|Sister Maria Ignazia of Sant'Ambrogio Franciscan Cloister, Rome, Testimony Before Inquisition, March 1860|
I've just finished reading Hubert Wolf's The Nuns of Sant'Ambrogio: The True Story of a Convent in Scandal, trans. Ruth Martin (NY: Vintage, 2015). The excerpt from this book I've highlighted for you above catches my eye for a number of reasons, which I'll explain at the end of this "review."
Wolf is a German historian who tells a hair-raising tale about the cloistered Franciscan women's community of Sant'Ambrogio in Rome in the mid-19th century. It has long been known that a trial of the Inquisition involving members of this community took place in that period, and salacious gossip about that trial, which involved allegations of lesbian initiation rites in the community, sexual improprieties on the part of its Jesuit confessors, feigned accounts of holiness and purported miracles, and poisoning or criminal neglect of the health of some community members by leaders of the community, have floated around for many years now.
But the actual details of what was going on inside Sant'Ambrogio and of what the Inquisition concluded about these goings on were inaccessible until Pope John Paul II opened the documents — all the documents — of the so-called "secret archives" of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (today's name for the Office of the Inquisition) in 1998. At that point, after a long search (since these documents had been misfiled, and one wonders about that misfiling of them), the case files for this Inquisition trial were found tucked away in a section of the secret archives' "historical hall" that houses papers entirely unrelated to the Sant'Ambrogio file.
Wolf and other historians can now mine those case files and tell the story of what happened in Sant'Ambrogio in the 19th century, and how the Inquisition dealt with the case. The story is sensational, since all those salacious details I have just mentioned did, indeed, emerge in the testimony given by various parties before the Inquisition.
The section I've highlighted above is from a document entitled "Sommario della Relazione informativa no. XXVIII: Esame di Sr. Maria Ignazia, 2 March 1860" (ACDG SO St. St. B7c). Maria Ignazia was a novice of the Sant'Ambrogio community. Her testimony concerned her role in the repeated attempts of the community's powerful "saintly" novice mistress, its Madre Vicaria, Sister Maria Luisa Ridolfi, to poison a novice in the community, Sister Luisa Maria, née Katharina, Princess von Hohenlohe-Waldenburg-Schillingsfürst, the widow of Karl, Prince von Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen.
As the titles indicate, Luisa Maria was a member of the German aristocracy with connections to and entrée in the highest echelons of the Vatican, and with relatives placed in those echelons. It was her testimony after one of her highly placed relatives sprung her from the cloister when she told him she would be murdered if he did not get her out of the community that blew the whistle on Sant'Ambrogio and began the inquisitorial process. As a German aristocrat, Luisa Maria had much money at her disposal, and she had made a will after entering Sant'Ambrogio that would have left most of her money to the community — and would have supported a new foundation of the community headed by Maria Luisa, the Madre Vicaria, who was trying to kill her while informing the community and her confessors (who were in on the plot, as was the abbess, a figurehead manipulated by the Madre Vicaria) that she was having heavenly visions in which she had been told the Princess would die and needed to die because she was in league with the devil.
Maria Luisa had ample motives to kill Luisa Maria, but it appears, from testimony given in the Inquisition trial, that the genesis of her hatred for Luisa Maria was that she had shown Luisa Maria letters written to her by a man the community called Pietro the Americano, a man of Austrian birth named Peter Kreuzberg, who had emigrated to America then returned to Europe, leaving his wife and children behind and claiming to be possessed by demons. Kreuzberg was closely connected to one of the key spiritual directors of Sant'Ambrogio, Father Giuseppe Peters, né Joseph Kleutgen in Dortmund. Peters assigned Maria Luisa, in whose fraudulent visions and claims to holiness he implicitly believed, the task of exorcising the Americano of his demons.
One of the letters the Americano sent the Madre Vicaria was in German, which she could not read. Luisa Maria translated it for her and told her it was filthy, full of scandalous information suggesting that she and the Americano were sexually intimate. She pleaded with Maria Luisa to destroy it. Maria Luisa's response was to try repeatedly to poison Luisa Maria.
In the Inquistion trial, it came out that Maria Luisa had, in fact, poisoned other nuns she had regarded as her enemies, and had succeeded in killing several of them. She had also seen that medical treatment was withheld from a nun who died but who would, doctors thought, have lived had she had access to a doctor. She was sexually intimate with Peters, as well. In the Inquisition trial, it was also revealed that the community had employed, from the time of its foundation by Maria Agnese Firrao, a peculiar practice it called "the Jesuit blessing," in which its Jesuit spiritual directors gave nuns a "blessing" that involved sexual groping, touching, and kissing with signs of the cross to make it all "holy."
All this and the lesbian initiation rituals, which stemmed from Maria Agnese herself — Maria Agnese, who was herself condemned by the Inquisition and told not to communicate with the community she had founded after she was sent into exile, though the trial revealed that she remained in close touch with Sant'Ambrogio, directed what went on in the community, and was regarded as a saint, with her personal effects and letters being treasured by the community as relics (and hidden, when the Inquisition had instructed that they be handed over or destroyed) . . . . In addition to her sexual intimacies with the Americano and Peters, Maria Luisa had ongoing lesbian relationships with novices in the Sant'Ambrogio community.
