Why can't the Catholic Church shake free of a 200-year-old conspiracy theory?

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May 14 2009 7:36 PM

Everything Is Illuminati

Why can't the Catholic Church shake free of a 200-year-old conspiracy theory?

Also in Slate: Dana Stevens reviews  Angels & Demons.

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All these obscure groups and many more have made appearances in various mutations of the Illuminati conspiracy theory—along with Freemasons, Rosicrucians, Jeffersonian Democrats, Jewish bankers, Communists, secular humanists, the Trilateral Commission, Skull and Bones, Proctor & Gamble, the Clintons and the Bushes, and even the Vatican itself. But the centerpiece of the plot—and the movie—is the Order of the Illuminati, a short-lived Bavarian cult that got on the wrong side of the church by trying to sneak books by Voltaire, Diderot, and other Enlightenment thinkers past the Catholic censors.

In his attack on Angels & Demons, Donohue of the Catholic League makes much of the fact that Galileo could not have been a member—he was dead for more than a century before the Bavarian Illuminati was formed. But that's just not how conspiracy theories work. There was, you see, a group in Galileo's time called the Alumbrados (Spanish for "enlightened ones"), who are sometimes cast as precurors of the Bavarians.

And these Spanish Illuminati were targets of the Inquisition.

It's quite a stretch to suppose Galileo had anything to do with the group. But if you fuzz up the mind's eye, Alumbrados, Illuminati, and, for that matter, Enlightenment philosophers and Lucifer himself (lux, light, Illuminati) all blur into a scintillating mush. It was in fact a Jesuit priest, Augustin Barruel, who in the late 1700s originally squeezed such seemingly immiscible ingredients into the first great Illuminati conspiracy theory—an attempt to explain away the French Revolution. Struggling to understand how an uprising of Godless riffraff could have overturned his country's ancient church-state establishment. Barruel filled four volumes with plots and subplots. Others quickly picked up on the story, spinning it in every imaginable direction. With the release of Angels & Demons two centuries later, Barruel's legend has come back at the church like a boomerang.

So far, there have been only minor rumblings about the movie from Rome. The Vatican roundly denounced the earlier Dan Brown-based movie, The Da Vinci Code, which plays with the notion that Jesus sired a family with Mary Magdalene. Official opposition only drew more attention to the movie, which might be why the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, dismissed Angels & Demons as "harmless entertainment."

It's taken a few centuries, but it sounds as if church leaders have learned an important truth. You can't stamp out the spread of ideas and images, no matter how stupid or tacky they are. Sit back, bite your tongue, and even a blockbuster movie will, like the bikini Virgin, eventually fade away.

George Johnson's first book was Architects of Fear: Conspiracy Theories and Paranoia in American Politics. His essay "On the Trail of the Illuminati: A Journalist's Search for The Conspiracy That Rules the World" is published in the anthology Secrets of Angels and Demons.