Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio
by hubert wolf
vintage, 496 pages, $17

Sex sells, all the more if one throws in Vatican secrets and conspiracy. Long before ­Frédéric Martel’s In the Closet of the Vatican, the Church had problems with sexual indiscretions, not least in the era of Pope Pius IX (1846–1878). Hubert Wolf, the self-appointed dean of German church historians, unearthed a sordid story from that era and turned it into a bestselling book, the Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio. When the book came out in Germany, I bought a copy because I wanted to know what all the fuss was about. People who otherwise would never read a work of academic history praised it, faithful Catholics devoured it, and yet not one historian I knew was similarly enchanted. I soon saw why. If one wants lurid details of sexual misdeeds, this is the book to have. 

In the 1830s, German Catholicism was vibrant. It had recovered from the Napoleonic shock that had led to the destruction of so many monasteries and Catholic universities. Slowly but surely, religious houses were reestablished. A remarkable Renaissance of religious life unfolded in which bishops became once again moral and theological leaders, notably Johann Michael Sailer, Georg Michael Wittmann, and Clemens von Droste-Vischering. The latter, the archbishop of Cologne, was sent to prison in 1837 for refusing to compromise with the Prussian government by watering down Catholic teaching on marriage. Such bold acts of witness attracted converts and reverts. One of the most prominent was Princess Katharina von Hohenlohe-Waldenburg-­Schillings-fürst. After two short marriages that left her a widow, the princess decided to become a nun. One of her cousins was a prince of the Church, the liberal cardinal Gustav Adolf zu Hohenlohe-Schillingsfürst, a self-professed critic of the Jesuits. Yet it was her spiritual director, the more conservative Cardinal Reisach, who arranged for the princess to join a religious house in the Eternal City in 1858.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, Rome was dominated by the great figure of Pius IX. For Catholics across the world, the papacy had become the focal point of hope in a morally and ideologically disturbed century. Citizens of Rome generally disliked the pontiff because he had brought in foreign armies to prop up his rule over the Papal States. But many non-Italian Catholics were devoted to him because he represented uncompromising faith in Christ and his Church. Some of those with means even moved to Rome in order to be close to this living “saint.” Katharina was among them. Reisach recommended that she join the Franciscan monastery of Sant’Ambrogio—­advice that would change her life.

From the beginning, the convent must have reminded the princess of gothic depictions of medieval monasteries, in which everything modern is rejected as evil. The superiors even attempted to take away her toothbrush as a tool of the devil. A year after she entered, the princess wanted desperately to leave. Her friends could not fathom why. After all, she was under the spiritual guidance of Rome’s rising theological star, Joseph Kleutgen, S.J. Had her cousin not been an archbishop at the time, her cry for help would probably have been ignored. Her cousin called for an investigation of the order by the Inquisition, which uncovered a series of grave scandals.

Instead of promoting Catholic ­piety, the order fostered the personal cult of its foundress and her successor, Sr. Maria Luisa. The latter was believed by the nuns to be a mystic endowed with visions and special gifts, and like most abusers, she claimed that her behavior and that of her protégées was exempt from canon and natural law. She seduced young nuns and established sexually abusive initiation rites for novices. She claimed the power of hearing the nuns’ confessions and granting absolution. Former lovers and potential whistleblowers were carefully eliminated. Three were killed by poison, a method ­Maria ­Luisa unsuccessfully used against the princess after the princess told her family about abuses at the convent.

What makes the story explosive is the fact that the monastery’s confessor, Joseph Kleutgen, was not just any theologian, but possibly the most influential Catholic of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the man largely responsible for the establishment of Neo-Thomism under Leo XIII and a main drafter of the documents of Vatican I, especially Pastor Aeternus, the decree on papal infallibility. Although rumors of Kleutgen’s involvement in the scandal had been floating around since the 1860s, his students and friends (including the great Matthias Scheeben) could never believe them. It was only in the 1970s that the first couple of files about the affair were discovered, and it wasn’t until 1998 that all of the documents were found.

