Copyright Geoffrey Robertson The Case of the Pope

The Statehood Test

134. The Vatican has its statehood partly to blame for the sinister power attributed to it by The Da Vinci Code. An earlier (but more factual) bestseller, In God’s Name, by experienced journalist David Yallop, explored the mysterious demise in 1978 of John Paul I, found dead in his bed with anguish written on his features after only thirty-three days as the Vicar of Christ.23 In that time he had determined to sack Marcinkus and rid the Vatican bank of its connections with Gelli, and Calvi and their proto-Fascist P2 lodges which (despite the Canon Law ban on freemasons) had attracted some senior Curia figures as members. John Paul I was a stripling, as holy fathers go, aged only 65 and in robust health: Vaticanologists began to whisper about the possibility of suicide, and even murder by poison. These rumours might have been quashed had he died in Italy, where the law requires an immediate autopsy. But Canon Law (unsurprisingly, given its obsolescence) says nothing about autopsies or inquests when death occurs suddenly or suspiciously. So Cardinal Villot (allegedly a P2 member) destroyed telltale documents and pill bottles he found by the side of the papal death bed, arranged for a Vatican doctor to take one quick look at the corpse to diagnose a heart attack, after which the embalmers arrived (summoned, so it is alleged, before the body had even been discovered) to transform the Holy Father’s agonised features into a beatific smile for his lying-in-state in St Peters, outside the jurisdiction of the Italian courts. According to Yallop, he was probably poisoned by the P2 lodge to stop him from sacking Marcinkus and cleaning the corrupt freemasons out of the Vatican bank. The bank’s complicity in Gelli and Sidona’s financial crimes only became public after the collapse of the Ambrosiana bank and Calvi’s likely execution (he was found hanging upside down under Blackfriars Bridge). High-ranking Catholics today concede that John Paul I’s death was ‘mysterious’ and that ‘rumours abound about the circumstances of his untimely demise’ but ‘nothing credible has ever been established’24 – they do not explain that this is because his body lies in the depths of the Holy See, outside the jurisdiction of Italian coronial law and cannot be examined for traces of the poison (digitalis) that Yallop suggests was used to kill him. In 1983, five years after his death, Canon Law received its update under the imprimatur of John Paul II, but it still contained no provision for an autopsy or an inquest: the most significant change was to end the centuries-old ban on Catholics becoming freemasons.

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