear john paul i. he had already unearthed a financial scandal during his time in vittorio venezia. unlike the image of the sweet, smiling figure that has been propagated after his death, he had a skill with numbers and finances and had spotted irregularities that caused him to investigate further. he may well have continued to pursue signs of corruption as pope, but perhaps more importantly, people like marcinkus knew he was inclined to do so, which may have been enough to constitute motive.

the body of "god's banker" roberto calvi
marcinkus himself was never accused of any crimes [at least not formally] and pope john paul ii promoted him to one of the most powerful posts in the vatican, even as it came out that he had lost the vatican bank close to a quarter of a billion dollars by investing in the banco ambrosiano. a reward for staving off an investigation? or simply a sign of trust for a long-serving ally of the new pope?

aside from marcinkus and villot, there were other names bandied about as possible subjects, such as archbishop cody of chicago, another corrupt figure who feared for his position under the reform-minded pope. although it's not impossible, it does seem like an extreme reaction to the threat of being replaced on the job. it's not uncommon for popes to change people in key positions and appoint those who share their vision of the church and cody wouldn't likely have been left out in the cold. still, once you've started naming suspects, you have to look at everybody.

years after the fact, a counter-narrative to explain the bizarre behaviour of the cardinals, particularly jean-marie villot, has emerged. and it's not bad. the claim was that pope john paul i had accidentally taken an overdose of his medication [or that cardinal villot believed he had], which was what killed him. therefore, villot's bizarre behaviour can be understood as an attempt to remove any evidence that might point to his death as a possible suicide. the removal of the pills, along with the [possibly vomit-stained] slippers, the hasty post mortem, the emptying and sealing of the papal apartments, all seem like they could be the actions of a man who saw a potential scandal and wanted to protect the institution to which he had given his life. after all, suicide is a mortal sin and any rumour that the head of god's church had taken his own life would be humiliating in the extreme. in fact, from villot's point of view, it would have been better to be thought a murderer than to have this sort of scandal unleashed on the church.

ironically, the rush to judgment about the cause of death may have robbed the church of a much less suspicious cause of death. in 1975, cardinal luciani had suffered an embolism in his right eye. although there had been no evidence of further problems, embolisms are easily missed, often causing no symptoms until they cause a catastrophic obstruction in the body. so while a heart attack may seem like an odd way for a man with no history of heart disease to die, there is part of his medical history that provides a possible reason for his sudden death.

the likelihood :: 3/10
the not at all threatening p2 lodge conducting a rite
always be careful of reading too much into circumstantial evidence. in this case, that's all there is. it's certainly not impossible that there was a sinister hand behind pope john paul i's sudden death and the extensive corruption within the vatican bank, as well as the body count connected with it, was very real. and yes, there were signs that the new pope and the vatican financiers could have been headed for a showdown.

the problem is that there's nothing concrete. whatever cardinal villot's motivation, his actions resulted in the compromise or destruction of all the physical evidence at the scene. thus, we are left with only a bizarre run of behaviour and theories constructed from related events.

there certainly seems to be something off about the vatican's reaction to the death of the pope, but foul play isn't the only rational explanation for that behaviour. the fear of a papal suicide scandal checks all the same boxes.

upon the publication of his book, david yallop offered to donate every cent of profit it made to a charity of the vatican's choosing if they would investigate his central claim that john paul i was found clutching a paper with a list of church leaders involved in financial corruption, as well as with freemasonry, which is illegal for anyone in the priesthood. the vatican never responded to his offer. [side note :: it's wrong of me to throw that mention of freemasonry in there and not explain its importance, but i'd like to finish this blog post before thursday. the aforementioned banker, roberto calvi, had ties to an illegal masonic lodge within the church, known as propaganda due, or simply p2. there are a lot of conspiracies relating to the p2 lodge and the death of the pope is only one of them. long story short: members of the p2 lodge were thought to be behind much of the financial corruption that was happening at the vatican. for now, we'll leave it at that.]

it's highly unlikely, given how many people involved are now dead and how secretive the vatican has always been, that we'll ever have much more factual information than we do today. in fact, the only near-certain method to verify if the pope was poisoned would be to exhume his body and test the remains for any traces. you'd be lucky if you didn't get excommunicated for even suggesting that the police should dig up the body of a former pope- that's how outrageous the idea is. but failing that, we'll be left to debate the possibilities ad nauseum, forever. 

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