Last week I was in New York, and was, among other things, interviewed for a Discovery Channel documentary about the Vatican.
It shapes up as a “greatest hits” collection of Vatican conspiracy theories, from alleged Nazi ratlines after World War II to whether Pope John Paul I was assassinated and the 1988 Swiss Guard murders.
Discovery is revisiting this well-worn ground in part because of fresh Vatican scandals that have broken out lately, featuring leaks of secret financial information that appear to expose all sorts of alleged shenanigans, from shadowy VIPs using Vatican accounts to hide money to cronyism in the management of Vatican real estate.
I tried to peel back the onion in the interview, arguing that reality is usually more prosaic than sensational hints of plots and occult forces.
The problem with the conspiracy theory, I suggested, is that it acts as a smokescreen obscuring perception of real breakdowns that have to be fixed.
By the end the producer was puzzled, and asked: “If there isn’t much to it, why is the Vatican such a magnet for stuff like this?”
That’s the obvious question, one to which Vatican officials often have a knee-jerk reply. We’re forever under attack, they say, by people who just don’t like us.
Under Pope Francis there’s a new version of that argument, which holds that enemies of the church are desperate to dredge up scandal because they’re threatened by a popular pontiff making a difference.
Monsignor Nunzio Galantino, secretary of the Italian bishops’ conference and a figure close to Francis, said as much Wednesday amid the latest avalanche of bad press.
“It’s not a mind-set of victimhood,” Galantino claimed, “to say that a credible church makes people afraid so they try to discredit it.”
For sure, conspiracy theories can stem from those with an axe to grind. Yet there are at least three other factors, one which the Vatican may not have much control over, and two where it certainly does.
First, the Vatican is a hostage of fortune because it’s in Italy, where conspiracy theories are the favorite indoor sport, one built right into the language. Two commonly used words illustrate the culture.
There’s “giallo,’’ which means “yellow,” used to denote a mystery story. (Beginning in 1929, the publisher Mondadori brought out a popular series of detective novels printed on yellow paper, hence the term.)
In Italy, calling something a giallo usually means not only that it’s a mystery, but one in which the full truth will never be established — allowing anyone to put together the facts however they like.
The other term is “dietrologia,’’ which means “the study of what lies behind.” It refers to the popular assumption that there always has to be a vast Machiavellian plot beneath whatever one sees on the surface.
While the Vatican may not be able to do much about Italian psychology, it could do a better job of not feeding it raw material.
The Vatican has a history that lends plausibility to the conspiracy lens, and we don’t have to go back to the Middle Ages and the handful of pontiffs believed to have been murdered by rivals to make the point.
One can start in the 1970s, when the Institute for the Works of Religion, better known as the “Vatican bank,” got involved with a couple of mobbed-up bankers and ended up with its head dodging an arrest warrant and the Vatican paying $224 million to compensate creditors.
Closer in time, there’s Monsignor Nunzio Scarano, a former Vatican accountant who was arrested in 2013 in a cash-smuggling scheme worthy of a John le Carré novel. There’s also the Vatican’s slow, and often less than candid, response to the church’s sexual abuse crisis.
Stop generating actual scandals, and people may be less inclined to see imagined ones everywhere.
The Vatican’s emphasis on secrecy also can feed impressions of coverup even where none exists.
For the record, the Vatican’s capacity to keep secrets is, and always has been, mixed. Two new books based on leaked financial information offer proof of the point, and the official reaction in such cases often compounds the problem.
A spokesman announced last week that the Vatican is investigating the Italian journalists who published the books for possible criminal charges. It is a move that leads some to suggest that something nefarious must be going on if the Vatican is so eager to shoot the messenger.
In reality, those leaked documents make the place look fairly good. They show an institution, and a pope, committed to cleaning out the stables. That core point, however, may get lost if the Vatican tries to prosecute reporters for telling the story.
Vatican-watchers probably will see the threat as a classic example of a time-honored insight: The Vatican may struggle with bad news, but often it’s even more inept at handling good news.
As I told Discovery, the bottom line is that for reasons both external and internal, the “Vatican conspiracy theory” is among the enduring narratives of the modern world. It’s an industry that never goes into a slump, whose product never goes out of style.
The Vatican can chip away at it with greater transparency, but fundamentally it’s here to stay.
As a result, people interested in what’s really going on will always have to drill down beneath the giallo and the dietrologia to hit a foundation of fact — sometimes with the Vatican’s help, and, sometimes, despite its best efforts to get in the way.John L. Allen Jr. is associate editor of the Globe and Crux, the Globe’s website covering Catholicism. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JohnLAllenJr and Facebook, www.facebook.com/JohnLAllenJr.