Vatican conspiracies are a little outside my usual range, but it’s a slow season. Besides, I’d rather be bemused by the awfulness of a low-rated TV show than try to contain my outrage that podcaster Joe Rogan signed a $100 million contract with Spotify to spread his pseudoscience and conspiracy theory beliefs to an even larger global audience. If ever there were proof of the money to be made from selling false narratives and paranoid delusions, this was it.
Anyway, back to the Vatican conspiracies. The show starts by emphasizing the “lucrative” nature of the Catholic Church. Hey, the Church and the show have something in common! They peddle myths and legends for cash!
The episode opens with the Vatican Secret Archives, recapping much of the material covered in the “Vatican’s Book of Secrets” episode. Lynn Picknett calls the Vatican full of “nasty little secrets” and the show complains that papal documents can’t be viewed until 75 years after a pope dies. The talking heads then speculate, without facts, about whether the Pius XII collaborated with Nazis or helped save Jews during World War II. Lacking evidence, the segment provides nothing but rhetorical questions and hints that the Vatican is hiding the truth behind library doors. The story of a bishop who helped Nazi officials escape at the end of World War II is related at length, though no connection to Pius XII is established, rendering the segment pointless.
The next segment—scored with utterly bizarre upbeat incidental music—focuses on still more Nazi-Catholic connections, with the uncomfortable implication that Catholicism is Nazism by other means. “The Vatican are the most powerful and secretive country on the planet,” gonzo pseudohistorical gadfly Andrew Gough lies. I needn’t remind you that the Vatican controls less than one square mile of territory, and its cultural capital has been in eclipse for a century. Its power cannot compare to the great powers like the United States, the E.U., or China. Its secretive nature hardly draws comparisons to the state secrets of major world powers, or even tinpot dictatorships like North Korea. Gough then adds that the Vatican “peddles fairy tales” and alleges that it is concealing artifacts that would rewrite history. The clip has nothing to do with the segment, and it is unclear that the producers had a point in including it except to ramp up the implications of the sinister.
The segment reviews the history of the Vatican Bank and offers a conspiracy theory that its $5 billion in estimated assets wield enormous power in global finance. It’s less money than Harvard University’s $40.9 billion endowment, so unless you imagine Harvard controlling international finance, the Vatican’s bank is a minor trickle in the $300 trillion of global financial assets.
The show alleges that the Mafia assassinated Pope John Paul I to keep corrupt money flowing through the bank and to prevent the pope from reforming the bank. A few suggestive anecdotes take the place of evidence, but not much more happens than the asking of a few rhetorical connections.
“But the conspiracies don’t end there!” the narrator breathlessly claims. Points for honesty, I guess?
Sadly, the conspiracies aren’t very interesting. The show covers the 1982 death of banker Roberto Calvi, which was originally considered a suicide but was later ruled a murder. He was allegedly murdered by the Mafia (though the accused were acquitted), but conspiracy theorists think the Vatican was behind it; however, no one on the show can really say why. Calvi had ties to the Vatican, but there is no evidence that he held Vatican secrets worth killing over. All of them had already begun to come out in the 1981 investigation and trial of Calvi for financial crimes, something the show glosses over. Calvi died after fleeing Italy under a false passport, just before $1.2 billion was found missing from his bank. It’s strange that Forbidden History uses its usual gallery of talking heads to discuss it while leaving out so much relevant information. I find it hard to believe that anthropologist Karen Bellinger, for example, is a Calvi truther, or that she is an expert in 1980s Mafia murders. She seems to be repeating a script someone gave her.
Another segment continues the Calvi story, with speculation that Calvi helped kill John Paul I only to have the other assassins turn on him. The show can make these claims because Calvi and John Paul I, along with Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, the onetime head of the Vatican bank, are all dead, so they can’t be libeled. It goes without saying that the show does not name any living person, who would therefore have standing to sue.
Marcinkus had long been embroiled in scandal, both due to his connections to organized crime and due to the financial scandals of Calvi’s bank, on whose board he served. He was implicated in the bank’s failure and crimes one month after Calvi’s death, which is a strange way of trying to hide his crimes. He was apparently both omnipotently evil and utterly incompetent. The show tactfully omits that Marcinkus’s and Calvi’s corruption was in large measure part of an effort to aid the United States in funneling cash to Solidarity in Poland to fight communism and to the Contras in Nicaragua.
More than halfway through the show, we finally get to space aliens.
We visit the Catholic Church’s observatory in Arizona, and the show asks why the Vatican needs a telescope. “Could it be that the Vatican observatory has a secret agenda?” the show asks. We hear claims that the Catholics are looking for aliens “according to conspiracy theorists.” Conspiracy theorist Josh Peck (not to be confused with the actor of the same name) alleges that Jesus will return as a space alien in a UFO, so the telescope is needed to watch for Jesus’s return. In a dark and sinister turn, the Church takes Forbidden History into the observatory to show them the telescope and explain that they love science and are interested in meteors and other astronomical phenomena. Sinister!
Lynn Picknett takes issue with this and asserts that the Church is “looking out for ETs.” I’m not sure how that is problematic, even if it were true, but the show seems to think that the existence of space aliens would undermine Catholicism and therefore the truth needs to be suppressed. Ugh. We went through that argument in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with speculative discussion of whether aliens were also created by God and whether Jesus visited them. Mark Twain even wrote a story about it. The Vatican Observatory itself has an FAQ about the potential effect of space aliens on theology. Yet somehow our pseudohistorians are still trapped in a Victorian mindset with blinkered conspiracy theorists raging with more mental rigidity than Victorians.
The show ends with questions about whether the Church has a “secret” protocol explaining what the pope will do when Space Jesus flies in on his UFO. More rhetorical questions about the topics of the preceding hour are repeated. But that’s it, just questions. No one even tries to suggest evidence toward answers. Speculative, leading questions stand in for content in a particularly vacuous episode of Forbidden History.
Maybe I should write my next review entirely in the form of questions. Could this show get stupider? Is Andrew Gough actually a mildly sentient mutant block of Camembert? Does the narrator understand how to match tone of voice to the material? Who picks the weird music? Perhaps someday these and other answers might escape the pages of Forbidden History.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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