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.

Angels and Demons. Click image to expand.
Angels & Demons

About eight years ago here in Santa Fe, N.M., everybody was talking about the bikini Virgin. That's virgin with a capital V—and the reference was to a piece of art on exhibition at a local museum, in which Our Lady of Guadalupe, the most beloved figure in New Mexico Catholicism, was depicted in a skimpy floral bathing suit with as many colors as a birthday piñata.

Angry Catholics demanded that the image be removed from the show, but it stayed on display until the exhibition closed, and the young artist who created it received the kind of career boost that only comes with being denounced from the pulpit.

The controversy has long since faded but I thought about it again last night as I waited in line for an advance screening of Angels & Demons, the new thriller (based on a Dan Brown novel) in which the Vatican comes across as an age-old enemy of reason and scientific truth.

The movie, which has already been denounced in the United States by William Donohue of the conservative Catholic League, stars (along with Tom Hanks) a legendary cabal called the Illuminati—a group of evil eggheads who have figured in various conspiracy theories for more than 200 years. This time, they are plotting (or so it seems) to vaporize the Vatican as punishment for centuries of oppression against freethinkers. I was a little disappointed when there were no picketers at the theater passing out copies of Donohue's new tract, "Angels & Demons: More Demonic Than Angelic."

 Maybe that is still to come.

What has the Catholic League particularly upset is the movie's insistence that Galileo himself—punished by the church for promoting the view that the Earth orbits the sun instead of vice versa—was an Illuminatus, oppressed for insisting on what was then a heretical view. For years, some Vatican scholars have been fighting the idea that the church is anti-science and have been promoting a more nuanced view of Galileo's trial in which the astronomer appears (a little like the creator of the bikini Virgin) as a self-promoter wanting more than anything to draw attention to himself.

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There may be some truth to this view. Scientific knowledge is necessarily tentative, and Galileo's version of heliocentrism did, in fact, turn out to be wrong: He had the planets orbiting the sun in perfect celestial circles, instead of ellipses, making his model nearly as unwieldy as the geocentric one he opposed. If Galileo had presented his case more humbly, Catholic apologists argue, he never would have drawn the church's ire.

There are other interpretations of the episode. (Later this month, Catholic scholars will meet in Florence for a world congress called "The Galileo Affair: A Historical, Philosophical and Theological Re-Examination.") But however you parse the past, there's no getting around the cold fact of the Inquisition and the church's long history of quashing dissent. That's exactly what got all the speculations about a great Illuminati conspiracy started in the first place.

Over the centuries, those who differed from the church were branded as heretics. There were the Sabellians, Monophysites, Eunomians, Nestorians, Messalians, and Priscillianists, not to mention the Cathars and the Knights Templar. Their differences with orthodoxy could be literally as small as an iota.

Was Christ similar to God (homoiousios) or of the same substance (homoousios)? Compared with that, the difference between geocentrism and heliocentrism was a pretty big deal.

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.

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