Listen to this story:
ROME – History is composed not only of decisive turning points and long-term trajectories, but also missed opportunities – moments when things might have turned out very differently, had a certain tantalizing possibility been realized rather than slipping away.
An Italian TV program this week highlighted one such missed opportunity in recent Catholic history: A planned meeting in 1964 between the head of Italy’s Communist Party and the country’s most ferociously anti-Communist Catholic cleric, which fell through when the politician unexpectedly died just before the appointment.
The politician in question was Palmiro Togliatti, who served as secretary general of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) from 1927 until his death in 1964. Under his leadership, the PCI became the largest Communist party in Europe that wasn’t actually in power, and by far the most influential in the West.
Togliatti pioneered the “Italian way” of Socialism, which eschewed armed revolution in favor of working within the democratic process. Although the PCI never won a majority in a national election, they routinely polled at around 30 percent and held significant influence at the local and regional level.
Indeed, the prospect of Togliatti actually leading the Communists to power was a large part of the motivation for a famous 1949 decree from the Vatican’s Holy Office proclaiming excommunication for anyone who joined the Communist Party, supported it electorally, or read its literature.
By all accounts, Togliatti was an impressive orator and thinker. He became a Soviet citizen in 1930 and had relationships with Stalin, Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev; in 1951, Stalin personally offered him the position of secretary general of Cominform, essentially the leader of global Communism, but Togliatti refused, preferring to remain in Italy.
Siri, meanwhile, was one of the titans of 20th century Catholic history, a serious candidate to become pope in four separate conclaves: 1958, 1963, and the two in 1978. Such was his importance that storied Italian journalist Benny Lai once published a biography of Siri titled, “The Pope Who Was Never Elected.”
Siri became one of the youngest archbishops in the world when he was named to Genoa in 1946 at the tender age of 38, and he would proceed to hold the post for the next 41 years, until 1987. In general terms, Siri was known as a strong conservative both theologically and politically, and thus a clear hawk on Communism.
In December 1963, for instance, when then-Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro included the leader of the Italian Socialist Party in his government, Siri was strongly opposed. He denounced the move from his pulpit in Genoa, and also wrote a strongly worded letter to Moro and the leadership of his Christian Democratic Party.
Indeed, such were Siri’s anti-Communist credentials that an urban legend grew up regarding the conclave of 1958 in deeply traditionalist Catholic circles, which held that Siri had actually been elected pope, taking the name of Gregory XVII, but was forced to abdicate because the Soviets threatened a nuclear strike on Rome in retaliation for the choice of such a hardline pope.
Siri, by the way, always rejected the theory, which has been repeatedly debunked by a series of biographers and historical researchers. Nonetheless, you can still find it circulating in some corners of the traditionalist, sedevacantist world.
In fact, Siri wasn’t quite the absolutist public mythology made him out to be. Here’s what he told Pope Pius XII in the 1950s about the Vatican’s anti-Communist decree: “In that moment, it was a good idea because it saved Italy from Communism. In general, however, the decree ought to be forgotten … I don’t actually know any real Communists. The ones I know are members of the party, they’re trouble-makers, and maybe they’d even like to hang us, but when it comes to Das Kapital, they don’t even know what you’re talking about.”
Now thanks to a regional TV series called Addio 900, we’ve learned that Togliatti reached out to Siri in the summer of 1964 to request a personal appointment, which was set for immediately after his return from a vacation in Yalta in August. In the end it never happened, because Togliatti died from a cerebral hemorrhage while away, at the relatively young age of 71.
Siri later told journalists that he had the impression Togliatti wanted to meet him not as the Archbishop of Genoa or an interlocutor with the Vatican, but rather as a priest – meaning that Siri thought it was to be a personal exchange, not a political one.
It probably would have helped that both Togliatti and Siri were natives of Genoa and the surrounding region, and both could speak the Genovese dialect.
There’s almost no limit to the question marks about possible outcomes from the meeting.
Was Togliatti considering a return to the faith? (He grew up in the Piedmont in a religious family; his first name, “Palmiro,” was a reference to the fact he was born on Palm Sunday.) Did Togliatti want some sort of reconciliation between Communism and the Church? Was he hoping that the new pope, John XXIII, might lift the 1949 excommunication, or in some other way bring social progressives back into the fold?
How might any of these possibilities have affected the broader trajectory of the Cold War in the decades to follow, and perhaps the religious policy of Communist states?
We’ll never know, of course, because the tête-à-tête didn’t happen. Yet as a thought exercise, it’s undeniably fascinating to ponder what might have been.