"The Jesuit blessing": from its foundation forward, Sant'Ambrogio insisted on being under the direction of Jesuits, despite the fact that it was a Franciscan community. As Wolf explains (and he does this very well), the Jesuits in this period were key defenders of the ultramontane, ultra-papal church being promoted by reactionary forces in Europe as a bulwark against modernity and democracy. They had the ear of Pius IX, the pope who managed to get himself (and all other popes) declared infallible, and who famously condemned the whole modern world in his Syllabus of Errors.
Wolf suggests — and I find this entirely plausible — that the cover-up of what was going on at Sant'Ambrogio involved Pius himself. Because important Jesuits assisting Pius in his project of attacking modernity and declaring popes infallible believed absolutely and with no shadow of doubt in the visions and fabricated claims to holiness of Sant'Ambrogio's founder Maria Agnese and its Madre Vicaria Maria Luisa, the community, which was in the shadow of St. Peter's, had to be protected and defended, and its shocking behavior covered up.
Until a wealthy and well-connected German princess was almost done away with inside the cloister and then blew the whistle, that is, making it impossible for the Inquisition to ignore this case . . . .
And so that excerpt from the trial that I have highlighted for you at the head of the posting, in which the novice Maria Ignazia testified about her misgivings regarding the instructions of her novice mistress Maria Luisa to assist the latter in poisoning Luisa Maria: Maria Ignazia told the Inquistion that when she voiced these misgivings, Maria Luisa told her,
No, daughter, you have done no harm. You were obedient. Trust in obedience: remain silent, and never say a word. If you are questioned, always deny. This is the best way to defy the devil.
These are 19th-century Catholic words, reflecting 19th-century Italian piety. They were spoken by a woman who went so far as to commission jewelers in Rome to make elaborate rings that then "appeared" on her fingers following visions in which she alleged that Jesus and Mary put the rings on her fingers. She also sent accomplices out to buy oil of roses from pharmacists, which she smeared on her person and places she frequented in the cloister, to provide proof that she enjoyed the odor of sanctity. Community members, including the abbess, were instructed — with the approval of the Jesuit confessors — to kiss the Madre Vicaria's rings as she gave a blessing to the community, something reserved for the abbess to do, never the novice mistress.
Obedience: remain silent, and never say a word. Obedience: trust in it. If you're questioned, always deny.
These are 19th-century words, but I'd propose to you that they have a curious resonance for contemporary Catholics, too, and, in particular, for those determined to continue the 19th-century project of total warfare against, total repudiation of, modernity and democracy.
Those Catholics have not disappeared from the scene. Far from it. In fact, they have had increasing power in the Catholic church in the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. They're still around, very much alive, in American Catholicism — as I discovered just this week when someone signing himself Fra, and so he's perhaps a religious brother and perhaps even a Franciscan, contacted me online to roast me for daring to question the decision of Cardinal Timothy Dolan to offer the blessing of the U.S. Catholic bishops to Donald Trump at his inauguration.
Dolan's blessing Trump for pro-life reasons, Fra told me — though he did not and apparently could not explain to me, when I doubted that claim, how it's possible to be "pro-life" while supporting someone who promises to rip healthcare coverage from millions of people in need. It's about obedience, for God's sake. Good Catholics do not question. They believe. And they follow.
If it's good enough for Cardinal Dolan, then it's good enough for me.
This was the fateful logic that led obediential German and Austrian Catholics to collude with spectacular evil during the Nazi period. It's a logic still alive and well in the Catholic community into the 20th century, and it's justifying Catholic collusion with Donald Trump. It's a logic that has been employed over and over again by Catholic pastoral leaders in their cover-up of the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy.
Obedience counts higher than human life in some Catholics' scheme of things. This is blindingly apparent in what Maria Luisa told Maria Ignazia when the latter expressed qualms about Maria Luisa's attempt to poison to death a fellow nun.
Oh, and that Joseph Kleutgen aka Giuseppe Peters, who behaved so disgracefully in his relations with Maria Luisa and the nuns of Sant'Ambrogio, who had every reason to know Maria Luisa's claims to holiness were fabricated and her visions manufactured, who was in on the plot to poison Luisa Maria, who visited Maria Luisa's room in the cloister again and again with the permission of the abbess to provide special "blessings" and "spiritual counsel" to the novice mistress: his perduring contribution to Catholic theology and Catholic institutional life?
As Wolf tells us, Kleutgen invented the theological idea of the "ordinary magisterium," a theological idea that instructs obediential Catholics to treat even non-infallible papal words as infallible, and to obey them as if they were infallible even when they are not infallibly declared. This is an idea that Kleutgen's fellow German, the former head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, resurrected and used as a theological weapon to suppress dissent throughout the long papal reign of John Paul II.
Obedience: it's your obligation as an obedient Catholic to treat every papal utterance with religious and intellectual submission and to obey it even when it's not infallibly declared. No, what Maria Luisa told Maria Ignazia is far from a dead letter in Catholic thinking, Catholic institutional life, Catholic piety.
This approach to matters Catholic remains alive and well in contemporary Catholicism, and is now bearing bitter fruit all over again in the large support of white Catholics in the U.S. for Donald Trump and the silent, shameful — and very typical — complicity of U.S. Catholic intellectuals and journalists in what's going on with the Catholic community and Trump.