Kleutgen, a man of immense intellectual capacities, fell under the spell of the vicaress and claimed to believe in her stories, such as that she was given rings by Christ that changed their form and size (Tolkien would have loved that!) and that Jesus and Mary sent her letters through a magical drawer. One of these letters stated that if Kleutgen pressed Sr. Maria Luisa close to his heart, it would be like receiving “extraordinary communion.” The Jesuit went far beyond hugging, as the book’s explicit descriptions of his sexual encounters with her and others show. It seems that he had developed a perverse theology of the body in which the norms of morality were suspended. Kleutgen gave the abbess the power of exorcising her nuns, impregnated Sr. Maria Luisa, committed solicitation in the confessional, and may have been involved in the abortion of the child. Kleutgen and the abbess were not the first people to justify their behavior in this way. Throughout the centuries, false mystics have claimed to have the power to dispense from norms and regulations, just as the priest abusers of the twentieth century justified their deeds thus: “It’s not a sin if I do it.”

The hero of this story is the Inquisition, which finally marched in and cleaned house. In 1862, it sentenced Kleutgen as a heretic, confining him to house arrest, of which he served one and a half years, and banning him from hearing confessions. Maria Luisa was sentenced to twenty years in monastic confinement, and the princess retired happily to Germany. Kleutgen was called upon as theological adviser and drafter by Pius IX, who found him useful because he was one of the most ardent proponents of papal infallibility and most outspoken attackers of theologizing Kantians and Hegelians. After the end of the Papal States in 1870, he lived in exile until a new pope, Leo XIII, called ­Kleutgen back to Rome, where he drafted the encyclical Aeterni Patris, which established Kleutgen’s vision of a renewed scholasticism as official church policy. In 1879, a stroke made it necessary for him to leave his office and move to Tyrolia, where he wrote only one more work, the first volume to his ­unfinished system of theology.

Wolf relays all this and more in a manner that is best described as “Catholic porn.” He dwells on deviant religious-sexual practices, papal cover-up, and of course the facade of holiness. Despite the lurid material, it is a boring book, tedious and repetitive. Nevertheless, the story bears some important lessons. First, it reminds us that intellect alone does not protect a person from falling into moral corruption and the most bizarre credulities and sexual perversions.

After all, the young Jesuit was able to systematize scholastic philosophy in a way that responded to contemporary challenges, refuted (at least in his view) competitors such as Anton Günther and Georg Hermes, and gave the Church a coherent answer to the problems of the time. His idea of an ordinary magisterium became official church doctrine, and he almost single-handedly led the efforts worldwide to resurrect Thomism, including (and this is usually forgotten) the differentiated, historical research of scholasticism. It is difficult to imagine the First Vatican Council without Kleutgen.

Because Kleutgen drafted many of the documents of the First Vatican Council, most notably its decree on infallibility, some believe that his sins undermine the Council’s authority. Is this reasonable? Only if ecumenical councils gain their authority from the individual authors of their statements, rather than from the Church itself. Christians know that God works through sinners, especially repentant ones, as Kleutgen (in Wolf’s account) seems to have been. We have no evidence that he ever engaged in anything criminal, heretical, or deviant after the Sant’Ambrogio affair. His crimes do not go beyond those of Moses or St. Paul, two murderers used by God.

No one who studies Catholic history believes that the papal office is immune from bad judgment. It may indeed be especially prone to it. Personal holiness often comes with terrible judgment about people. (As Alban Butler observed, “Sometimes the more virtuous and remote from fraud a person is, the more unwilling he is to suspect an imposture in others.”) Pius IX risked grave scandal by relying on Kleutgen in the fight against liberalism. John Paul II failed to credit the accusers of Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legionaries of Christ. Benedict XVI selected a secretary of state who hid his personal life behind a facade of orthodoxy. How easily were the supreme pontiffs conned in the last two hundred years! And they continue to be. It is such “false friends,” as Cardinal Müller calls them, who are the real danger in every pontificate. Yesterday it was Kleutgen. Who will it be today? 

Ulrich L. Lehner is the William K. Warren Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.